Q2: ‘Why don’t people listen to me, even though I listen to them?’
Highlights in brief:
- The other person may not feel fully heard. Try checking your intention: are you wanting something back as you listen? This may prevent the other person feeling you have really understood
- We sometimes bring a framework into our listening of it’s-either-you-or-me, which makes it harder for both of us to trust each other
- You have needs of your own to meet–and you may need to build your own resources first. A calm inner confidence that your points are valid and valuable will help you re-connect, and build trust that other person can listen
Read our full reply below and enter your thoughts on our interactive blog.
Susan S writes:
‘Here’s a situation I often find myself in. I say something that’s important to me and the other person misinterprets it. They get upset and so I work hard on my communication and they feed back that they feel heard and understood. I’m relieved, but I don’t feel satisfied that my original point has been heard and responded to. I feel it would be too much now to try to make it again. The consequence of my giving up at this point is a loss of connection from my side – but a part of me would rather do this than go back over the whole thing again.’
It sounds as if you’re doing your best to regain a good connection with the person you’re talking with. Even though that person hasn’t understood you in the way you’d like, you’ve been prepared to take the initiative and look for ways to engage. This is no mean feat! You’ve also started looking at what’s going on for you. It’s good to stop and give yourself credit for what you have achieved.
And yet you don’t feel at ease. You know you’re not fully in connection with the other person, because if you were, it would be easy for you to tell them your side. There’s a reciprocal trust that emerges naturally from being in a good connection, and when that’s in place, people are happy to listen to each other. And so far, it seems that this is still missing.
Checking our intention
So perhaps it’s worth looking at your intentions as you talk with that person. This is what underlies how you listen as you enter into a dialogue. It carries a curious paradox.
Although we instinctively know that a good connection will build mutuality and trust, we need to listen without wanting any particular outcome. For connection to really re-establish, our listening and understanding has to be open-ended, and freely given. It’s very easy for us to listen as a subtle strategy to gain airspace and understanding for ourselves. Deep down, we want to have ‘our turn’ after they have had theirs. Sometimes when we listen, we are already preparing our own replies in our head, maybe even arming ourselves with reasons to disagree. If so, our attention is not fully with the other person, and inside ourselves we have moved back to our own ground (our ‘own mountain’), even though we are outwardly trying to listen.
Because we often want things to be fair, we may also have an entrenched idea that, ‘if I meet your needs, then you’ll meet mine’. That is, that if we listen to them, then they just ought to listen back!
If we have these attitudes, even slightly, then we carry our own agenda into the listening, and we’re likely to suffer. That’s because we’re still working within a dualistic framework: it’s-either-you-or-me. This deep attitude carries a seed of conflict at its core, and it’s tiring and dispiriting to keep going within it. So no wonder you feel like giving up! And no wonder you sense that there’ll be more conflict if you go back there. But there is hope.
Building our resources for listening
Magically, when we listen with real openness, the either-or framework begins to dissolve. Then, communication and connection becomes easier and more straight forward. But what if we’re not ready to listen openly? What if we’re still determined to have our say, or upset because we can’t find a voice?
This means we still have unmet needs of our own to process. Perhaps it’s a need for understanding, recognition or respect. We probably want people to know that our points are valid and valuable. We would like others to acknowledge them at least, even if they don’t fully agree. How can we find a way to do this?
Our needs are met most fully when they are met in and by ourselves. That is, with our own attention, empathy and understanding. To do this, we may need to spend time allowing space for those parts of us that need acknowledgement, that may be feeling cross or anxious or ruffled about the direction of the conversation. The surprising thing is: we don’t have to to this with the actual person we want to hear our points. We can do it just inside ourselves, or by chatting it over with a friend who can really empathise and understand us. This allows our ruffled parts to settle, and gradually we build our resources and resilience.
Alternatively, if we already in mid-flow in a conversation, we can acknowledge our inner attitudes as they pop up in us, mentally ‘tucking them under our wing’. We might silently reassure ourself that we will come back to them later – perhaps later in the conversation itself. This makes us much more resourceful as a listener, because we’re able to include whatever is present in the conversation, whether it’s ‘yours’ or ‘mine’. Until our own needs are being cared for in this way, it is hard for us to fully hear another person, or for them to hear us.
So full listening moves beyond the either-or paradigm into a place where we can simply understand what the other person is saying, without any other agenda (such as them understanding us back).
We can tell when we are doing this, because we find we really do see their point of view. We see it on their terms, from their own perspective. We can truly get, ‘So that’s what you mean!’ – ‘So that’s what you want!’ And for now, we don’t need to answer back. We realise this is just how it is.
Once real understanding is present, it seems to affect everyone positively – you included! In fully welcoming in the other person’s perspectives, it becomes easier to trust that our perspective is welcome also.
Then new directions will open up. You may find that what you want to say in reply changes. Perhaps you won’t mind so much whether they hear your points or not. Or if you still want to share them (and you’ll have much more choice about that), then the whole atmosphere will have shifted. You won’t need to fear that what you say will be hotly rejected (or if it is, you can meet that resourcefully too). At this point, you’ll naturally speak with calm and confidence – and it’s likely that the other person will be happy and willing to hear you.