Expressing Feelings III: Hearing Feelings

Expressing feelings is extremely difficult as we discussed in Expressing Feelings II. It is difficult to wander about in your mind to understand what you feel. It is difficult to find the right words that adequately communicate what you feel in your heart. And it is most difficult to try over and over again to say what you feel. This whole process is exhausting and frustrating because it seems that we can never communicate our feelings perfectly. We just have to do it over and over, trying to do it better each time. When it comes to hearing feelings, the work is equally if not more difficult.

As everybody knows, listening is not just hearing words. Nor is listening just a courteous presence while someone else is talking. Hearing another person’s feelings goes beyond hearing words and even goes beyond courtesy and patience. Really “hearing” other people’s feelings is about accepting them in their feelings and understanding more of who they are.  This should be our goal when we decide to understand the emotions of those people who are most important to us. When we reach this goal, we experience safety in relationships, a safety that allows us to love people regardless of whether we agree with them, regardless of whether we like them.  This level of safety in a relationship puts us in a place of loving the person unconditionally. It is from this point that you and the other person can connect on a deeper level and be more enriched in the relationship. Honest listening leads to hearing, which in turns leads to understanding, which in turns leads to accepting, which in turn leads to loving. It all starts with listening, which is very hard to do.

Waiting through the rounds

Difficult as expressing one’s own feelings is, listening to someone else’s feelings is even harder. In Feelings II we discussed how it is necessary for you to make many attempts to express your feelings before the listener understands you. Likewise, it is equally necessary to wade through and wait through many attempts to understand other people’s feelings until you truly understand what they are feeling. This can sometimes be like playing dodge ball!  You hear one thing and think you have it, then all of a sudden, they shift gears and launch into something else, often what seems like multiple topics and multiple complaints. You can hear the literal words and know and understand the vocabulary; you can even grasp the context of the words; but really understanding what the other person feels is a huge challenge. And it is exhausting. There will be times when you will begin to wonder if the person will ever get to the point. But there is no perfect point in emotional expression. There is a purpose: to be understood. The rambling and rumbling through words and feelings does not lead to an exact conclusion: it leads to a subjective understanding of the other person’s feelings, and ultimately understanding the other person. It is frustrating to listen to words that don’t make sense, statements that are contradictory, and words that feel like attacks on you. But if you wade through this maze and wait through it, the result is that you will understand the feelings under the words and the person under the feelings.

When we are helping folks in our office with this, we often draw on the white board a small circle and then color it in. We call that the golden nugget, or “core self.” We could call this core beliefs or core feelings or core convictions. Then, if you can imagine, we draw concentric circles outward from that nugget. These outer circles symbolize the words and the feelings that people express in their attempts to communicate their core self. It would be great if a person could just reach into his or her core self and somehow magically communicate this to the listener. But core self does not lend itself to words because it is spiritual in nature. Core self is something we feel and know, but can’t adequately express in words however hard we try. So we try to express this central part of our existence with words and feelings. These are the concentric circles that people create in their attempts to tell you who they are. It is no surprise that people seem to be “talking in circles” when they try to communicate their most important feelings and thoughts. If you are really going to work at understanding your friends while they go through these various rounds, keep in mind that words in the outer circles are but poor representations of core self:

  • You have to wade through those rounds
  • You can’t get stuck with the words that are used
  • Much of what you hear will not make senses to you.
  • Much of what you hear will seem silly to you
  • You might hear self-dismissive statements like, “I don’t know what I am talking about” or “I don’t know why I feel this way.”
  • Some of what you hear will be flat out wrong (in your understanding)
  • Some of what you hear will be offensive to you

It is hardest to remain quiet when you hear something that you know is wrong and when you feel attacked. As a person is circling and cycling with their feelings trying to find words for them, you will frequently hear about what you did or said, perhaps years ago, maybe of events about which you have no memory. These rounds will be the hardest because you will feel immediately defensive. Of course, you will be defensive because you are being criticized, seemingly unfairly, and certainly from only the other person’s perspective. It is at this juncture, when you are listening to someone important to you say things that are wrong and offensive that you have to work even harder at listening. Not only are you patiently wading through their feelings, you will now have your own feelings that will need to be managed.

Everybody has thoughts and feelings when someone else is talking, no matter the subject. This is natural. And this is important. Feelings spoken by one person cause feelings to be felt by the other person. Feelings cause feelings. But when someone is speaking feelings, that person will go through those layers or rounds and inevitably, some of those rounds will be criticisms and complaints. You will hear what is wrong with someone, what is wrong with you, or what is wrong with the world. If you can keep your head about you and think, and keep your heart about you and feel, you will be able to keep quiet and listen. This is the heart of learning to hear feelings and it is the hardest thing to do. You have to be quiet in order to listen. You have to listen in order to understand. You have to understand in order to love that person. When you love someone, you have developed a connection with that person, and it is the connections that we are all seeking when we express our feelings.

