(Part 1 of 3)
Misunderstandings are part of being human—whether you are on the autism spectrum on not. They occur between couples, friends, siblings, and parent and child (certainly anyone who is raising a teen knows that misunderstandings are a daily occurrence). Differing points of view and the aftermath of hurt occurs from the boardroom to the bedroom. Resulting in stress and discomfort for most of us.
When talking with another person, especially if that talk involves tension or negativity, we can easily fall into the trap of control-seeking communication or impatience listening. Those moments when someone disagrees, where we’re just waiting for that person to stop talking, so we can give our counterarguments. If someone is complaining, or expressing other negative feelings, we race to interrupt with suggestions, our own anecdotes, or opinions on why they should feel differently. What’s worse is that we usually think these rude behaviors are helpful. However, impatient listening is not productive. Those of us on the autism spectrum are especially vulnerable to this, as we’re prone to stay trapped inside our own heads with self-oriented thinking.
What’s important to note is that ANY conversation, especially difficult ones, can benefit from active listening.
We say “patience is a virtue” for a reason. Waiting a few seconds and creating an opportunity for your loved ones to feel heard is far more meaningful, respectful, and important than jumping in with your own ideas. Even if you think your comment or feedback can help.
Instead, try this! The next time when someone you care about shares their feelings, something stressful they’re dealing with, or an opinion that you don’t share, engage in active listening.
It’s easy to do and involves three steps:
1) Mirroring: Once the speaker is done talking, briefly paraphrase what the speaker said. (e.g., “I think you’re saying, ….… Did I get that right?”)
2) Validation: Find something to validate in what the speaker said. (e.g., “I can understand that you…” or “That makes sense because…”) This is the part people tend to find the hardest. Recognize that validating does not necessarily mean agreeing with the speaker. Rather it is an opportunity for you to show the person you care about that you see their point of view. (Side note: As a lovely byproduct, your willingness and effort to see others point of view will support that person’s desire to see and understand your point.)
3) Empathizing: Attempt to guess what the speaker feels. (e.g., “That must make you feel…”) Please recognize that it’s OKAY to mess up. Effort to empathize goes a long way in these moments. Also, if your guess is wrong, the speaker will tell you so. If and when this happens re-engage in the active listening process, then begin again from step one.
Active listening is the key to keeping any interaction civil. It is also a very effective way to support the de-escalation of a heated conversation. When I find myself in an argument, I use this strategy, focusing especially on steps 2 and 3. If you find yourself arguing with someone who you feel is wrong, even offensively so, I promise you can still find something in their argument to support you in applying the three steps of active listening. (For example, “I can see why you wish your autistic child could be ‘cured.’ It must feel horrible to watch your child struggle so much every day.”) I have argued with some very emotional, ignorant people about some very sensitive subjects, and have always managed to end the discussion with everyone feeling calm and respected. If you execute these steps well enough, the angry party will often apologize for getting carried away!
A good rule of thumb for navigating any situation where someone comes to you with a problem, complaint, or other negative feelings is to ask: “Are you looking for advice, or do you just need me to listen?” Sometimes we do appreciate advice from others. And other times, we just need to vent a little. This rule can benefit allistics, or those not diagnose with autism, as well as autistics. We all guess wrong occasionally!
Active listening is a skill that can be mastered. It just takes intention, awareness, and the desire to have a different commutative experience.
Stay tuned for more helpful communication tips. We are just getting started in our exploration of this incredibly important topic!
See you soon!
Kirsten is artists, writer, autistic self-advocate, and lover of cats. (Click here to read her bio).
Love Kirsten’s voice. We know we do. Want to hear more from Kristen? Want to hear her speak live? She is just one of many very talented, insightful and thought provoking speakers at this year’s Love & Autism conference. Click here to register.