Are you really listening? 20 blocks to listening, which one's yours?

We can all be guilty of not giving our full attention to the person that is speaking. As a counsellor, I'm trained to really listen intently to what my clients are saying, to hear not just their words, but the volume and intonation, alongside their body language. However, when I’m not working, my mind is always busy thinking up new ideas or daydreaming or worrying about something, so I can be just as guilty of not giving my full attention to colleagues, family or friends as the next person. It takes focus to properly listen to another person and give them all of our attention and we all have our regular listening blocks. How many of these can you relate to?

1. Comparing: Comparing makes it hard to listening because in the back of our mind, we’re constantly comparing how we measure up against the other person – is he smarter than me, more competent, richer, more successful or more emotionally healthy than me?

2. Mind Reading: the individual is speaking but we don't really trust the words that are coming out of their mouth. Instead we spend most of the time trying to figure out what’s going on underneath the surface, what they really mean, what the other person is REALLY thinking or feeling.

3. Rehearsing: instead of listening and responding in the flow, we are planning and rehearsing our response. Our whole attention is on what’s going on inside our own head, what we're going to say next, thinking, preparing and crafting our next impactful statement.

4. Filtering: we’re only listening to parts of the conversation. We may be filtering in things that are being said, e.g. the bits we want to hear and filtering out the things we don’t want to hear. We filter in or pay attention to the parts that fit our narrative or the parts that leave us feeling threatened and therefore need our attention. But we filter out anything that is unimportant to us.

5. Judging: We can all been guilty of judging others. How often have we thought negative things about a person. We can be looking at them and thinking they are stupid, different, under-qualified, have nothing of relevance to say. If we judge someone as unimportant or their voice as not worthy of attention, we don’t listen to what they have to say. We’ve already written them off.

6. Dreaming: We’re really only half listening anyway, but something the person says suddenly triggers a memory, a thought or a feeling. The next thing, we’re away in our own little world, following our own thread and not paying attention at all.

7. Identifying: something that the person says reminds us of our own situation or experience. They tell us they have an awful toothache and that reminds us of the time we had a wisdom tooth removed. We’re really only interested then in sharing our own terrible experience and not really interested in or listening to the other person at all.

8. Advising: we’re great at problem solving, always on hand and ready with good advice and suggestions for how the other person should fix their life. We don’t have to hear more than a few sentences before we know what the solution is and we’re stepping in with our great advice and fixing the problem, whether we’ve been asked to or not.

9. Making assumptions: we already know exactly what the other person is going to say, they’ve said it 100 times before, so what’s the point of listening. We prepare the ready-made responses or just make the noises as if we are listening.

10.Sparring: oh we love a good debate! We just can’t help but argue with people and object to everything they say. Or we constantly offer the alternative point of view. But sadly the other person never feels heard and may even feel invalidated by us because we’re so quick to see the other side or disagree with everything they say.

11.Being right: being right means that we will go to any lengths, twisting the facts, shouting, being defensive, making excuses or accusations, recalling past transgressions to avoid being wrong. Our convictions are absolutely unshakeable. Nothing the other person says is heard or understood. We don’t care. We are right and they are wrong. End of. No discussion to be had.

12.Derailing: we derail the conversation when we feel uncomfortable with the subject matter so we shut it down by suddenly changing the subject or creating a distraction. And voila, as if by magic, whatever the other person was saying is now gone. We've dodged another bullet!

13.Placating: we want to be kind, caring and supportive, and of course, we don't want other people to dislike us. So we agree with everything the other person is saying, even if we don’t actually agree with them. ‘Yes, yes, you’re absolutely right, I know, of course, I totally agree with you.’ At the same time, we may be thinking otherwise and we are not actually engaged in the conversation at all because in our mind, we are thinking quite the opposite.

14.Being preoccupied: our mind is completely somewhere else. The person is talking to us but we’re completely distracted, thinking about those tasks that need doing or that awkward phone call we’ve just had or planning what we're going to make for dinner. We’re not really engaged in the conversation at all.

15.Feigning interest: the conversation is boring, we really have no interest at all in what the other person is saying, my goodness they are boring, but we’re feigning interest 'mmm, yes, I see' whilst scanning the room and wondering what the other people are talking about. They look like they’re having far more interesting conversations.

16.Being closed minded: our mind is closed, we have our own unshakable truth, the views and opinions of the other person won’t ever change that. They are wasting their breath, nothing they have to say will make the slightest difference.

17.Having preconceptions: our mind is already made up by our previous experience of this person or the topic of conversation, we know where this is going so there is no in point listening.

18.Sympathy instead of empathy: we feel sorry for the other person, of course we do, but we’re not really putting ourselves in their shoes, really feeling their pain, really listening properly and fully understanding how this situation is for them.

19.Being biased: we have a positive or a negative bias towards or against the person or this type of person, or their views and opinions – we find them likeable or unlikeable, we agree or disagree with their politics…..either way we’re not really listening because we either like them and agree with everything they say so no need to listen or we don’t like them and disagree with everything they are likely to say so no need to listen.

20.Bodily Sensations or emotions: our body is hungry, tired, unwell, hot, cold, or we feel sad, irritable, impatient - whatever is going in for us is making it impossible to listen because we’re concentrating wholly on how we feel.

It takes real skill and commitment to give our full attention to another person, to properly listen, to hear and to understand. But we can all become better listeners. The first step is to identify our own listening blocks and then to explore a little more deeply in order to understand why these listening blocks might be happening. Once we’ve understood ourselves better, we can start to become a little more open to listening more intently, putting strategies in place to actively engage, be present and remove listening blocks in order to become better listeners. If the other person feels properly heard, this opens up better communication and relationships can improve. We can even learn things about ourselves or the other person we didn't realise because we weren't properly listening. What's your listening block?


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by Stephen Turner