How often do you feel like you are really being heard or understood? Having someone just listen can be healing and comforting; but we may not experience it often enough. The opportunity to vent freely to an accepting and listening ear is priceless. It is life-giving. I have heard it said this is the reason why prayer works for some people, because God is mute and just listens.
I imagine that each of us could benefit from having more people in our lives who are good listeners. I would also bet that each one of us could learn to improve our listening skills. It is a shame that acquiring this proficiency is not a required course at all levels of education when it is so critical to the health of our personal and work relationships. Good listening is imperative to a long lasting romantic partnership and is certainly an important element in successful parenting. Proper listening skills enhances our professional relationships as well.
While there are many ways to be a poor listener, I want to illustrate the five that stand out to me. Maybe you have experienced a few yourself; perhaps you are even guilty of a couple! The ways to be a bad listener are: interrupting all the time, start talking about yourself, looking distracted, being there in body only and judging thy neighbor. Listen up!
Number one: Interrupt all the time
This one is a sure favorite and one I am guessing we are all guilty of from time to time. Isn’t it frustrating when you are trying to share something and the person is constantly interrupting? There are many reasons a person might interrupt you. Some interruptions are valid when you are seeking clarification, “Did you say you handed that in ten days ago?” Interrupting for clarification a time or two can show you are really listening and wanting to make sure you heard the person correctly. However, even this can be bothersome if the person constantly has to stop and clarify. The person talking may decide to shut down or may tell you to let them finish their story and then allow you to ask your questions. However, many interruptions don’t originate from such good intentions. Often a person interrupts because they are impatient with the story teller, wants to correct them, prefers to argue the point, or they may be so narcissistic that they can’t bear the focus to be on someone else.
If you struggle with interrupting others I encourage you to make a conscious effort to stop or reduce the frequency. Certainly seeking clarification from time to time is important. However, try just staying with the person’s story. Listening is not about agreeing with the person, it’s about respecting their viewpoint. Remember the person is sharing their perspective, not necessarily yours. And that is OK! Also, remain alert to let them finish a thought before you interject. You can even count to three before you respond to be sure they are done with that part of their sharing. Decreasing interruptions is a good start to becoming a better listener.
Number Two: Start Talking About Yourself
“Yesterday at the mall I heard someone call my name and to my surprise it was a girlfriend from high school that I hadn’t talked to in twenty years. I was so stunned that for a moment… “; “Oh I know – the same thing happened to me when I was at the airport and… ” And on the person goes and before you know it, you are listening to them. Has this happened to you? Sometimes their interests are woven into the conversation so creatively that afterwards you forget what your original thought was! My hope is that you don’t have too many friends doing this too often. This would make for very one-sided friendships.
This can be so frustrating. Being that I have training in how to be a good listener, I find it somewhat amusing when someone does this to me. I am hyper-sensitive to it and find it amazing when a person seems so oblivious to what just occurred and seems content to go on. I typically entertain their interjections for a time and that is it. I simply shut-down. I keep future conversations superficial and tend not to spend too much time with them. But not everyone picks up on these conversation table turners. I have heard many people in my office talk about their supposed close friend who they feel they listen to more than talk to. The person knows it is one sided, but allows it to go on.
If you have someone in your life that you value but you feel they talk more than listen, you can try to address it. You can express it verbally or in writing. You might say something like, “I really enjoy when we do things together, however, I don’t often feel like you listen to what am I saying when I try and share what’s going on with me.” If the person is able to hear you then there is potential for positive change in the relationship.
If you know you are someone who tends to do this I encourage you to ask yourself why and what. Why do you so often shift things to yourself and what might be going on with you? Do you think you might do this because you are nervous and don’t know what to say so you just start talking? Are you overwhelmed and can’t help yourself? Maybe this is your way of showing you are listening? If you want to have mutually satisfying relationships it is important to gain more clarity about this tendency.
Number Three: Be Distracted
This is a surefire way to make the listener feel like you don’t give a hoot about what they are saying. Have you ever been talking to someone and they seem to be looking everywhere but at you? This is more than frustrating, it is downright rude. You’re at dinner with your partner, just the two of you, and while you’re trying to have a conversation he may be looking around or watching the TV. Do you have to get right into the line of sight of a partner or friend and ask “Are you listening to me?” It is curious when the person gets frustrated with you especially if they would be very offended if it was being done to them. Needless to say, eye contact is very important to attentive listening.
