Many of us have heard of “Love Languages” made popular by Gary Chapman, outlining five different ways individuals can give or receive love. The understanding of our own love languages and those of our loved ones can allow us to recognize deficits in communication; if I feel that I am loved by receiving words of affirmation, but my loved one gives love through acts of service, then we both may feel unseen and uncared for, as we are speaking different languages in how we communicate this love.
Recently I was thinking about my challenge of knowing how to be a friend when I am so used to being a clinician. I can sit with clients all day and trust my instincts of how to respond to the various topics that arise. When clients ask for advice, I am well-versed in explaining that this is not what I can provide. I am comfortable and familiar with providing validation and helping the client to process—and also gently “pushing” the client—in each response, allowing the individual to feel seen and heard. (I also know that I am constantly growing as a therapist and human and that I don’t always “get it right” and that there are so many different ways to respond in any one moment.)
But with friends—I feel a little lost.
Perhaps this is because I’ve been immersed in the therapy field for a little while now and I’m so used to spending hours with people providing something specific, as part of my job, and therefore turn off the helpful part of my brain since I try to have a separation between “work brain” and non-work brain. Perhaps it is because I don’t want to—nor should I try to be—responding to my friends as a therapist. I want to respond as a friend would, and yet the wheels turn so fast and my therapeutic self begins to mold a response. So I shut it down. Or perhaps it is because I know that what I can give is a space for even my friends to feel seen and heard—not telling them what to do, but providing a safe, validating space and mental hug.
It could be this or so much more. What I do know is that I often feel critical of my “friend self” and I have taken time to consciously explore this theme and issue, and this is where I have landed: there are also “Listening Languages.”
I have no plan to write an entire book on the languages, and many of them are terms I learned on my path toward becoming a clinician, but instead I wish to share what I have learned so that we may support one another.
1. Active, Eyes-On Listening: This type of listening includes simply that—lending your ear and showing that you are listening. Not to respond, not to move the conversation along, just being with the person so that they can speak and feel heard.
2. Reflective Listening: This is similar to number 1, while also including your verbal participation in showing you are listening, perhaps by summarizing what you’re hearing or making statements that show you are paying attention, etc.
3. Exploratory Listening: Listening and asking questions—wanting to know more about not only the information shared, but also (and more importantly) how the person feels—prompting them.
4. Feedback Listening: Sharing your thoughts as the individual is sharing. This is not about sharing a similar experience you had or how you relate or making a statement like, “I understand.” The truth is, you do not really or fully understand. Remain on course with the person you are there to support. Feedback may include a thought you have around the experience, reminding the individual of other information they’ve shared before, etc.
The most essential part of listening is showing genuine interest. Know what type of listening often helps and also know that this may shift. Do not be afraid to ask, “How would you like me to support you? Would you like my feedback or for me to be silent and let you speak as long as it will feel helpful?” It may sound scripted and yet, it can provide both you and your loved one the avenue for most authentic communication and care.
This piece teaches at least a few ways we can listen. Upon reflection, I know that I have the ability to provide this in all my relationships. At the end of the day, we may not be able to take away others’ problems—nor should we pretend to fully understand—but we can show them that they are cared for and give the feeling that there is always someone to listen.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW is licensed and providing virtual therapy in both New York and New Jersey. Temimah is an expert in working with those suffering from mental health struggles and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships with their bodies (eating disorders, disordered eating, body image dissatisfaction.) Temimah also speaks nationally on these subjects. To learn more or to request a consultation, visit www.temimah.com