This is the third article in my series on better listening. To catch up and see why I started this series, read Are You Listening to Me? 7 Tips to becoming a good listener and Want Better Relationships, Then Listen Up.
In a way, the importance of listening hardly needs explaining. No one can live in this modern world and not understand the need to communicate with others. It is not the importance of listening that really requires stressing; it is the misconception that listening is easy and happens by default.
Human beings are social creatures. Not only is communication unavoidable, it is truly desirable. We crave interaction as a means of enlivening our time on this earth, and because it keeps us (relatively) sane. It allows us to express our emotions – our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows – and share them with other people who we think may be interested, or who may be able to help us make sense of them. But when we speak, there has to be someone listening for it to have any point.
The first barrier to active listening is simply not realizing that it isn’t taking place. Most of us can get through life perfectly adequately without developing our listening skills, mostly because we fail to classify listening as a skill to start with, and because most everyone else is in the same state of ignorance. It is very easy to then delude yourself into thinking that listening just involves allowing another person to speak in your presence. Even when you are the one talking and faced with a lousy listener, it still may not dawn that you are every bit as bad at listening as they are. It is only when faced with a truly gifted listener – one who actively listens – that we may become aware of how lacking we are by comparison.
The possible result of actively listening to another person may be that you become embroiled in their situation in some way. People who share problems often do so because they are seeking advice, but they may also want the listener to become more deeply involved. Where this is obvious from the outset, you may be reluctant to become implicated and may therefore willfully fail to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear.
Bias and prejudice
Y0ur personal interpretation of what you are hearing may cause them to respond negatively to the speaker. You may either assume that you know the situation because they have been faced with similar in the past, or you may allow their preconceptions to color the way you respond. In the first case, the you may not properly listen to the facts because you already think you know the full story. This means you might belittle the problem or offer a response that does not meet the needs of the listener. In the second case, you judge the speaker negatively because the speaker’s opinions or beliefs run counter to your own.
You may simply not be interested in what the speaker is saying. This may be because you find the subject dull, because you feel it is too far beyond your experience to comment on, or because your lack of knowledge causes you to dismiss the severity of the problem. All these can cause you to turn off your listening ears to a certain extent.
Status of the Speaker
Your opinion of the speaker, as a person, may influence the extent to which you are happy to pay attention and give your time. This may be based on simple likes and dislike, or on status. The former situation may cause you to hang on every word or positively resent the imposition. The latter situation may also produce these same results: the thoughts of a low status speaker may be deemed unworthy, and those of a high status individual may provoke rapt attention because you feel honored to have been included or consulted.
As you see, there are several barriers that may prevent us from listening. Our job is to know what they are and deal with them when they come up. The way I see it, if there it is something that someone is saying that I have tried to be interested, but am not, I am not going to pretend that I am. I will subtly let the speaker know that I am not interested through tone and body language–which they will probably detect anyway; however, if the message isn’t clear, I would politely let them know that I am not interested so as to not waste either their time or mine.
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