How To Feel Heard

by Chad Barron, LMFT

Have you ever felt like no one was listening to you? Yes, people are hearing the sound of your voice, but it seems like no one is really listening?  

Sometimes it’s because people are distracted, or just couldn’t hear you, or there’s a language barrier, or they simply misinterpreted you. 

Other times it seems like it’s really just because they don’t want to hear what you have to say. 

Before we go on, a brief digression on misinterpretation. Have you ever thought about how much brain power goes into interpreting the intended message of another person? I’ve boiled it down to 5 not-so-easy steps: 

Step 1: First you have to listen, and correctly discern every word—correctly—and match that word with its intended meaning, of which there are usually many. 

Step 2: Follow the strict, fickle, ever changing rules of grammar and syntax to string those meanings together.

Step 3: Account for tone, pitch, speed, volume, facial expression, gestures, and other non-verbals (remember 80-95% of all communication is non-verbal!). 

Step 4: Adjust for social, environmental, and historical context. 

Step 5: Finally—somehow!—piece together your best theory as to what in the world this person is trying to say.. 

Our brains are tasked with deciphering all of this information in fractions of a second. This is beyond astounding to me. We are fearfully and wonderfully made!

Considering this, it’s not surprising that sometimes—and some would suggest all of the times—we do not form in our minds a perfect copy of the message that was intended by the message-sender. 

People, there is a reason your significant other’s most frequent response is, “Huh?”

So many times, we feel unheard because of a simple lapse in communication. We all need to cut each other a little slack. 

Other times, the problem is less pragmatic, and more relational.

When we don’t feel heard, our natural inclination is to get louder. Picture the typical obnoxious American tourist in Germany shouting “WHERE IS THE BATHROOM?” for the eighth time, not knowing that the poor German soul he is yelling at is so very confused because even though he has never seen a “bath,” in any “room,” in any McDonalds he’s ever been in. 

This tendency to get loud may not always look like an increase in volume—there are other ways to increase the intensity of a message. A slamming of the fist on the table. A finger in the face. Slowly. Annunciating. Every. Word.

Sometimes these efforts get the result we are looking for. This usually comes at the cost of damaging the relationship. This is called coercion. More often than not, these tactics not only don’t get us what we want, they do the exact opposite. This has been studied by science. When you push someone on their views or beliefs, they are most likely going to push back. The harder you try to convince or persuade the further entrenched each side gets. You might think, “If I stay calm and rational and present a solid argument this won’t happen.” But you’d be wrong. 

[See! You’re arguing with me! You just proved my point!]

See, you’re focused on winning. On “being right.” Which seems rational because it’s what most people do. But it doesn’t work! But take heart! There is a better way!

In the first chapter of John’s gospel, he describes Jesus as the light. He says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (v. 5, New International Version) Some translations will indicate through a footnote that the Greek word for “overcome” has multiple meanings, and one of those alternative meanings would translate “understood.” John is well known for his use of double entendre, so it’s fair to say that this was intentional, and that he intended for his readers to also consider that the darkness has neither “overcome” nor “understood” the light.

Later in the same chapter John says, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (v. 11)

Jesus is quoted repeatedly in Matthew and Luke as saying, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 11:15) 

If there was ever someone who deservedly felt like no one was listening, it was Jesus. You can even hear the frustration in his voice in phrases like, “You unbelieving and perverse generation…” “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matt. 17:17)

And while there were times when perhaps He did get a little “loud,” (anyone here ever flipped tables to make a point?) He displayed His divine patience in showing restraint. 

He did not pack out theaters. 

He spoke on hillsides and from fishing boats on the seashore. 

He did not lobby at the feet of the elite and powerful. 

He dined with “tax collectors” and “sinners.” 

He did not raise an army to exact his will through force. 

He gathered a rag-tag bunch of uneducated, un-impressive nobody’s and sent them out to heal, and pray, and share the good news.

When people rejected him, he did not criticize. When people walked away because his teaching cut too deep, he did not call into question their character nor their intelligence. Nor did he chase them down to convince them to stay so his “numbers” wouldn’t suffer. He just let them walk away.

When people accused him he did not defend himself. 

Yet he overcame. Not through force, but through humble submission. In gentle meekness He spoke the truth in love. His light pierced the darkness and showed us a better way. He heard our cry and delivered us from the slavery of sin and death. Not by brute force. Not by giving the best, airtight arguments (he spoke in riddles for goodness sakes!). He won the game by not playing the game.

Oh, and also, He listened.

He could have just showed up, did the whole death-on-a-cross thing, and got it all over with. Instead, he lived among us for 30+ years. All that time with the commoners, the downtrodden, the lame, the sinners, the outcasts. Listening to us. Sweating. Bleeding. Crying. Hurting. Feeling with us. This is what we call “empathy.” 

The secret to being heard is not in how you say it. How loud, how often, how eloquently. The secret to being heard is to listen first.

Friends, if we empathically listen to understand and not simply gather ammo for our counter-argument something amazing happens. Our opponents are no longer adversaries. They are human beings, made in the image of the Almighty, born with a purpose, bought at a price, and they have a story. And now we can truly see that our stories are intertwined with one another. And if all goes well, even if we don’t agree, we all feel heard. Because we listened first.

We might even discover that we were wrong about something. Which is just an amazing opportunity to be more right!

Chad Barron, LMFT
Touch to Call