I have talked to many people who find eye contact uncomfortable. They have said that it makes them very nervous. They have acknowledged that they know it doesn’t go over well with people even though they are sincerely listening. This may be true for you. Working on your insecurities in this area will greatly help your connections with others.
Poor eye contact is one form of negative non-verbal communication. Looking distracted physically is another form of poor non-verbal communication. Things like having your body turned away from the person; legs and hands crossed in a closed position; head nodding or turning in a disapproving fashion; grunting etc. Back when I was in my undergraduate studies I was taught that 90% of communication is non-verbal. What is your non-verbal language telling the person? Is it showing the person that you are paying attention and interested in what they are saying? Or is it suggesting that you are disinterested and bored?
Number Four: In Body Only
Listening in body only is when you are talking and the person seems physically attentive, yet it is as if they are looking through you, sort of like they are in a conscious coma. The person is physically present but is mentally elsewhere. Have you had this experience before? Usually after you have talked a little with no response you might wonder or even ask, “Did you hear what I said?” Often the person will say “No, I am sorry. Can you repeat that?” The person truly was not mentally present for the conversation. While I imagine this has happened to all of us at one time or another, it is an issue if it keeps happening with the same person.
Often the person who is zoning out while you are talking is preoccupied with something. Life is overwhelming at times. If you know you are overwhelmed and not able to give someone your attention who is asking for it, just let them know. You might say, “I know you are really stressed right now and I do want to hear about it, however, I am too upset right now to focus. Can we meet for lunch?” This type of response is respectful to both self and others. Or it could be that you have trouble with keeping up with what the other person is saying so it is easier to zone out and just do the best you can to give the appearance of understanding what they are saying.
Reflective listening is a wonderful skill to help you stay with the person mentally. Reflective listening is simply repeating back what you think you heard them say. This is a very caring act. It shows you are intentionally trying to hear what the person wants to tell you. It is important when you reflect back what you think you heard them say that you do so without adding your own twist to it. Think of this as if you were looking in the mirror. What you see is your reflection. With this type of listening that is all you do. Reflect what you think you heard. For example, you might say, “So you received an ‘exceeds in every area’ but one and for the third year in a row you didn’t get a promotion?” If you are correct the person will usually say, “Yes, and… ” on they will go with more detail. If you didn’t get it quite right the person can correct you so you understand what they meant. “So you got exceeds in almost every area and they still did nothing to honor that?” The person might say, “Well they did give me a good bonus, but I have been waiting for this promotion. I am so frustrated.” It is a wonderful gift to interact with someone who is sincerely trying to hear you.
Number Five: Judge They Neighbor
This judgmental, hurtful, rude way of responding is sure to win you the “Worst Listener of the Year” award. The last thing someone needs to hear when they are opening up to you is your judgment of them. Telling someone that what they feel doesn’t make sense or is stupid is an example of being judgmental. Other examples are telling someone they shouldn’t feel what they feel; or one of the most shattering is “You don’t feel like that.” This is a harsh response to the person sharing. Have you experienced this from someone? How did it make you feel?
If someone asks your opinion about what they are sharing it is fine then to give it. However, that doesn’t require you to put them down or discount their feelings. When someone shares what they are feeling with you, try and remember that feelings are just feelings. Feelings don’t always make sense. It is also important to keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with the other person to be a good listener. Good listening doesn’t require agreement. It requires the sincere intent to understand the person from their point of view. There is plenty of judgment in the world. Please be careful not to perpetuate that trend.
A virtuous way to help you be less judgmental when you are listening to someone you don’t agree with or you don’t understand how they are feeling, is reflective listening. As stated previously, this is when you confirm with the person that you have heard them correctly. There is no judgment in this. There is no opinion of yours shared. It is simply hearing the other.
Unfortunately, many people are poor listeners. More often than not, people respond to others in a defensive manner. Good listening takes patience, and many don’t have it. Most of us want to share our viewpoint, because that is what we know best. Often we have not experienced good listening mirrored to us. We learn at a young age about listening. Changing your pattern of listening does take a concerted effort; however, the gains are worth it!
So many people feel alone in the world and being truly heard by another helps us feel less alone. Anytime we feel like someone “gets” us, or that someone is “seeing” us, it helps us feel more alive. It gives validation to our existence. It is like a wave of encouragement and hope to the spirit. To think that you can be that powerful to another by simply listening! Now that is amazing!