Most people know that one of the keys to success in relationships is good listening.
Experts tell us to use “active” listening, “I messages,” and open-ended questions. Articles urge us to stop talking when someone speaks, to use our body language effectively to encourage the other guy, and to work to understand what is meant as well as what is said. We’ve been told that men are from Mars and women are from Venus and we’ve been taught how to translate the gender languages. Yet despite all that, developing good listening skills continues to be a challenge for some people.
Generally, it’s better to emphasize the positive and teach folks useful skills. But at least some people some of the time find it equally useful to have the negative pointed out and explained. They want guidelines for what not to do. So here are eight ways that lousy listeners louse up communication and probably louse up their relationships.
- Lousy listeners are attending to other things when you are speaking. Proud of their ability to multitask, they continue to scan the newspaper, pick up the living room, text, or clean their desk while being addressed. An occasional ‘uh-huh’ is supposed to cue you that, really, they are with you. They’re not — or at least not totally. Their mind is distracted. Chances are they miss important pieces of your message — even if they protest that they don’t.
- Lousy listeners are planning how they will respond even while you are speaking. They are so busy rehearsing their reply that they miss part of your message and don’t catch the nuances of your communication. They’re ready with a paragraph before you’ve even completed a sentence.
- Lousy listeners steal the ball. You say something like, “I can hardly wait to tell you about my trip to the Grand Canyon.” Before you get the last word out, they start: “The Grand Canyon? I was there once. Let me tell you. It was so interesting. We went on this and did that and this and that happened. And we met these wonderful people at the dude ranch we stayed at.” They are off and running with their description of their own experience. You are left to hold your story for another day – if you get the chance then either.
- Lousy listeners change the subject before you are ready to do so. Maybe you are talking about something sensitive between you or maybe the topic is just more meaningful to you. Either because they aren’t interested or because you are making them nervous, they steer the conversation to something that interests them more or that makes them feel safer. You say, “I’d love to go see such and such a concert.” They say, “Sunday night is football night.” Collaboration or compromise isn’t a strong point. You say, “I’m really upset with the way you spoke to my mother.” They say, “What are we having for dinner tonight?” Empathy isn’t a strong point either.
- Lousy listeners hurry you along. As you talk, they get restless. They might say, “Uh-huh, Uh-huh, uh-huh” or look at their watch or scan the surroundings or fidget. You run out of interest in communicating with them because they’ve let you know that they’ve run out of patience with listening to you.
- Lousy listeners have lousy nonverbal skills. They don’t look like they are paying attention. They don’t give much in the way of positive feedback like a nod or a smile. They slouch. They turn away. Their eyes glaze over. Talking to a lousy listener is like talking to a post for all the affirmation you get.
- Lousy listeners tend to see criticism or blame in the most innocent of discussions. Their defense is to be critical and judgmental. While you are talking, they are busy developing critiques of what you said or how you said it. They use sarcasm, “jokes,” and anger to derail any hint that you may be suggesting the need for them to change something about themselves or about how they are doing something. Communicating with them is so unpleasant you avoid it as much as you can.
- Lousy listeners are quick to offer advice, even when it hasn’t been asked for. They don’t take the time to listen to the whole story or to offer quiet support. Often they mean well. They really do want to help. But they don’t understand that their help isn’t always helpful; that sometimes what you want is simply to be heard and understood or given a vote of confidence that you can solve your own problems.
If someone you love or someone you work with has lousy listening habits, chances are they won’t be interested in listening to your critique of their listening. Wailing “You never listen to me” will only make them defensive. Some or all of the eight habits are likely to kick in as soon as you broach the subject. Instead, you might try asking for change with exquisite tact and in very small doses. You are most likely to be successful if the person has asked for support in becoming more effective with others or in getting closer to you.
If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, perhaps it’s time to make some changes. Lousy listening can have a negative effect on your work, your friendships, and your love life. It’s worth putting in the effort to become better at it.
Like most habits, the habit of lousy listening may be hard to break. But education, perseverance, and practice will pay off. Since there are many websites and books that explain good listening skills, I won’t list them here. Get the information you need and give the issue your time and attention. Work with a therapist or attend a communication skills workshop to get some support. As you become better at listening well, people will be more interested in what you have to say.