It’s not just you. It’s all of us.
Unless you are working at it, odds are, you aren’t very good at listening.
And if you aren’t a very good listener, odds are, your relationships could be better.
Want to have a better relationship? You have to learn how to become a better listener. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but it is a skill that can be honed and perfected with a little bit of practice and a lot of patience.
Listening goes beyond just hearing what another person is saying; it is also being able to sense what they are feeling without saying it. Learning to pick up on social cues such as body language is an important part of learning how to communicate and listen well. It is all too common to leave deep, meaningful connection on the table just because we don’t ask questions for clarification.
Having someone genuinely interested in our lives feels good. It feels good to have someone ask about who we are, what we’re interested in or even how our day is going. So let’s stop the smalltalk and start conversations by asking questions and actively listening.
Here are 5 reasons why you might not be a good listener and how to overcome them so that together we can cultivate a culture of connection, not just meaningless chatter.
1. We reacting emotionally
This is at the top of my list because I truly believe there is nothing that will sever communication faster than when we react emotionally. Nothing. When we react, we aren’t listening. We are defending ourselves and our opinions. Listening is the act of hearing the other person express their reality, moving into their world and seeing life from their perspective. There is no obligation to agree or disagree, and listening doesn’t assume you are in agreement with someone. There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to have conversations when there are conflicting viewpoints, yet we often take it upon ourselves to get amped up when we can’t find common-ground by reacting emotionally. This can look like defensiveness, anger, sadness, justification, or frustration. More than ever, in a divided world today, we need to find ways to communicate amicably and listen with open hearts without any added negative emotion.
Me (talking to my husband): Hey, I feel sad today. I don’t know what’s going on with me but I feel sad and I’ve been really tired.
Husband: You shouldn’t be tired. You slept until 9:00am this morning and I’m doing everything I can to help you. I am trying to make you happy and help with the kids so you have a little more time for yourself.
A better response: You feel sad, and I can see that you’ve been tired. Is there anything more going on? Is there something I can help you with?
This is a very minor example of defensiveness, but it is so common for us to communicate by making it about us rather than just listening to our partners because we’ve never been taught. Rather than hearing what she said, the husband goes straight to defending his actions because he received her feelings as an attack on him and unnecessarily took responsibility for what she was feeling. Many times when we express what’s going on inside of us, it isn’t that we are looking for our issues to be fixed. We just want some validation. Someone to see us and meet us where we are at. Validate. Don’t react. And ask questions to help draw out more of what might be going on.
2. We wanting to change the opinion of the other person
The second most important part of being a good communicator is having the ability to simply hold space for someone else to express their reality. Holding space for someone isn’t convincing them that another way is better. It is not trying to change their opinions. It is not expressing what they should be doing. Listening is allowing another person to be fully seen and heard for who they are. This is the essence of communication upon which everything in a relationship hinges. And yet most of us fall short. This is difficult for most people, especially parents who feel that it is their obligation to correct or persuade their kids of our reality rather than listening to theirs.
Child: I don’t want to go to the event after school.
Parent: You need to go. It would be good for you to go out and socialize. Maybe you could make new friends and try something you’ve never done before. You need to make friends and experience all the fun. Trust me, when I was a kid, I missed out on so much because I was too shy, and now I regret it.
A Better response: I’m hearing that you don’t really want to go to the after-school event. Can you tell me more about that. And simply listen to what the child has to say.
One response is about the child and moving into his world by understanding his feelings; the other is about the parent and her experience. Do you see the difference? To communicate well, we have to take our own biases out of the equation and simply seek to understand their world. Once someone feels heard and understood, everything changes. Feelings are clearer, worries are lessened, and better decisions are made.
3. We assume rather than ask genuine questions for understanding
Nothing makes us tune out of a conversation faster than making assumptions to help us make sense of what is being said. Oh my gosh, how this drives me in-sane, and yet it’s still a skill I have to consciously practice. This alone speaks volumes to how our thoughts can make us crazy. We’ve all seen it done before and have fallen victim to practicing it. Someone will be telling a story and rather than asking reaffirming questions to clarify our understanding of what is being said, we fill in the blanks with our own stories and our own assumptions.
Friend 1: “Hey, is everything okay? It seems like you’ve been a little distant lately.”
Friend 2: “Yeah. Everything is fine. I’ve just been really busy with the kids and haven’t had much extra time for myself.”
Friend 1: Assumes her friend isn’t saying what’s actually bothering her and takes the distance personal. Instead of simply hearing her friend say that she has been busy, she creates a story that she did something that bothered her. Then she starts to keep her distance…all because she made an assumption rather than genuinely listening and asking questions to understand her friend and what is going on in her life.
A Better Response: When we are in the trenches of busyness, it is a chaotic and lonely place. If we hear that someone has been busy or overwhelmed, don’t add to that chaos by taking it personal and retreating. Instead, trust that your friend is being honest, and ask questions to draw out if there is more going on that she wants to talk about. Letting our minds create a story wrecks havoc on relationships. We can not assume we know what’s going on with another person unless we ask and hear their response. Sometimes simply asking “is there more?” can help draw emotions out of the other other person, allowing you the opportunity to connect on a much deeper level.
4. We have a Natural Desire to Talk
During a conversation, most people aren’t listening. They are likely hearing the other person talk while simultaneously formulating what they plan to say next.
This is especially true when you get comfortable with someone. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of interrupting and not letting the person talking even finish their thoughts.
A better way: Try to be conscious of when you have the urge to interrupt someone, and focus on hearing their thoughts before adding yours. It is easier said than done, and takes practice, especially if it’s been a habit for most of your life. The point is to simply strive to be better with each conversation you have.
5. We are bored, distracted or multi-tasking
Anytime we aren’t giving our undivided attention to what someone else is saying, it is easy to begin doing other things. This is why AirPods have become so popular. It allows us to multitask with ease. Today, it has become the norm to have conversations while doing other things…whether it’s driving, cleaning the house, or scrolling through Instagram. The truth is that most of the time we are distracted when we are talking. In a world of constant stimulation, communication has become reduced to talking and hearing rather than actively listening. This is because active listening is an art that has become increasingly difficult to master in an over-distracted world.
A better way: Actively listening takes conscious effort. The more we practice it, the better we get at showing up for the other person. As a mom, I am constantly multi-tasking. Most of the time when my kids are talking to me, I’m on autopilot in my responses. “Uh-huh”, “wow” “that’s awesome”…it’s horrible. It’s even become a joke in our family that when I start talking, I often get distracted and never finish my sentence. My kids now call me out on it. Recognizing and acknowledging that it takes effort to listen and be present has helped me to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with both my kids and adults.