How to Listen When You are Uncomfortable


by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT


During a time of necessary and difficult societal discussion, an important and often overlooked skill is that of listening. It is a skill that your therapist needs to have practiced regularly before they ever see a client, and they will be continuously practicing it throughout their career and most likely their entire lifetime.


The basics are simple enough:

  • Awareness and balance of eye contact

  • Body language shifted toward the speaker

  • Nodding or other motions and sounds to indicate you are following along

  • Closing your own mouth

But what happens to listening when we feel uncomfortable? That growing pit in our stomach, our eyes shift from side to side, the twitching in our hands or our legs entices us to remove ourselves from a conversation that might challenge us, help us change, and make us grow.


So it's helpful to first become aware of these unconscious behaviors, since--by their nature of being 'unconscious'--we can often miss them. When such things happen, acknowledging their presence mentally with a thought such as "I see you," or "I notice this," along with a physical touch, such as putting your hand close to your stomach, and taking in a few intentional, deep breaths (quietly) can allow that feeling to be present while also enabling you to listen.


Listening is a skill of silence and humility.

This may go without saying (ha ha), but it cannot be understated. We are often so uncomfortable with silence itself. We turn on the TV for 'background noise'; we scroll on our phones to idly pass the time; we turned on the radios to fill our space with sounds though we may not even really hear it. And when we are in conversation, we can tend to 'fill the void' with mindless words or jump on an idea with solutions to make ourselves feel better.


The good news is: practicing silence when you're alone can help you improve your presence of mind when someone is talking to you. Mindfulness practice does make it much easier to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and let them just be, which will lead to deeper connections with others.


Listening is also a skill of responding.

When a good therapist speaks, their words indicate that they are listening. Their words are in direct relationship to what you have said; they do not give unsolicited advice; they do not launch in to a pause and tell you something about what happened to them on the way to work; they do not absentmindedly change the subject.


When you are listening, you also speak with intention. How you say something is even more important than what you say.

Reflective listening is one of the first skills that therapists learn. It is something that we can all practice, and when used skillfully, it can be subtle, like an art form. The basics can look like this:

  • "It sounds like..."

  • "What I'm hearing you say is..."

  • "It seems like..."

  • "Correct me if I'm wrong, you're saying that..."

  • "You've been feeling..."

The goal of the fill-in-the-blank is to understand the person better, to help them feel seen. Your tone of voice contributes to this as well. Sometimes, listening to ourselves talk is another way to improve our listening skills!


Listening can also be the foundation for effective boundary setting.

When you really listen, you are creating a connection with another person. If you hear what they're saying and they know it, they are often much more inclined to listen to you.


This is always true, but especially true when issues such as racism are a part of our every day discussion, it is important to remember that boundaries are the necessary for connection. Think of a queue at a bank or at an amusement park. If we all tried to get into the roller coaster at the same time, no one would get to ride it or we might all get injured in the process.


Your energy and your attention is valuable, and life may be especially draining right now if you are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color). If you are having a difficult conversation with someone (or you are speaking and want to be more aware of how you are affecting someone), it is important to listen for these boundary setting opportunities also:

  • Gaslighting is deflection. It makes the receiver seem 'crazy' or 'emotional' rather than being understood, and it often uses things that appear logical to .

  • Examples: "All lives matter" rhetoric, "He was killed, but looting is not the answer", "This is about one bad person who made a mistake," and "Are you sure that's what happened?", "I don't think they were being racist because..."

  • False empathy.

  • Examples: Someone of privilege sharing a story that shows they have also been discriminated or unfairly treated after you have shared one. Anyone equating an experience they've had to an experience you are sharing, and it doesn't feel like it fits.

  • Argument to Be Right vs. Discussion to Foster Connection

  • The difference can be very subtle, but when you see it - you really can't unsee it. Look for the reflective listening cues that were described at the beginning of this post. Also look to body language, rely on the knowledge you have of this person and their intentions, and if you bring up a challenge to their beliefs, are they willing to sit with it? Or will they push for their own idea without trying to take it off for one moment and explore a new one?

Boundary setting is important because we do not want to be subjected or subject others to a conversation that is re-traumatizing or hurtful to them. It is an ongoing check-in, a fluid and ever-changing discussion. And sometimes, when we listen, we will also know when it is time to walk away from a conversation rather than engage.


Listening inspires action.

If you are listening, then you cannot help but be connected to another person, whether in pain or in joy.

If you are listening, then you go home and you keep thinking about that conversation. You reflect on how it impacts your life and the lives of others around you.

If you are listening, then you are changed by someone else.

And when you are changed, you act accordingly.

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