Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do You Listen as Well as You Think You Actually Listen?

Often we think we are listening to someone, only to find out that we missed what they said. Either we were busy listening instead to the voices in our head, or we've become distracted by whatever is happening around us. When people ask how they can have better relationships with others, the first thing I point them to is active listening. What is the difference between listening and active listening? When you are "actively" listening, you are attending to what the other person is saying by silencing the voices in your head, paying attention to their verbal and nonverbal actions, and reflecting back what the other person is saying. The key to active listening is recognizing that there are blocks that prevent us from staying in the moment and paying attention to what the person is saying right in front of us. That is half the battle--knowing and acknowledging that there are these listening blocks. Once you understand what these blocks are--when you find them happening to you as you are trying to listen to someone, you can then choose to turn them off, and re-focus your attention on what the person in front of you is saying....verbally and non-verbally.
By the way, did you know that we gather most of our information from nonverbal cues, not verbal? That’s an interesting fact in light of how much time we spend on social media sites, and not interacting face-to-face with one another. (This is why I love SKYPE!) That's why it is so hard sometimes when we are using social media sites/texts/emails to pick up on the conversational tone of someone's posts!

Later on we can explore one by one how we can switch the listening blocks off, so we can become more effective listeners. First let's read about the listening blocks themselves!
For now though here are the twelve most common listening blocks (these blocks are commonly taught, and are also summarized at the above link):

1. Comparing
When you compare--it is hard to hear what the other person is saying, because you are busy seeing if you are smarter, more competent, more healthy emotionally, if you've suffered more, or if you're a bigger victim...An example of this is: "She said she ate that for breakfast, well I only ate an apple, and I'm so much thinner than her..."

2. Mind Reading
It is difficult to pay attention to what other people are saying when you are instead busy trying to figure out what the other person is "really" thinking or feeling. If you do this, then you may assume things without fully listening to the facts. You may also make assumptions about how other people react to you, and act on the assumptions, rather than what the person is saying. For example, "She said she hates it when her son's friend comes over to play, but does she really hate the kid, or does she dislike not being able to walk around in her pajamas?"

3. Rehearsing
When you rehearse what you are going to say after the person finishes talking, then your attention is on preparing and developing what you are going to say, rather than what the other person is saying to you. For example: You attempt to look interested, but inside your head your wheels are turning about, "first I'm going to say this, then she'll say this, then I'm going to say that..."

4. Filtering
You pay attention only enough to pick up on the other person's emotional state, and once you've identified that--you let your mind wander to other things. You listen to some things, and not others. Sometimes you're so good at this--that you block out anything negative or unpleasant--it's as if it never happened. Such as: Your girlfriend calls you up because she is pissed off again that someone cut her off on the road, you ascertain she's angry--let her rant--and think about what you are going to make for dinner. Or, your partner is talking about finances and you hear agitation in your partner's voice, so you decide to say "mm-hmm, I'm sorry" and think about when you can change the tire on your mountain bike.

5. Judging
When you judge, you afix a negative label to something, giving enormous power to a prejudice, which causes a "knee-jerk" reaction before you have actually heard and evaluated the content of the message. As judging pertains to listening, we should only make a judgment after the facts have been heard. For example: Someone driving a luxury car rolls down their window and asks you for money while you are pumping gas into your car. Before the window is even rolled down, you've already decided that the person is hypocritical and crazy to be peddling money. When, in fact, the person was asking for a few bucks so they could... (are you still passing judgment or listening to what the person was going to say? :o) )

6. Dreaming
While you are listening half-way, you hear the person talking to you say something..., and all of a sudden you're playing flashbacks in your head that have nothing to do with the conversation. We tend to daydream when we are either bored or anxious. We all do it, but if you find yourself daydreaming a lot with specific people, it may mean you are not appreciating them, committed to the relationship, and you do not value what they have to say. For example, Your mom is talking to you about going to the doctor for her asthma. Cheese and crackers would be great to serve when the neighbors come over to carve pumpkins. And the next thing you hear your mom say is: "thanks honey, I always knew I could count on you to tell me what to do."

7. Identifying
You take anything and everything a person is telling you, and refer it back to what has happened to you. Whatever they are saying reminds you of something that has happened to you, you've felt, or suffered through--and you are so busy busting into the conversation to tell your own story, before they've finished, that you neglect to hear or get to know the other person better. For example, a co-worker is talking about his broken toe, but this reminds you of when you stubbed your toe, and then your boyfriend stepped on it, and then your dog sat on it...

