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How often do you feel like you are really being heard or understood? Having someone just listen can be healing and comforting; but we may not experience it often enough. The opportunity to vent freely to a receptive and listening ear is priceless. He is a giver of life. I have heard that this is why prayer works for some people, because God is mute and only listens.

I imagine each of us could benefit from having more people in our lives who are good listeners. I would also wager that each of us could learn to improve our listening skills. It is a shame that acquiring this competency is not a required course at all levels of education when it is so critical to the health of our personal and work relationships. Good listening is imperative to a lasting romantic relationship and is certainly an important element of successful parenting. Proper listening skills also improve our professional relationships.

While there are many ways to be a poor listener, I want to illustrate the five that I find most striking. Perhaps you have experienced a few yourself; Maybe you’re even guilty of a couple! The ways of being a bad listener are: interrupting all the time, starting to talk about oneself, seeming distracted, being present only in body and judging others. Listen!

Number one: interrupt all the time

This is a sure favorite and I guess we are all guilty from time to time. Isn’t it frustrating when you’re trying to share something and the person constantly interrupts you? There are many reasons why a person might interrupt you. Some interruptions are valid when seeking clarification: “Did you say you turned that in ten days ago?” Interrupting to clarify once or twice can show that you’re really listening and want to make sure you’ve heard the person correctly. However, even this can be annoying if the person constantly has to stop and rinse. The person speaking can decide to be quiet or can tell you to let him finish her story and then let him ask her questions. However, many interruptions do not come from such good intentions. Often a person interrupts because they are impatient with the narrator, want to correct them, prefer to argue the point, or may be so narcissistic that they can’t bear to focus on someone else.

If you have a hard time interrupting others, I encourage you to make a conscious effort to stop or reduce your frequency. It is certainly important to seek clarification from time to time. However, try to stay with the person’s story. Listening is not about agreeing with the person, it is about respecting their point of view. Remember that the person is sharing their perspective, not necessarily yours. And that’s okay! Also, be alert to let a thought finish before you intervene. You can even count to three before responding to make sure they’re done with that part of your exchange. Minimizing interruptions is a good start to becoming a better listener.

Number two: start talking about yourself

“Yesterday at the mall I heard someone call my name and to my surprise it was a high school girlfriend I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years. I was so stunned that for a moment…”; “Oh, I know, the same thing happened to me when I was at the airport and…” And the person continues and before you know it, you’re listening. Has this happened to you? Sometimes their interests weave into the conversation so creatively that you forget what your original thought was later on. My hope is that you don’t have too many friends doing this too often. This would create very one-sided friendships.

This can be so frustrating. Being that I have training in how to be a good listener, I find it amusing when someone does this to me. I’m hypersensitive to that and it amazes me when a person seems so oblivious to what just happened and seems content to continue. I usually entertain his interjections for a while and that’s it. I just turn off. I keep future conversations superficial and tend not to spend too much time with them. But not everyone realizes these conversation table turners. I have heard many people in my office talk about their so-called close friend who they feel is listening more than talking. The person knows that it is one-sided, but allows it to continue.

If you have someone in your life that you value but feel like they talk more than listen, you can try to address them. You can express it verbally or in writing. You could say something like, “I really enjoy doing things together, however, I often don’t feel like you’re listening to what I’m saying when I try to share what’s going on with me.” If the person can hear you, then there is a chance of a positive change in the relationship.

If you know that you are one of those who tends to do this, I encourage you to ask yourself why and what. Why do you change things so often towards yourself and what might be going on with you? Do you think you might do this because you’re nervous and don’t know what to say, so you just start talking? Are you overwhelmed and can’t help it? Maybe this is your way of showing that you are listening? If you want to have mutually satisfying relationships, it’s important to be more clear about this trend.

Number three: distract yourself

This is a surefire way to make the listener feel like you don’t give a damn about what they’re saying. Have you ever been talking to someone and they seem to be looking everywhere but at you? This is beyond frustrating, it’s downright hard. You are having dinner with your partner, just the two of you, and while you are trying to carry on a conversation he may be looking around or watching television. Do you have to get right in the line of sight of a colleague or friend and ask “Are you listening to me?” It’s funny when the person gets frustrated with you, especially if they would be very offended if you did it to them. It goes without saying that eye contact is very important to listening carefully.

