We are all guilty of not listening to what others say. Sometimes we tune out because we are trying to do something else like watch TV, but other times we don’t listen because something about what is being said results in rejection of the message, or sometimes it is because we are lousy listeners. To be a good listener, one needs to focus, practice, and become an active listener.

So, what are ten quick reasons we don’t listen closely?

  1. You have already decided the person or message is wrong; hence, you are less interested in understanding the point of view being expressed.
  2. If there is a problem, you believe the problem is the other person or group’s fault. You are already invested in the “blame-game.”
  3. You have decided your point of view is being unheard, and that the speaker is insensitive and selfish; hence, you are predisposed to reject anything said.
  4. You are unaware of how your own behavior may be rude, insensitive, superior, or dogmatic, so your stance triggers a similar response in the speaker.
  5. You are so defensive about your own beliefs that you immediately need to defend your own position rather than listen to another.
  6. You resent being given what looks like instructions, directives, or supervision. Hence, you reject information that appears to be controlling and domineering to you, so you jump to defend yourself or your views.
  7. You feel “entitled” to better treatment (perhaps due to past poor experiences), so you assume any alternative view is prejudiced, and it negates your ability to understand another person’s behavior.
  8. You believe what you have to say is “more important”; thus, you lack interest in what others are saying or thinking. This produces a major barrier to listening.
  9. You are afraid that others are trying to “manipulate” you if you listen to them.
  10. You tend to think any sharing of information about a problem is a request for you to solve the problem; hence, you jump to trying to solve the problem before you really understand it. Sometimes people just want to vent.

What might one do to become a better listener?

  1. Shut up and listen.
  2. Stop worrying about what you want to say and how to say it. Try rephrasing what is being told to you, so you indicate you are actively trying to listen?
  3. Be open and honest, even if it makes you vulnerable.
  4. Be aware of nonverbal communication ticks that show a listening attitude to the speaker. Give eye contact, stand closer enough to show interest but not so close as to intrude on the person speaking to you, avoid folding your arms into a defensive posture, and use moderate and not loud tones in response.
  5. Avoid extraneous statements that veer the subject away from what the speaker is trying to discuss. Not everything is an invitation to an argument.

As a member of a test group I was once asked to participate in a series of lectures given by volunteers. We were told to listen attentively with lots of eye contact and body posture involvement. Then on a signal we were told to stop doing so. After a very short time the speaker became less animated, returned to a passive stance behind their podium, and generally reacted badly when the audience was not “involved.” Later many of us testified it was difficult to turn off active listening when we had previously established a rapport with the lecturer.

Now that you have heard a message, how do you respond?   Many people tend to value intuitive or “gut” decision responses. One decides immediately the message received is right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, wise or stupid, or perhaps insulting and threatening.   Such a decision making method may be indeed appropriate, but there are other circumstances where it may reflect triggers due to unfortunate prejudices, social conditioning, or emotions. Before one routinely uses the “gut feeling” method approach, it is worthwhile to understand what produces it.

  • Some responses are associated with evolved instincts such as fear of loud noises, fear of fire, and fear of predators. A quick response may indeed be appropriate.
  • Intuition generated emotional responses to information delivered with a smile, anger, sadness, or fear may be distorted, inappropriate, and even counterproductive.   Fear generated responses may be particularly dangerous, since one may have completely misinterpreted a message and over react.
  • Sometimes instincts are actually learned responses based on experience. The effectiveness of the response may depend on the quality of the learning experience. A person who has been previously scammed or phished on the internet, would be very wise to react cautiously in similar future situations.
  • Societal conditioning can be either good or bad. Telling a child to beware of strangers may be good protection for the child, but rude and unnecessary as an adult. On the other hand racial biases which produce automatic distrust and suggests that “all xxxxx are inherently dishonest” can frequently lead to very bad decisions.
  • Some instinctual responses are associated with prior life experiences involving odors, tastes, and even sounds. When such associations are triggered by childhood experiences it is very difficult to decide whether a “gut reaction” is rational or irrational.

Thus, “gut” decision making may be a hodgepodge of various brain activities. It is not at all obvious that such systems will result in optimal decision making. “Fight or flight” instincts are not good ways to make investment or political decisions, and a person with an emotional disorder cannot be expected to have an accurate understanding of reality. Finally, trusting “intuition” may be the result of selective memory where you remember when a hunch paid off but discount the other cases, (say when you bet on horses at the race track.)

Finally, it is worth mentioning Richard H. Thaler who was granted the 2017 Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics in October. Using economics as a platform he determined that most people do not act entirely rationally. Despite the obvious advantage to thoughtful investments over time, most people tend to make individual decisions which given them short-term satisfaction.   This is true whether one considers population choices in politics, health care, education, family planning, or recreation.   Or as Professor Richard Altemeyer, University of Manitoba, put it….most people are information adverse if new data do not agree with their prior preferences.

NOTE: Ideas extracted from suggestions found by John M. Grohol at the PsychCentral internet site about listening and responding.

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