8. Advising
You love solving problems and are there to offer help and suggestions. Heck, you're so good, you don't even need to listen to the full story, how the person felt or what they were thinking. Instead you are thinking up solutions and how you can convince someone to "try it," before you've heard what is most important to them--and that could just be having someone listen to them re-tell their story, acknowledge their feelings, and just be there.

9. Sparring
This block has you arguing and debating with people. Consequently, the other person never feels heard, because you're so quick to disagree. In fact, a lot of your focus is on finding things to disagree with. You take strong stands, are very clear about your beliefs and preferences. The way to avoid sparring is to repeat back and acknowledge what you have heard. You could also find one thing they have said that you do agree with and start the conversation from there.
--The put-down is another form of sparring. When you do this you use sarcastic remarks as a way to dismiss the other person's point of view. Your wife is cleaning up the dishes and sighs. You say, "why don't you use your brain today, use the dishwasher so you can finish faster." You're feeling neglected, and want more of her attention, and you think this will help her finish up and pay attention to you. Her reply is, "Unlike you putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, I actually like the dishes to be clean when I unload the dishwasher so I don't have to spend more time washing them again!" These kinds of replies can push you into hostile retorts.
--Discounting is another form of sparring. You do this when you are unable to withstand or accept compliments. "Oh, making fondue from scratch was nothing really..." The other person will often feel run down or discouraged, because they are trying to show their appreciation, and you are not acknowledging their feeling of thanks.

10. Being Right
Being right means you will go to any lengths (twist the facts, start shouting, make excuses or accusations, call up past sins) to avoid being wrong. You cannot listen to criticism, you cannot be corrected, and you cannot take suggestions to change. Your convictions are unshakable. And since you will not acknowledge that your mistakes are mistakes, you just keep making them.

11. Derailing
You change the subject—either because you are uncomfortable or bored with the topic. It could be you want to avoid feeling anxious, so you’ll make jokes or quips, so that you don’t have to have a serious conversation.

12. Placating
You like it when people like you, so you agree with everything. You like to be seen as pleasant, supportive, nice. Sometimes you may say things like, “right…oh, absolutely, …I know…mm-hmm, of course….really?...Oh sure, I think that too…” Instead of tuning in and examining what is being said, you may listen half-way to get the drift, so you can placate, but never really get involved.


  1. Intelligent list. I would add #13, not observing your own listening habits. I've created an instrument that assesses a person's listening preferences to demonstrate the each of us takes different information from an interaction because we've spent a lifetime developing habits around what we listen to. If we can't be good observers of our own listening, how could we ever understand what another pays attention to?

  2. Could you tell us more about your instrument assessing listening preferences? I'm curious to take it myself! Thank you, as well, for #13. I found the same issue--that it's great to cover the blocks, but it is even better if you are able to identify your own listening blocks--so that you can take it one step further, and turn the blocks off when you find yourself not in the present moment with whomever you're talking to. Whenever I've taught listening blocks in the past, I usually have people write down how they've done each of the blocks in the past..., and then after going through the list--I ask them to circle their top blocks (i.e., the ones that jumped out at them during our first read-through, and the ones where they were able to think of many examples..)!


The Basic Ways We Change

There are three ways in which we can actively monitor ourselves so that we may change how we interact with our surroundings:

(1) Thoughts (cognitions)
(2) Feelings (emotions)
(3) Actions (behaviors)

When you are in traditional counseling sessions--the counselor uses a variety of theories that typically focus on one of these areas to help you make changes in your life. In the best case scenario the theory that the counselor is using is based on their training background/when they received their masters degree, as well as what the current trend is based upon research on the effectiveness of the theories in actual practice. However, we won't delve too deeply into theories and understanding methodology, because this site is educational and for you to understand more of how you work.

The activities that are posted and linked on this blog are to help give you immediate tools to begin actively reorganizing how you interact with your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

People that are aware that they can use their feelings and thoughts to influence their actions are able to control what happens to them. Novel idea? This is because they recognize that they can influence their outcomes based on identifying the emotions they are feeling, then choosing what thoughts they would like to focus on, and then putting it in to action.

Latest Research on the Impact of Marriage on Family Life

This week check out your skills on how much you know about how marriage impacts family life.

Learning Center & Blog Archive