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We’re Better at Not Listening Than We Think

November 11, 2018

Listening isn’t that complicated.  It’s just really hard.

We have such a powerful drive to be heard and to feel understood that it becomes almost impossible to listen to, much less understand, someone else.

At the same time, true listening is a skill we can sharpen with time and practice.

In order to crack the code we must first see how we get in our own way.


Non-listening comes in many forms.  With a burning red face I admit that I inhabit the body of each of these six true listening saboteurs, some more often than others:

The interrupter:

Interrupters finish your sentences, tell you what you mean, and then bring the conversation back to something that really interests them.  Usually themselves.  There is a superficiality to your interaction with them.  You might walk away feeling sort of diminished.

When I take on the persona of interrupter I leave feeling mildly anxious, empty, and guilty.

The One-upper:

The one-upper has lots in common with the interrupter.  They are chomping at the bit to tell you the really interesting story about themselves that is loosely related but somehow more dramatic or interesting than anything that’s going on with you.  There’s no transition from your story to theirs – they just jump into theirs when you take a breath.

When I adopt this posture it’s usually when I’m feeling insecure about myself.

The One-Downer:

The one-downer spends the entire visit with a sad look on their face and takes every opportunity to share their worst experiences.  It’s normal and healthy to share our uncomfortable feelings.  However, when they dominate every conversation, the ability to listen and be there for someone else can be impaired.

I don’t inhabit this one as often as some of the others, but if I do find myself whining about my own life for too long it does impair my ability to listen.

The Fixer:

The fixer sees every situation as a problem and is certain they have the solution.  The solution they offer is usually something that would work for them.  It doesn’t take into consideration that you are not them.  Nor do they ask what you’ve already tried.  They just jump in with everything they think they know about your situation, without actually knowing much of anything about you.

I fall into this one more often than I want to admit.  Enough said.

The Judger:

Judgments are preconceived notions that keep us from seeing clearly.  The judger makes up stories to go with their judgments of others.  The stories reflect who they are, not who we are.  Once they’ve got a story, they won’t hear a word you’re saying.

This is one of my greatest Achilles’ heels.  The problem isn’t that I judge — we all judge all the time — the problem is when I start taking my judgments seriously and create stories to back them up.  When I’m lost in this role my perspective is cloudy and distorted.

The No-Boundaries at all:

This non-listener can combine all of the above and move fluidly from one to the other.  They can be exhausting.  You’ll know them because you’ll feel sucked dry.

I know I’ve inhabited this one when I can’t remember anything my counterpart said.


Establish Boundaries:

Be clear about your boundaries.  Decide how long you’ll spend with someone who is difficult to listen to.  “I can stay for an hour”, or “I can spend 15 minutes on the phone”, or however long you think you can truly listen.  Set the stage with: “I am looking forward to hearing what you’ve been up to and sharing what’s been going on with me as well.”  Boundaries are for both of you.

Protect, Don’t Usurp:

Be a protector of others’ stories, not a usurper.  We all desperately want to be heard.  When you meet a good protector you know it.  While you are with them you feel like you are the only person in the room that matters.  You’ll know you’ve been a protector if you have learned something new about your companion.  You won’t wonder if you talked too much.   And you’ll probably feel more relaxed than usual during the conversation.

Ask Permission:

If you feel compelled to offer an opinion, ask permission.  “I’m having some thoughts about what you’re telling me, would you be interested in some feedback?”.  Whether it’s a yes or no, respect it 100%.  If you feel compelled to interrupt, ask permission.  Clarify confidentiality expectations.  Basically, ask permission until your friend tells you to stop asking for permission.

Let them finish:

When you notice that you’ve stopped listening and are simply waiting to share your own thoughts, drop the thoughts, come back to your companion’s story, and trust that you will have something to say when they’re done.  It will likely be more powerful or insightful than what you were going to blurt.

Be Open:

Even if you think you know what they’re going to say, or you think you know more, open to the possibility that they have something to teach you.  If not about the subject under discussion, maybe they have something to teach you about you.  If you’re with someone who is a considerate communicator, i.e. you know they won’t hijack the conversation, you can say: “Tell me more”, until you’re sure you have heard them completely.

Know your limits:

Sometimes you’re not going to be the best listener in the world because life has thrown too much stuff at you, or you haven’t slept well, or you have a cold.  Let your friend know that you’re not totally on your game.  You’ll be giving them an opportunity to practice their listening skills.

Stick to the basics:

The goal is to listen to every word they say, literally, even if they have to ramble a bit to get to the point, to find the gem of wisdom or the truth behind what they’re saying.

If improving listening skills is on your agenda, here are a few articles to check out:







I hope you’ll play with some of this information.  Remember that playing is the operative word.  No shaming, just learning and changing what we choose to change.  Can’t wait to hear what you think about it all, good, bad, or indifferent!!

Much love,


  1. Chris says:

    Thanks Robyn. This is so helpful. I printed it out to put on my wall to remind me. I appreciate that you took the time to so clearly articulate this!
    Your friend

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