We’ve all had the experience of not being listened to, just as we’ve all tuned out while others are speaking to us. When listening doesn’t happen, not only can it result in mishaps, mistakes, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, but it hurts. It doesn’t matter if it’s between a parent and child, a married couple, friends, or colleagues, the experience of not being heard is painful.

I recommend that you work hard at what I call earnest listening and apply it every day at work and at play. You’ll see a real difference in how others respond to you.


Strategies for earnest listening

  • Listen actively –  Use your imagination to build up a picture of what is being said. If you have difficulty understanding what the other person means, explain your difficulty and ask for more information.
  • Listen to understand –  The word for this is ‘empathy’. It means  putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to seeing their point of view. Be aware of their words, expressions, gestures, and tone of voice.
  • Listen critically –  Critical listeners deal in facts. They try to be clear about the motive of the other person, separate fact from fiction, and know when relevant information is being left out. Also be aware of your own feelings towards the other person, as well as the topic being spoken about, in order to avoid interference with your own biases.
  • Concentrate –  Communication can be affected by the time of day, the weather, and a range of other factors that can be distracting. This includes the speed at which our mind processes information compared with the rate of speech.
  • Avoid assumptions   We all have our likes and dislikes regarding other people, ideas, and events in the world. It’s easy to draw on our own past experiences and prejudge a person. Or we might decide we know what they are going to say before we hear them say it!  Be patient and listen carefully.
  • Avoid interrupting and dominating –  We all have a need to be heard and recognised. We need to be aware that some people do not speak as freely, so we should be careful not to take over the conversation. Encourage the other person to speak.
  • Apply your learning –  Every day presents an opportunity to practise your skills.

Barriers to earnest listening

There are a number of specific behaviour patterns that present barriers to earnest listening.

  • Subject changing –  This occurs when a listener feels bored or threatened by what the speaker is saying.
  • Identifying –  This is similar to subject changing: the listener throws the speaker off by relating everything back to the listener’s own experiences, which they insist on recounting in detail.
  • Just gimme the facts (JGTF) –  This occurs when the listener feels that anything non-factual is thus fictitious, and thereby fails to detect feelings, values, implicit meanings, and non-verbal behaviour, which may confirm or contradict facts expressed in words.
  •  reading –  This is the direct opposite of JGTF. It occurs when the listener attempts to read too much meaning into feelings, values, implicit meanings and non-verbal cues in a misguided attempt to detect what the speaker is ‘really saying’, ignoring plain facts and clear words.
  • Open nerves –  They cause many people to lose their cool and objectivity and become extremely sensitive when certain topics are broached.
  • Stereotyping –  This is similar to open nerves, and happens when the listener takes exception to the speaker’s mannerism, clothing, approach, and any factors that do not have much to do with the conversation.
  • Quick fix – This is a tendency to provide solutions to everyone’s problem. Quick fixers think they can detect a speaker’s problem after only a few words or sentences have been uttered — at which point they cut the speaker off and give them a detailed program of what to do next.