Whether you’re concerned about a loved one’s substance use and you want them to get help or you have substance use issues from which you’re trying to recover, better listening skills can be a huge asset. Social connection is one of the most important aspects of addiction recovery.
It creates a sense of belonging and accountability that can get you through the toughest challenges of recovery. Strong relationships are built on compassion and mutual understanding.
On the other hand, interpersonal conflict, resentment, and alienation make recovery much, much harder. A lot of the conflict we experience is caused by a lack of social skills, both theirs and ours.
Improving your social skills is a huge topic, but it begins with being a good listener. Listening is a crucial skill that few of us are ever taught. The following are some listening skills you can start using right away to improve your relationships.
Give Your Full Attention
First of all, when someone is talking to you, give that person your full attention. It’s so common for us to be looking at our phones while someone else is speaking that we’ve begun to think it’s ok. It’s not.
When you’re looking at your phone while someone is talking to you, it signals that you don’t care that much about what they’re saying. You might think you’re one of the small percentages of people on the planet who can authentically multitask, but you’re not.
Your attention is switching back and forth from your phone to the person and you are definitely missing something. If someone is talking to you, give them your full attention, even if it’s something minor. If you want someone to listen to you, you have to listen to them.
Reflect Back What You Hear
The next major listening skill is to reflect back what you hear. In other words, give a concise summary of what they just told you. This will typically sound like, “So, what you’re telling me is—” This relatively small change accomplishes several big things.
First, it makes you a more engaged listener. Think back to lectures in school and remember how you suddenly paid more attention when the teacher said something would be on the test.
When you’re in the habit of reflecting, it’s like being aware that everything you hear is going to be on the test. You’re looking for the essence of what the other person is saying, so you can reflect it accurately.
Second, reflecting signals that you care about what they are saying and that you’re interested. We’ve all had the experience of telling someone about something important to us, only to get a curt response like, “Cool story.”
You may not care about the particular thing someone is telling you, but paying attention signals that you care about them, which is usually more important.
Finally, reflecting improves the quality of your communication. Most of us don’t communicate as clearly as we think we do because we already know what we’re trying to say.
Reflecting lets the other person know whether or not they’ve really gotten their point across. This helps avoid problems resulting from misunderstandings.
Aim First to Understand
Reflection is the first step in understanding what someone is trying to tell you. We often make the mistake of thinking that communication is primarily about self-expression.
We want to be heard and taken seriously. However, for real communication to happen, we also have to listen and understand.
Defensiveness is the real challenge to understanding. We want to be right and we want people to understand why we do what we do, that our mistakes arise from specific circumstances, not from our being inherently bad.
Unfortunately, being too eager to defend or explain ourselves can impede real communication. Sometimes people are going to tell us things we don’t want to hear.
Sometimes these things will be justified and sometimes not, but your first priority should be to understand.
One way to avoid the reflex to argue or defend yourself is to approach the conversation with curiosity. For example, someone tells you, “You always give up when things get hard,” you might feel like responding, “No, I don’t,” or “You’re one to talk.”
However, if you approach the conversation with curiosity, you might say something like, “Do you really feel that way?” or “Can you name some other times that was true?” In this way, you can turn an argument into a conversation. It may turn out that you should enforce your boundaries or defend yourself against unfair accusations, but it’s important to start with understanding.
Validate What You’ve Heard
When you correctly understand what someone has told you, the next step is often validation. Validation means you can at least understand why the person did or said what they did in a particular situation.
Validation is a way of showing empathy, that you sort of put yourself in their place, even if you don’t approve of what they did. That’s a crucial point—validation is not approval. It’s not, “You did the right thing,” but rather, “I might have done something similar under those circumstances.”
Validation is especially important when communicating with people with substance use disorders. Most of us realize that drug and alcohol use is not a healthy response to trauma or other emotional challenges, but sometimes it’s the only way someone knows how to cope. This is important to realize both for friends and family, and for people in recovery. We all make the best decisions we can at the time and it helps to remember our own mistakes before criticizing others.
Becoming a better listener is one of the many skills that will help you both in recovery and in life. It immediately improves the quality of your relationships and it’s a great way to learn new things, especially about yourself. All it takes is a sincere intention to improve and little practice with the skills described above.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that a lasting recovery from addiction is really about living a better, more fulfilling life. We believe in treating the whole person, mind, body, and spirit. To learn more about our approach to treatment, call us today at 833-801-LIVE.