How listening affects our mental health at work!

Marie-Josée Michaud

Marie-Josée Michaud

Author and consultant in workplace psychological health, leadership and human resources mobilization

In this article, I explain how listening, an act that seems so simple, can have such a major impact on our well-being.

Listening is a key ingredient in maintaining one’s psychological health. This may come as a surprise, but those who work in mental health or peer support will attest that it’s one of the basic skills they had to develop to be able to support their patients or peers effectively.

So, what is it about listening in the work environment? How can this act, which you could almost say is second-nature or even trivial, exert such a strong influence on our happiness? The answer is that to feel heard and understood is proof that we exist to the other person, and this right to exist is vital to our survival. It goes without saying that humans are social beings, and most of us need to feel a sense of belonging or legitimacy in order to thrive.

In our natural, human need to establish points in common on which we can build friendships and alliances, we rapidly and instinctively seek out commonalities with someone when meeting them for the first time, to reassure ourselves that we’re in the right place. We strive to form or belong to a family, a clan or an organization that shares the same aspirations and goals as us and with whom we can fulfill roles that feed into our joy.

You can be sure that during this exploratory phase, our ears are primed and we’re listening closely for those famous similarities or differences. Our senses are heightened and on the alert for body language, words and tone of voice that tell us whether we’re on track to forming these bonds, which in that moment seem vital to our goals and, ultimately, our happiness.

What happens when we get the impression that we’re listening but others aren’t paying us the same respect?

Naturally, in our conversations with peers, we may discover the absence of commonalities with someone and choose to disconnect, because to do otherwise would be barking up the wrong tree. Feeling misunderstood, we simply reject the person out of hand, thinking “I don’t feel like talking to her anymore, she doesn’t get where I’m coming from!” We move on, get over the minor irritation and soon forget all about the interaction. But imagine that in this scenario, the person who isn’t listening is someone we work closely with in our job, and that we depend on them for the approval of our work or an upcoming promotion, or maybe even just for a sense of belonging to the organization?

That is where the power of listening lies in maintaining psychological health at work. Now, does that mean we must vow to always listen to everyone at all times in order to do our part? No. In fact, it’s more about each of us taking the responsibility to reflect on the real need that’s underlying this craving to be heard, so that we can identify the appropriate action to take.

It’s a matter of each of us taking the responsibility to reflect on the real need that’s underlying this craving to be heard, so that we can identify the appropriate action to takeMJ Michaud

In other words, we need to ask ourselves whether our need to be heard is about putting our project above everyone else’s because we want to succeed and be the best, or whether we are seeking to be heard to ensure that our project will benefit the organization as a whole.

If scenario A is what’s driving you – to be the best and elbow your way to the front of the line no matter the consequences to your peers, your interlocutors will likely pick up on your intentions, whether they’re conscious of it or not. Your project will thus become a potential threat to their worth in the organization. As a result, they will listen to you with the single focus of homing in on that danger in order to uncover it and counter it. On the other hand, if your true intent is to see that your project benefits everyone, this will come through in your body language, and you will most likely be met with positive attention.

Keep in mind that when someone feels threatened, they lose the ability to listen attentively, and their judgement gets clouded. That’s why sometimes, no matter what you say, it seems the person in front you hasn’t heard anything and might even distort your words, giving you the impression that they’re not listening to you!

When someone feels threatened, they lose the ability to listen attentively, and their judgement gets clouded. MJ Michaud

However, they are listening, just through a very narrow filter – one of proving they’re right about mistrusting you. Is the ownership on them to listen better, or is it up to you to try to understand their fears and give them time and space to access their semantic field so they can absorb the intended meaning of your words?

I’m sure you can think of someone who, no matter what you do or say, refuses to hear it!

There will always be this type of situation in our lives. You can try to interact with them again, armed with your freshly acquired awareness or new perspectives you might have gained from reading this article. If, despite your new attempt, you don’t get the result you’re hoping for, you might want to re-evaluate the importance of this person in your life. That in itself is an important exercise in questioning our need to belong at any price.

There are also those people in a company who think that, owing to their position, anything they say is worth its weight in gold. What do you do with an executive who believes they’ve just come up with a strategy that is clearly the most ingenious in the world, yet you see that it’s full of holes and that the only one he seems to be listening to is himself? Once again, take a step back and ask yourself: “Am I trying to show him that I’m smarter and more logical than him, or is my goal to demonstrate that I want to make sure I understand, so that I can evaluate the soundness and feasibility of this strategy?” It’s possible that this person has himself suffered from not being listened to by people who, for him, were critical to his feeling of belonging or existence, and that now, he is unconsciously trying to compensate for this experience by behaving in a dictatorial or narcissistic fashion.

By now, I’m sure you’re beginning to really see the important role listening plays in our mental health. To maintain it, we need to feel understood, normalized and accepted. But the responsibility for fulfilling this need does not rest solely with the other person. Our own attitude stemming from our judgements and personal objectives can greatly influence the other’s capacity to listen.

I want to end by calling to mind a very important point. Beware of this need to belong to a role on which your happiness, capital H, seems to depend. This belief puts you at risk for saying yes to something you should refuse to preserve your psychological health. How many times in the last month have your regretted saying “Okay, I’ll do it” while your gut was screaming “No!”? When this sensation arises, it’s a physical sign that you’re in a state of internal conflict, and in the long term, this could lead to harmful repercussions for you if you’re not careful!

Our happiness all too often hinges on a successful integration. In other words, we go to great lengths to fit in with a clan or organization, and we judge whether we’ve succeeded or failed based on the recognition we get from our peers. We often measure this belongingness by the degree to which others listen to us, and when we perceive a lack in this regard, we tend to withdraw and stew over our feelings of injustice and fears of not being good enough. In fact, this is something to watch for. If you constantly have the impression that you’re misunderstood or being misjudged, regardless of who you’re talking to or the event in which the conversation took place, it might be the sign of a problem.

Is it possible that you are somebody that has trouble listening to themselves and to others and therefore are unable to see the signs?

If this is the case, don’t be too quick to judge those who seem incapable of lending you their ear. Learn to listen to yourself. Your body is telling you your true, unconscious and fundamental needs, which you may be suppressing in order to be what others expect of you. With practice, you will learn to say no when necessary, knowing that your life is not about pleasing others but behaving in a way that’s ethical for everyone – meaning, your actions benefit you AND others. In so doing, you’ll become the one whom people listen to attentively, as you demonstrate over time that your words are worth their weight in gold – aimed as they are preserving everyone’s integrity!

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