I have talked to many people who find eye contact uncomfortable. They have said that it makes them very nervous. They have acknowledged that they know people don’t like them even though they are sincerely listening. This may be true for you. Working on your insecurities in this area will greatly help your connections with others.

Poor eye contact is a form of negative nonverbal communication. Appearing physically distracted is another form of nonverbal miscommunication. Things like having your body away from the person; legs and hands crossed in a closed position; nodding or turning the head disapprovingly; grunts etc. When I was in my university studies I was taught that 90% of communication is non-verbal. What does your non-verbal language say to the person? Are you showing the person that you are paying attention and interested in what they are saying? Or is it suggesting that you are disinterested and bored?

Number four: only in the body

Listening in the body is only when you are speaking and the person seems physically attentive, but it is as if they are looking right through you, as if they are in a conscious coma. The person is physically present but mentally they are elsewhere. Have you had this experience before? Usually, after you’ve talked for a bit without getting a response, you may find yourself wondering or even asking, “Did you hear what I said?” Often the person will say “No, I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?” The person was not really mentally present in the conversation. While I imagine this has happened to all of us at one time or another, it’s a problem if it keeps happening with the same person.

Often the person who gets distracted while you’re talking is worried about something. Life is overwhelming sometimes. If you know you are overwhelmed and cannot pay attention to someone who is asking for it, let them know. You might say, “I know you’re very stressed right now and I want to know, but I’m too upset right now to focus. Can we meet for lunch?” This type of response is respectful both to oneself and to others. Or it could be that you’re having trouble keeping up with what the other person is saying, so it’s easier to tune out and just do your best to appear like you understand what they’re saying.

Reflective listening is a wonderful skill that helps you mentally stay with the person. Reflective listening is simply repeating back what you think you heard them say. This is a very loving act. It shows that you are intentionally trying to hear what the person wants to tell you. It is important that when you reflect on what you think you heard them say, you do so without adding your own spin to it. Think of this as if you were looking in a mirror. What you see is your reflection. With this kind of listening that’s all you do. Reflect on what you think you have heard. For example, you might say, “So you received an ‘exceeds in all but one area’ and for the third year in a row you didn’t get promoted?” If you are correct, the person will usually say, “Yes, and…” and follow up with more detail. If you didn’t quite get it, the person can correct you so you understand what they meant. “So you got surpluses in almost every area and they still haven’t done anything to honor that?” The person might say, “Well, they gave me a nice bonus, but I’ve been waiting for this promotion. I’m very frustrated.” It is a wonderful gift to interact with someone who is sincerely trying to listen to you.

Number Five: Judge Your Neighbors

This critical, hurtful, and rude way of responding will win you the “Worst Listener of the Year” award. The last thing someone needs to hear when they are opening up to you is your judgment of them. Telling someone that what they are feeling is nonsense or stupid is an example of being judgmental. Other examples are telling someone that they shouldn’t feel what she feels; or one of the most devastating is “Don’t feel like that.” This is a harsh response for the person sharing. Have you experienced this from anyone? How did it make you feel?

If someone asks you for your opinion on what they’re sharing, it’s okay to give it. However, that doesn’t require you to put them down or dismiss their feelings. When someone shares their feelings with you, try to remember that feelings are just feelings. Feelings don’t always make sense. It’s also important to note that you don’t have to agree with the other person to be a good listener. Good listening does not require agreement. It requires the sincere intention to understand the person from their point of view. There is much judgment in the world. Be careful not to perpetuate that trend.

A virtuous way to help yourself be less judgmental when listening to someone you disagree with or don’t understand how they feel is to listen reflectively. As stated above, this is when you confirm with the person that you have heard them correctly. There is no judgment in this. No opinion of yours is shared. It is simply listening to the other.

Unfortunately, many people are poor listeners. Most of the time, people respond to others defensively. Good listening requires patience, and many do not have it. Most of us want to share our point of view, because that’s what we know best. Often we have not experienced good listening reflected back to us. We learn at an early age about listening. Changing your listening pattern requires a concerted effort; however, the gains are worth it!

Many people feel alone in the world and being truly heard by another helps us feel less alone. Every time we feel that someone “gets” us, or that someone “sees” us, it helps us feel more alive. It validates our existence. It is like a wave of encouragement and hope for the spirit. To think that you can be so powerful for another simply by listening! That is awesome!

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