There are twelve blocks to listening. You will find that some are old favorites that you use over and over. Others are held in reserve for certain types of people or situations. Everyone uses listening blocks, so you should not worry if a lot of blocks are familiar. This is an opportunity to become more aware of your blocks at the time you actually use them.
Comparing makes it hard to listen because you are always trying to assess who is smarter, more competent, and more emotionally healthy – whether it is you or the other person. Some people focus on who has suffered more, who is a bigger victim. While someone is talking, you think to yourself: “Could I do it that well? Hey, my kids are so much brighter.” You cannot let much in because you are too busy seeing if you measure up.
2. Mind Reading
The mind reader does not pay much attention to what people say. In fact, he often distrusts it. He is trying to figure out what the other person is really thinking and feeling. “She says she wants to go to the show, but I’ll bet she is tired and wants to relax. She might be resentful if I pushed her when she doesn’t want to go.” The mind reader pays less attention to words than to intonations and subtle cues in an effort to see through to the truth.
If you are a mind reader, you probably make assumptions about how people react to you.
“I bet he is looking at my lousy skin … She thinks I’m stupid … She is turned off by my shyness.” These notions are born of intuition, hunches, and vague misgivings, but have little to do with what the person actually says to you.
You do not have time to listen when you are rehearsing what to say. Your whole attention is on the preparation and crafting of your next comment. You have to look interested, but your mind is going a mile a minute because you have got a story to tell, or a point to make. Some people rehearse whole chains of responses: “First I will say, then he will say, then I will say,” and so on.
When you filter, you listen to some things and not to others. You pay only enough attention to see if somebody’s angry, or unhappy, or if you are in emotional danger. Once assured that the communication contains none of those things, you let your mind wander. One woman listens just enough to her son to learn whether he is fighting again at school. Relieved to hear he is not, she begins thinking about her shopping list. A young man quickly ascertains what kind of mood his girlfriend is in. If she seems happy as she describes her day, his thoughts begin wandering.
Another way people filter is simply to avoid hearing certain things–particularly anything
threatening, negative, critical, or unpleasant. It is as if the words were never said: You simply have no memory of them.
Negative labels have enormous power. If you prejudge someone as stupid or nuts or unqualified, you do not pay much attention to what they say. You have already written them off. Hastily judging a statement as immoral, hypocritical, fascist, or crazy means you have ceased to listen and have begun a “knee-jerk” reaction. A basic rule of listening is that judgments should only be made after you have heard and evaluated the content of the message.
You are half-listening, and something the person says suddenly triggers a chain of private
associations. Your neighbor says she’s been laid off, and in a flash you are back to the scene where you got fired for playing hearts on those long coffee breaks. Hearts is a great game, and there have been many great nights of playing the game. And you are gone, only to return a few minutes later as your neighbor says, “I knew you would understand, but please do no tell my husband.”
You are more prone to dreaming when you feel bored or anxious. Everyone dreams – and you sometimes need to make Herculean efforts to stay tuned in. But if you dream a lot with certain people, it may indicate a lack of commitment to knowing or appreciating them. At the very least, it is a statement that you do not value what they have to say very much.
In this block, you take everything a person tells you and refer it back to your own experience. They want to tell you about a toothache, but that reminds you of the time you had oral surgery for receding gums. You launch into your story before they can finish theirs. Everything you hear reminds you of something that you have felt, done, or suffered. You are so busy with these exciting tales of your life that there is no time to really hear or get to know the other person.
You are the great problem-solver, ready with help and suggestions. You do not have to hear more than a few sentences before you begin searching for the right advice. However, while you are cooking up suggestions and convincing someone to “just try it,” you may miss what is most important. You did not hear the feelings, and you did not acknowledge the person’s pain. He or she still feels basically alone because you could not listen and just be there.
This block has you arguing and debating with people. 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. Look for one thing you might agree with.
One subtype of sparring is the put-down. You use acerbic or sarcastic remarks to dismiss the other person’s point of view. For example, sally starts telling Joe about her problems in an English class. Joe says: “When are you going to be smart enough to drop that class?” Jake is feeling overwhelmed with the noise from the TV. When he tells Rebecca, she says, “Oh please, not the TV routine again.” The put-down is the standard block to listening in many marriages. It quickly pushes the communication into stereotyped patterns where each person repeats a familiar hostile litany.
A second type of sparring is discounting. Discounting is for people who cannot stand compliments. “Oh, I did not do anything…What do you mean, I was totally lame… It is nice of you to say, but it is really a very poor attempt.” The basic technique of discounting is to run yourself down when you get a compliment. The other person never feels satisfied that you really heard his appreciation. And he is right, you did not.
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.
This listening block is accomplished by suddenly changing the subject. You derail the train of conversation when you get bored or uncomfortable with a topic. Another way of derailing is by joking it off. This means that you continually respond to whatever is said with a joke or quip in order to avoid the discomfort or anxiety in seriously listening to the other person.
“Right – Right … Absolutely … I know … Of course, you are … Incredible … Yes … Really?” You want to be nice, pleasant, and supportive. You want people to like you – so you agree with everything. You may half-listen just enough to get the drift, but you are not really involved. You are placating rather than tuning in and examining what is actually being said.