“I hear you.”
Those words can be powerful. They can also be scripted.
At his listening session with survivors of mass shootings at schools and families of victims, President Trump was photographed holding a notecard with five points. They included questions such as “What would you most want me to know about your experience?” The last line, point number five, was “I hear you.”
Trump was derided by some for having to script out basic empathy. Was he actually listening?
There are multiple levels of listening. In their textbook on listening, Margaret Fitch-Hauser and Debra Worthington cite literature on workplace conflicts that identify six levels of listening:
- Passive listening. This is “marginal listening” while sitting quietly while someone talks. “We are aware that the other person is talking, but we don’t expend enough energy to truly comprehend what the individual is saying.”
- Responsive listening. This means “making acknowledgements, either verbal or nonverbal, that we are listening.” Responsive listening “has the potential to damage a relationship because we remain disengaged as a communicator but send the false message that we are paying attention and listening.” Responsive listening relies on established social schema (basically scripts, in this context) such as “How are you? Fine, thank you. And you? Fine thanks.”
- Selective listening. This means engaging the brain and listening, but for “only things that support what we believe, think, or endorse.” Fitch-Hauser and Worthington call it “listening with an agenda.” Doing this too much leads others to resent the selective listener for having a lack of awareness.
- Attentive listening. This is a form of selective listening because it does have an agenda—for example, a doctor or lawyer interviewing a patient or client. But the listener uses “probing and inquisitiveness” and “evaluative questions that guide the responses of the other person.” Still, this form of listening is about the listener’s agenda, not the speaker’s needs to be heard.
- Active listening. This uses all of one’s listening capability and “total sensory” engagement to pay attention to verbal and visual cues: “we listen to the paralinguistic aspects of the message, we focus on the facial expressions and the body language, and we listen to the patterns of silence.” Active listening also means giving “reflective responses that provide feedback to the other party” demonstrating understanding and encouraging them to continue. Active listening requires accepting that the other person has feelings and ideas, although it does not require accepting that their feelings and ideas are justified.
- Empathetic listening. This means “listening with the intent to accept and understand the other person’s frame of reference.” Empathetic listeners “suspend [their] personal reality and immerse themselves in the other person’s reality.” The purpose is not to gather information but to understand and accept the other person’s feelings.
The words “I hear you” could be used at several of these different levels. They may be a rote script, i.e. just responsive listening. They may be a placeholder for selective listening: “I hear you. But . . .” They may be a tool for the attentive listener to hasten the speaker and move on with the agenda of questions. Or the words “I hear you” may be part of a more complete response with active, empathetic listening. “I hear you. You just went through the worst experience of your life and lost your best friend. And you want to do something about this so it never happens again.”
So I think the problem with the notes containing “I hear you” is actually not that the president prepared substantive questions or was reminded to use listening cues. At least one person agrees with me, I discovered when searching for reactions to this photo:
Revealing that list of listening cues is the bigger problem and impediment to meaningful sharing. Being a good listener means managing your listening behaviors to establish your sincere intent.
But revealing a list of cues containing the words “I hear you” means any authentic utterance of “I hear you” would look inauthentic. The very visibility of the notes to others means the notes shouldn’t be used. At least not as to the overall generic reaction language of “I hear you.”
Revealing the cues could silently shape the dialogue by discouraging those who were considering sharing something, but spied the notes. Scripted responsive listening may damage a relationship, as Fitch-Hauser and Worthington point out. Seeing “I hear you” in someone’s pre-prepared notes could reasonably be interpreted to mean the listener will represent that listening has occurred, regardless of whether it actually has. And what’s the point of sharing with a listener on autopilot?
Using notes is not a bad thing. But notes—whether jotted on a 3×5 card, tapped out on a phone screen, or outlined on White House card stock—are a tangible part of the listener’s overall effectiveness. The notes should be held and managed with care to promote listening, not to distract and possibly stifle it.