Leanne Chapman Psychology

[ Guidance for the wounded soul ]

Are You Listening?

Are You Listening?

When I talk to a class of new students at the college where I teach, I tell them we’re going to learn how to listen. I can see they find this puzzling, don’t we all listen every day? Isn’t that like saying we’re going to learn to breathe? But by the end of the 12 weeks we spend together, they’ve realised how much is involved in the skill of listening, and how hard it is to actually demonstrate it in their roleplays.

It’s A Skill

Listening IS a skill. It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us, in fact some listening skills are quite unnatural compared to what we usually do. We tend to focus on what we’ll say as soon as the other person finishes speaking, and sometimes we can’t wait that long and interrupt instead. Another thing that doesn’t always come naturally is remembering to show the person speaking that we’re actually hearing them.

Often what passes for a dialogue is actually two monologues. I have had conversations with friends where one of us will talk about something that happened to us, and the other will respond with something similar that happened to them – it sounds like we’re interacting, but we’re not. We’re talking about different things – she’s talking about her experience and I’m talking about mine, and there’s no meeting in the middle. Neither of us knows if the other has even heard what we’ve said.

As an introvert, feeling heard is probably more important to me than it is to some. I don’t say something unless it seems important, if it isn’t I’ll just think it to myself instead. Many extroverts on the other hand tend to say most of what goes through their mind and don’t really care that much if someone listens closely or not. I wish I could be more like that sometimes, but instead I’m left feeling irritated because ‘I haven’t been heard’.

And the thing is I often HAVE been heard, it’s just that I haven’t been given any sign of this by the listener. How many times has someone complained to you that you’re not listening when in fact you’ve heard every word? Mums often experience this with their teenagers – you’re so distracted with everything else that’s going on, you haven’t been able to make eye contact while they’re talking or give a sign that their message has been received and understood.

This is an important part of effective listening – not just hearing the words but showing that you’ve heard them. It can be as simple as a sincere one syllable ‘oh’ or ‘mmm’, simple…but powerful.  We’re all in such a hurry to get to the bit where WE get to talk that we can overlook this step and the person who has just spoken can be left wondering why they bothered.

The Cordless Phone

And then there’s the telephone. Cordless phones have made it easy for us to wander around cleaning the bathroom sink, loading the dishwasher and hanging the washing out while we talk. Would you do this while someone was physically visiting you? Ideally you’d make time to sit down and give your visitor your full attention. I know that’s not always possible even in person, but it’s much less likely when we’re on the phone.

The problem is the other person is aware you’re doing this, and even if you have great focus and concentration, you’re not going to communicate your attentiveness to the person on the other end. They are likely to think they’re interrupting you and should call back later, when of course the same thing may happen again.

A client tells me her sister has a habit of phoning her and then commencing a conversation with someone in the room with her while she’s still on the phone. My client doesn’t  mind so much if her sister is just telling someone else she’s on the phone, but when she has a complete conversation with the other person, she often forgets they were mid-conversation. From my client’s end, this feels frustrating and tiresome.

Whose Turn Is It?

It takes a good degree of mindfulness and grounding to keep focus on the person who’s talking to you, especially if someone else says something to you in the meantime. But it’s important – the person who was talking to you first deserves your undivided attention. Others will get their turn, knowing that when they do, they’ll also have your full attention.

For me it’s about respect, but it’s hard to do and people are easily distracted. The same applies to text messages – we might think that if we keep nodding and ‘uh-huh’ing while we have our head down texting, the person sitting opposite us over lunch will know we’re listening. But are we really? And even if we are, does the person opposite us believe that?

This might sound like a lot of hard work, but I suspect walking once felt like a lot of hard work too, yet we persisted and reaped the rewards. An fast-talking extrovert friend of mine once told me, after yet another of my ‘did you hear me?’ questions, that she wasn’t going to keep pausing to let me know she’d heard me because she thought it was tiresome – however after she stopped being annoyed, she did start experimenting with it and reported that it had made a huge difference in all her relationships. It made a huge difference to me too – it might not have been that important to her but she knew it was for me so she gave it a try. I noticed immediately and loved her for it. 

It’s not always possible to be a good listener, but it’s something worth working on as much as possible. It not only improves communication, it improves relationships.

 images courtesy of technorati.com, blog.campaignasia.com, ingoodcompany.com & americascheapestfamily.com


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  1. I’m totally the person who immediately thinks and prepares what she is going to say while the other person is talking. I also interrupt a lot because I know if I don’t say what’s on my mind – I’ll forget it. Waiting and mindfully processing what the other person is sharing will help me communicate more effectively and with purpose.
    You can learn a lot from children. My boys will talk to me and immediately know when I haven’t given them my full attention. They use something on me that I used to use on them when they were little. I’d say “Listen with your eyes” so now they use this same thing on me and it really stings to know how much inactive listening I really do.

  2. Amethyst Mahoney

    February 14, 2013 at 3:11 am

    OMG, I love the photo of the dog! If that had shown up on Facebook, I would have clicked your post first. 😀

    Listening is an important skill, and definitely something I need to work on. What most people don’t seem to realize is that it is a skill, and one that takes practice.


  3. I love how you wove in respect. So vital in communication.
    Your website is beautiful!

  4. Being an extrovert, or an ambivert at best, I definitely need to get better at listening to some people. Some I’m very good at listening to, other times I get easily distracted.

  5. I’m sorry. What did you say?

    Really fabulous post, Leanne. Something I am very bad about is talking on the phone when I actually don’t WANT to be talking. I do other things including reading (and responding to) my email.

    There are times when people just natter on and I am so disconnected from the conversation. This is a good reminder that if they need to be heard, I’m not being a compassionate human being when I basically ignore them.

    Ouch, but I needed to “hear” this about myself. 😀

    • Leanne Chapman

      January 10, 2013 at 1:01 am

      LOL oh I know what you mean Arwen, some people do just natter on and on, but in that case I think it’s them that’s lacking in listening skills – because they’re not actually doing any listening, just talking.
      And no one can expect you to listen endlessly (although some do seem to expect it). Talking on the phone (or anywhere) should be a two way street with around 50-50 time allotted to each person!

  6. You’re so right- we make it hard to fully give someone our attention, and never think to rebuild those skills. I’ll remind myself to keep it up!

  7. I know that I need to improve my listening skills and I very much enjoyed your observations. Thank you for giving me something to really think about.
    Hugs and sparkles

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