Christmas dinner is the perfect time for cozy and good conversations with friends and family. But although we often think we are good listeners, in practice we often unconsciously seek to take over the conversation for a moment so that we can tell our own story. This is also called autobiographical listening. Recognizable? There is something to be done about it!
In principle, everyone is guilty of autobiographical listening to a greater or lesser extent, says communication expert Reinoud van Rooij, author of the book Communicate effectively at work and throughout your life . “Telling your own story is human. But the moment you don’t actually hear what the other person is saying and only want to tell your own story, it becomes a problem. For the one who has not been able to vent his heart, for the relationship you have with each other and for yourself. Because whoever wants to tell his own story appears as someone who is mainly concerned with himself and in the end can no longer be trusted.”
We can’t wait to tell our own story
The good news is that you can learn to listen well. “We like to show that we have experienced the same thing, or we would like to provide a solution. There is a good chance that you then, unknowingly, break in. So it starts with becoming aware that you are doing something that is not pleasant for the other, namely breaking into someone’s history. If you know that, you can try to suppress that tendency.”
It is useful to know that certain themes are extra triggering. Van Rooij: “Illnesses, births, divorces and upbringing are topics where people can’t wait to tell their own stories or give well-intentioned advice. Any woman who has ever given birth knows that. As soon as she starts her story, someone else starts the story of her own birth. Parenting is another topic we touch on because everyone has an opinion about it. The more personal the topic, the sooner someone will tell their own story.”
Moreover, as a narrator, you can influence the way your story is heard. “We’re quick to blame the listener, but it’s good to realize that people don’t default to ‘listening’. You can help the other person and yourself by making someone aware that you want them to listen,” explains the communication expert. “Simply by naming it: ‘It would be nice if you could listen to me first and I’d like to hear what you think about it’. Or, “When do you have time to listen to me?” Such phrases allow the person who has to listen to change.”
A good conversation not only strengthens the bond between interlocutors, it will also help the person struggling with something to gain more insight into their problem. Van Rooij mentions a relationship where the same arguments keep appearing, so that you no longer hear each other and do not get any further. In the end you think: never mind, so your relationship ends up being superficial.
“A handy trick to really hear each other is the ten-minute rule: each partner can vent for ten minutes without the other interrupting. The first five minutes are often terrible for the other person because you’re thinking everything, but you have to don’t say it. Then something special happens; you slowly get to the heart of the problem. Simply because the other person has time to collect his thoughts instead of defending his point of view or making counterarguments.”
Is autobiographical listening actually bad by definition? No, says the communication expert. “Especially when someone doesn’t necessarily want to vent, something very pleasant can happen. A conversation where you laugh at each other’s experiences. It’s about feeling the moment.”
Ask sincere questions
• Give your interlocutor undivided attention
• Ignore the urge to hijack the conversation
• Ask genuine questions based on what the other person is saying
• Show that you hear the other person by, for example, nodding or saying ‘hmm’
• Summarize what the other person is saying. Research shows that this is how someone truly feels heard.
This story previously appeared in De Telegraaf.