Ever feel lonely in your relationships? Unheard in conversations? Loneliness can be exacerbated by how we do, or don’t, listen. And this can affect both the physical and psychological health of individuals—and communities.
Aloneness or loneliness?
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. “It’s not the same as solitude,” says meditation and yoga teacher Heidi Bornstein. “We can experience loneliness even when we’re surrounded by many people.”
Loneliness is the discomfort or angst that emerges when we feel something is missing in our relationships, particularly when set against the kinds of relationships we want to have. Loneliness lies in this discrepancy—between the relationships we have and the ones we desire.
The stress of loneliness
Studies reveal that loneliness negatively affects blood pressure, sleep, and mental health, and ultimately worsens quality of life and life expectancy. As clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and public speaker Tenniel Rock explains, “Human beings are social animals. We all need close relationships and inclusion in groups to survive and thrive.”
Listening and loneliness
“Loneliness can result from or be worsened by an inability or unwillingness to listen,” says Rock. “At the core of most feelings of loneliness is a sense of abandonment, showing up in thoughts like ‘no one cares about me’ or ‘no one understands me.’
“When we learn how to listen to our own needs, and to those of our loved ones, we’re better equipped to address the core thoughts that accompany loneliness.”
Learning to listen
Clinical psychologist Dr. Diana Brecher suggests we listen less with our ears and more with our hearts, taking what’s said at face value and bringing whole-heartedness to our interactions. These tips are also helpful for workplace conversations.
- Set an intention to listen mindfully.
- Listen to understand rather than to respond.
- Notice the person’s body language and tone as well as words.
- Allow the person to complete what they’re expressing.
- Practise not interrupting, finishing sentences, judging what’s said, or relating stories back to yourself.
- Recognize when your attention wanders and gently return focus back to what’s being said.
- Ask if they’re finished before asking questions or offering comments.
- Ask for permission before giving advice.
- Give the gift of your presence and focused attention.
- Just listen—often it’s enough.
- Compare—it can make it hard to hear because the listener is too busy measuring themselves against the speaker.
- Mind-read—it may turn the listener’s focus on assumptions.
- Rehearse how to reply—it can distract by shifting focus from what’s being shared.
- Filter— it may allow for only partial listening.
- Judge—it may lead to hastily writing someone off.
- Dream—it can suggest a lack of commitment to the conversation or relationship.
- Identify self-referentially—it may flip the focus from the speaker to the listener.
- Spar—quick rebuttals and strong stands can foster hostility.
- Advise—it prioritizes problem-solving over listening.
- Derail—it occurs through quick subject changes.
- Placate—it’s inauthentic people-pleasing, not deep listening.