Feelings via Complaints

As we noted in Feelings II, many of us didn’t learn to express ourselves growing up and so we are generally not good at it. It might have been OK for us to share our positive feelings, like happiness, joy, and excitement, but most kids do not get the opportunity to express their hurts, disappointments, and anger. Because these normal feelings do not get expressed in childhood, they did not mature. They stayed inside rather than being expressed, communicated, and resolved. Ideally, a child should be given the opportunity to feel disappointment and express it, but such is not the case with most of us. We were either ignored, punished, or criticized for being disappointed in something. Then this unspoken disappointment deteriorated inside of us into anger and resentment, which tends to come out in people when they don’t get what they want. Had we learned what we should have learned, we would have been given permissions to be sad and angry, but not necessarily getting out way. So, these feelings migrated in complaining and fault-finding. Importantly, underneath the complaining is a feeling of helplessness. Our modus operandi when we don’t like something is to complain rather than simply be sad, and allow our sadness to lead us into some constructive thinking and reconstructive action. If I can tell you what you did wrong, then I can internally justify my anger or sadness. It is easier to tell you what you did or said that disappointed me than to tell you that I am hurt and sad.

Not all expressed feelings are critical and complaining, but this is where people have to start in the business of expressing feelings. If you are to get better at hearing feelings, you will have to listen to these complaints without speaking a word. This is extremely hard. You will want to:

  • Correct what you are hearing because you know they have got it wrong, but…
    • You can’t “correct” someone’s feelings because feelings are never wrong
    • The words may be wrong but not the feelings
  • Defend yourself because you will feel attacked, but…
    • You shouldn’t express your feelings because…
    • The discussion is not really about you.
    • Your friend is trying to express feelings with approximate words
    • You will be able to speak later…much later
  • You will want to ask questions, but…
    • Don’t. Your “questions” will probably be rhetorical and critical
    • Your friend doesn’t need questions. S/he needs a listener
  • You will want to have a discussion, give and take, but…
    • It isn’t a “discussion.” It is a time when one person speaks and one listens
    • Discussion can come later

This is not what is taught in much of pop psychology and psychotherapy. Women, in particular have been taught that they should stand up for themselves and speak their minds. Women have been neglected, ignored, and abused by many elements of society, not the least of which is men. There are true bullies out there whose main interest, it seems, is to put down someone else. Bullies should not be tolerated. We are heartily in agreement with the fact that women have been bullied, mostly by men, in many circumstances of life. But in the business of hearing feelings, we are not talking about abuse; we ae talking about feelings, feelings that do not lend themselves to words very well. So, there is a delicate balance between being someone’s punching bag and being complicit in that kind of abuse, and what we are talking about when people are truly trying to express their feelings, perhaps for the first time in their lives. We have to give them some liberty, and we have to know that the initial stages of “expressing my feeling” very often comes in the form of criticism and complaint. If you have at least some love for your friend or partner when the two of you are trying to get better at communicating feelings, you need to give each other a wide berth. So, when listening to complaints, the loving thing to do is to be silent and work on listening and understanding. Understanding the other person’s feelings that are in and around the words. But their words will hurt you. The real task is to keep those feelings to yourself and continue to allow your friend to have the stage of expressing feelings…until he or she communicates their core self. To do this you have to think.

Thinking while listening

When hearing someone else’s feelings, you have roughly three options: (1) you can insist on “air time” and jump right in, interrupting your friend; (2) you can hold back and wait your turn, possibly while your gut is churning; or (3) you can listen with genuine interest.

If you choose option (1):

  • You will force an opportunity to speak
  • But you will not give your friend the wide berth of expressing feelings that we suggest you do
  • You will end up in an argument, and…
  • This argument may turn violent, whether in words or actions.

If you choose option (2):

  • You will be giving air time to your friend
  • You will not be working on listening and understanding because…
  • You will be waiting your turn, and…
  • Your friend will feel your impatience

If you choose option (3):

  • You will have to remind yourself that:
    • My friend is working hard to express feelings
    • Words are not feelings
    • This is not about me
    • Your friend is doing her/his best
  • You have feelings, but this is not the time to express them
  • Your task is to understand her through your friend’s feelings, so…
  • You can love your friend better.

If you choose option (3), which is what we want you to learn to do, how will you manage your own feelings? You will need to contain them.


When having feelings while hearing feeling, you need to engage in containment of your feelings. Containment is knowing what you feel, valuing what you feel, but keeping your feelings to yourself. It is distinct from repression of feelings that leads to stomachaches and headaches, and distinct also from expression of feelings, which is speaking your feelings. To contain means you keep all these feelings to yourself because the insertion of your feelings (and opinions) will interrupt the process of communication by the other person. If you insert your feelings, your friend will then have to attend to your feelings instead of his own. Furthermore, if you express your feelings, you are not really listening, and you are certainly not hearing and understanding. Your job is to understand and feel what your friend is feeling. Know this: if you have some strong feelings while your friend is speaking his, you are very close to understanding him.

