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September 25, 2012

Here’s my take.  I think everybody, including myself, pretty much sucks at it!  Okay, this is said with a bit of tongue in cheek.  But if I get really honest–at least about my own skill level–there’s some truth here.

If my goal is to connect meaningfully with other human beings—and  personally my heart’s greatest desire seems to be just that—then I need to learn to listen in a whole new way.

I’m now picturing some of you scrambling to think of all the ways everyone else in your life sucks at listening.  My suggestion to each of us is that every time we read something here that makes us think of someone else, we bring our attention back to ourselves.  Because this weekend I realized that although I’m way better at it than I was ten years or five years or even a year ago, I still fall short when I’m triggered.  And that’s really the only time it matters!

It’s quite easy to be a good listener when there’s nothing on the line, nothing to defend.  The rubber hits the road when I’m being pushed or squeezed or even nudged outside of my comfort zone.  As soon as I feel even a twinge of discomfort my ears shut down and my mind takes over with a roaring voice that’s at times deafening.

When I’m triggered you become the enemy and my mind finds all the ways you’re wrong, especially when it’s very clear to me that you do exactly what you just accused me of.  I can’t begin to count the times when someone has challenged me with something and my only response is ‘well you do the same thing’ (picture tongue sticking out accompanied by a silent nah, nah, nah, nah).  And vice versa, when I’ve tried to express a concern or a desire for a different behavior, I’ve gotten the identical response.  When that happens I want to scream and pummel them into the ground!

Staying present with pain and discomfort when we’re triggered is HARD.  So we fight to avoid feeling what we’re feeling.  I’ll acknowledge that there may be someone reading this who has figured it out and doesn’t stick out their metaphorical tongue anymore.  If so, please write a book and I’ll be the first in line to buy it!  Or ask your family—they might poke a hole or two into the idea that you’ve arrived.  We all seem to fall into the same potholes, I don’t care how smart or emotionally mature we are.

So what’s the antidote?

Well here’s what I tried this weekend.  I was with someone who’s very important to me and I did something thoughtless.  Ultimately it devolved into a messy pool of ‘you did…’, but ‘I wouldn’t have if…’, all the way to ‘I’m outa here’!

We ended up working through it.  Here’s what I think kept me from running away screaming.  I remembered what I preach.  Instead of doing what came naturally, which would have been to tighten up, shut down or retaliate, I physically leaned in across the table and told myself to soften and open up.   I told myself to listen to what was behind this person’s words.  And it turned out there was a whole other world behind the words.  Lots going on that I’d never have heard about if I’d shut down or stayed on automatic pilot.  The frosting on the cake was that the moment I stopped defending myself, I was able to care again.

I don’t believe this is ‘the’ answer.  If it was it would already be in ‘the’ book on listening and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I do think it’s a way for me to connect more meaningfully with the people I care about.  I’d love to hear your comments on what you’ve figured out about effective listening.  Or what you’ve  discovered doesn’t work.  Often that can be the best starting place for change.


  1. Linda Hoag says:

    Hi, Thanks SO MUCH for this. Not listening has ALWAYS been my biggest downfall–I want to be a better listener, but too often, I just don’t conciously think of it, and then do it. Especially in the “heat of the moment” when I’m feeling wounded or challenged. Your comments have brought this back into focus for me, and my goal starting today will be to say to myself, as soon as a conversation starts, “LISTEN!”.I really think we have to make a very concious effort to do it.
    Your Seedlings are a regular place of thought-provoking ideas for me–keep them coming!

    • robyn1001 says:

      Hey Linda. You nailed it. It’s not that we don’t want to be good listeners, it’s that we fall back into automatic pilot. So your idea of setting an intention at the beginning of a conversation is a perfect way to practice being more in line with who we want to be. Thank you! Love, Robyn

  2. Alma says:

    Hello All,
    I agree and see myself (many times) in that situation. The hard part for me is: to listen to what was behind this person’s words. Not because I don’t want to but can’t seem to understand thru all the clutter what is underneath. So starting with ‘just listening’ to see if they can articulate the hidden gems is good enough in my process for now.

    • robyn1001 says:

      Hi Alma, You’re so right–it’s really hard to see/hear through all the clutter on the surface. I really appreciate the idea of ‘just listening’. Love, Robyn

  3. Mike says:

    It took me 30 years to not interrupt people when they talk and finally shut up and listen. Now I realize I can learn more from others and get different perspectives, rather than thinking I’ve got the only absolute solution.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Really liked this! I have always prided myself on my ability to listen well and believe that I try very hard to do that for my clients. However, for the first time in my life, I was told that I am a bad listener by no one else but my boyfriend! At first I of course was defensive and fought back but over time, I have come to realize that I probably do not listen well to him! I think I listen all day everyday to my clients and then I come home and I’m not sure I always give him what I should in regards to listening because I have to try harder to listen to him! Its not my job to listen to him! I think I come home after work and I want him to listen to me! Doenst seem fair does it?? Ever since that, I have worked much harder on being more attentive when he is talking and it has definitly helped the relationship.

    • robyn1001 says:

      Hey Steph! Loved this–you’re right–so not fair 🙂 I just realized that you’re sort of giving the boyfriend a double gift–at the get-go you really listened to him when he first gave you feedback. You could just as easily have shut down–it took courage to really hear him. Love, Robyn

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