You're not listening (you just think you are)

June 17, 2015

One of the most frustrating experiences anyone can suffer is not being heard. That's because we all need to feel valued, validated, and have our voice count. So it's that much more maddening when we feel we're being misunderstood as a result of someone else's inability (or apparent unwillingness) to hear us. It's is a source of enormous stress, anxiety, and counter-productivity in our work and personal lives, and a consistent cause of conflict. Tragically, surveys show that while most of us consider ourselves good listeners, we're actually quite poor at it.

In our "always-on" environment the obvious distractions include smart phones, email, and ubiquitous TV screens. But the problem is more insidious than that; even the most disciplined among us who manage to put away the devices long enough to hold an uninterrupted conversation struggle to listen. For one thing, we speak much more slowly than we can think so in the span of time it takes for a speaker to get a sentence out, the "listener" has experienced thoughts containing three to four times as many words.

Not listeningThe moment another's words enter our auditory canal we're already busy processing: interpreting, judging, evaluating and decoding them. All this parsing interferes with our ability to truly hear. Our expectations and assumptions fill in any blanks, often inaccurately. (In some workshops I conduct an exercise that illustrates this point starkly; few participants score more than 20%.)

But mostly when we think we're listening we're really just waiting politely, if impatiently, for our turn to speak. We pay lip service to listening. Sure, we might remain silent for a while, but we're more likely to be preparing our rebuttal, commentary or defense than to be truly hearing what the speaker is saying. This shouldn't surprise us; our culture clearly values speaking much more than it does listening. (You've probably had public speaking courses in school, attended Toastmasters or taken a workshop in delivering powerful presentations, but when was the last time you were educated in effective listening?) Small wonder there's so much burnout: we keep trying to get our point across, to little or no avail. "If only they listened to me..."

The solution is simple and, yes, easy too. It lies in cultivating our ability to hear by listening actively: paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying, and providing empathic responses that encourage and validate the speaker. (These critical tools are described in detail in our book.) The only difficulty in implementation is that we're seldom taught how to hear. We assume that just because we're born with ears that never switch off, we're experts. Wrong! Practice makes perfect.

In conflict we can't always reach agreement -- our opinions, beliefs and attitudes may be too solidly entrenched -- but we can achieve mutual understanding. These are two different things. The latter does, however, go a long way towards the making the former possible. Even if you are unable to see eye-to-eye with your boss, colleagues, employees (etc.), allowing them to feel heard and understood can take the sting out of a disagreement or deadlock. Active listening will also allow you to move forward and find other ways to work together more pleasantly and respectfully.

- kda