Why Don’t We Listen?

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In a text-message world where face-to-face is being replaced by tech-to-tech communication, we seldom have the chance to exercise our listening skills. Not that listening has ever been a strength for the majority. Most of us readily master the art of talking in our first 2-3 years on the planet. Listening, on the other hand—not so much.

Listen by Marcus Quigmire, Wikimedia Commons

According to the Writing Lab at Purdue University, there are a number of "types" who derail the listening process with a variety of counterproductive (if unintentional) habits.

Maybe you’ve encountered these types or recognize yourself among them.

So Many Ways to Avoid Listening

Mind Reader: The mind reader hears little of what’s being said, being too busy wondering what the speaker is really thinking or feeling.

Rehearser: Rehearsers spend the entire conversation crafting their next comment, just waiting for a break in the flow to get a word in.

Filterer: A filterer is the ultimate selective listener. As Simon and Garfunkel so aptly put it: “A man [filterer] hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Dreamer: The dreamer finds the sound of someone else’s voice a little soporific and tends to drift away on an inattentive cloud, leaving the conversation to continue as background noise.

Identifier: Identifiers feel compelled to tie everything they hear to personal experience. Since it’s not possible to share the reality of everyone who speaks to them, they often reshape what they’ve heard to fit their own reality.

Comparer: The comparer focuses on assessing the speaker and often loses the message in the process.

Derailer: Derailers quickly change the subject, making it clear that they’re not interested in what the speaker has to say. 

Sparrer: The sparrers of the world are those who can’t help but heckle, automatically belittling or discounting whatever someone else says without giving it due consideration.

Placater: Finally, people who agree with everything they hear just to be nice are placaters. Although they may seem to be listening, they are just as likely to be parroting back affirmations without registering a word.

Wired to Talk

Exceptional listening skills don’t come naturally to most people. There are a number of reasons why this might be true.

  • From an early age we’re wired to seek attention from family, at school and eventually in the workplace. Being a good listener doesn’t scream “notice me!” So it’s not surprising that most people don’t spend a lot of time cultivating their listening skills.
  • While verbal communication skills are often listed as a desired trait in job advertisements, strong listening skills seldom appear except in very specific job categories, such as counseling.
  • People seldom win awards, get promoted or receive recognition for being excellent listeners. Exceptional speakers, on the other hand, have been known to experience all of the above.

One other reason that Susan de la Vergne explores in her article, We're Terrible Listeners—And Here's Why, is our tendency to allocate greater importance to ourselves than to others.  In her words:

“We think we’re more important than our colleagues and associates. We’re more important than people we don’t know. We’re more important than our boss, than the barista who makes our morning latte, the admin assistant in our department, or the security guy who roams the parking lot. We’re more important.”

She goes on to say that this is not an expression of ego-mania, but rather “a very normal, everyday way of being in the world” and offers multiple examples of how this natural tendency plays out in daily interactions. Her remedy for overcoming our bad listening personas and habits? Simply taking the time to think about and acknowledge that the person speaking is just as important as we are. And if that doesn’t work for you, try cultivating these active listening habits.  

 

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