During this time of containment you will have to do both a cognitive process and an emotional process in tandem. You will have to hear what your friend is saying (cognitive), know what you feel in reaction to what he feels (cognitive), value what you feel (emotional), contain what you feel (emotional), and remember to attend to your friend (cognitive).

Containment is perhaps the most important task in really hearing another person’s feelings. But even though we can train our brain to know we need to contain, containment goes beyond just thinking that you have to be quiet. Containment is much richer and personal than just listening to words. Containment is love based because it is knowing your feelings, knowing another person important to you, knowing that she is struggling to express her feelings, and believing that this struggle will eventually lead to understanding. In the New Testament the original Greek word translated patience is macrathumia, which could be translated “waiting with passion.” This is really the essence of containment: waiting and passion (feeling). Holding in awareness and respect of your own feelings while temporarily having a deeper respect for your friend’s feeling is an act of selfless love. Practicing this kind of containment creates and augments character in you. Patience breeds character, but patience is not simple peace of mind. And it is certainly not without feeling. Patience is having a lot of feeling but having the wisdom to respect your feelings, remember your feelings, and contain them.

If you can contain your feelings without expressing or repressing them, you will be doing what only one in 1000 people do. Very few people listen, much less hear, and much less value other people’s feelings. If you can hear your friends’ feelings and contain your own, you have mastered the most important element in being on the receiving part of communication. When listening, your task is to value, understand, and feel the other person’s feelings, not express your own. Most of us are not real selfless when it comes to our feelings. We selfishly think we should have the right to say whatever we want, especially in a highly emotional conversation. We can and should have the right to feel whatever we feel, but we don’t have the right to say whatever we feel at any time. And when two people try to express their feelings at the same time, this always ends up in an argument.

If you can be quiet and hear words, if you can listen through the rounds of defense, deflection and the stumbling of extraneous attempts, if you can learn to contain your own feelings, and be patient with your friends as they are trying hard to express their feelings, you will hear them, you will understand them, and you will love them better. We propose that this whole exercise in this Hearing blog is to love better.

Things to remember:

  • Feelings are never wrong. The words you hear may be wrong or inadequate at the best. So, giving your partner a wide berth means you have to be quiet while he wanders through the marsh of finding approximate words for his feelings. So at the start, just keep quiet. Then you might really listen to your partner better.
  • Being quiet is a cognitive process.
  • You need to be prepared to listen to multiple attempts before you hear the real deal.
  • You have to hear things that you know are wrong and say nothing. You have to keep in check the corrections you want to make to what you have heard.
  • You want to speak your own thoughts and feelings. But you can do none of this if you are going to move beyond being quiet to listening. You have to think a lot in order to be quiet and you have to think even more to listen.
  • Listening is making sense, or trying to make sense of what your friend is saying. This comes with knowing that the words used are probably not communicating. Wade though the words and connect with the feelings.
  • Being quiet while your partner is expressing her feelings is difficult. You’ll naturally want to say your feelings. You’ll want to defend yourself because you have been attacked and hurt. You’ll want to have a conversation. You’ll want to communicate your feelings. We are all for conversation and communication, but expressing feelings is neither. Expressing feelings is a one-way process, and hearing feelings is also a one-way process: one person speaking and one person trying to understand what is being said, and trying to understand the other person. You have to be quiet in order to listen, to hear, and to ultimately understand. This is the beginning. It is beginning of a process where you really understand your partner. But it is deucedly hard to be quiet when you are hearing emotions, attacks, and things that you know are wrong.
  • The key to successful communication is governing my feelings. This is about containment. Being patient in the midst of great emotion or passion. Communication most often fails when the listener cannot contain their feelings.
  • This is also where communication can be gloriously successful. When you are able to contain your feelings, you can really begin to understand the other person’s feelings. You are near the ultimate goal of true communication. You can get there, and you should want to get there, but it is hard work.
  • You can take the step that really brings the two of you closer together. You get to the place where you feel what the other person feels. When this happens, you have the wonderful experience of connection.

When most people think of “connection,” they think of agreement, namely agreement about the facts. It is good to have agreement about facts, like whether one refrigerator is better than another one. But true connection, emotional connection, is not so much about facts but about feelings: feeling what the other person feels. This begins as a cognitive function, namely knowing that it is first important to know that the other person is expressing feeling. Then if you can take a step beyond hearing and understanding their feelings, you will be closer to actually feeling what the other person feels. If you get to the point of valuing the other person’s feelings, you are well on your way to understanding the person. This is cognitive part of the process, and the easy half of your job is done.

Keep talking to each other. More importantly, be quiet when you partner is expressing her feelings. Listen. Eventually hear and understand. Eventually feel what you partner feels. Then you will love each other better.

Further Reading:

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Los Angeles: Praeger.

Langs, R. (1978). The listening process. New York: Aronson

Nichols, M. (1995). The lost art of listening: New York: Guilford

Reik, T. (1948). Listening with the third ear. New York: Farrar, Straus

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