Thursday, 30 June 2011

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.’

Dear Susan,
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.

Beyond either-or 
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. 


  1. Hi Locana,

 Great blog. Looking good. Very useful and insightful. Keep 'em coming!

  2. Brilliant! Will it be in your book? I wonder what Susan S herself thinks...?

  3. Well – I must say this answer is very helpful indeed. It had not occurred to me that it was the quality of my listening that could change even further! I have been using the listening as a strategy for calming the other person down. No wonder I feel nervous at the end of it as if its a very fragile truce. I have peace but its cost me a feeling of genuine connection from my side. My background thinking (the ‘jackal’) is still hovering there anxiously checking that everything is all right and making judgements about whether it has got what it wants or not…

    You say: ‘It’s very easy for us to listen as a strategy to gain understanding ourselves.’
–Or for ease–calming things down–improving a tense and uncomfortable situation.

You say: ‘We want to have ‘our turn’ after they have had theirs.’ 
–Yes– that is what comes up after I have done the calming things down bit, but I am still afraid that its all going to blow up again. I would like my turn but I hold back because I probably know at some level I have only got so far with the listening. It’s not an open-ended listening, it’s listening to get the ease I want rather than absolutely opening out into their world completely. 

You say: ‘Or we bring an idea that, ‘if I meet your needs, you’ll meet mine’... If we have these attitudes, even slightly, then we carry our own agenda into the listening, and we’re likely to suffer.’ 
– I am taking note of that 'even slightly'. Yes, however much I try to disguise it, it is slightly there. A background thought inside me is saying 'just be satisfied with peace and quiet, don’t even hope for more, because it will only cause trouble'. So if that is going on quietly in the background it must be having an effect in terms of cutting off the connection. 

    You say: ‘Building our resources for listening’
 – I think this is the part that I need more help with. When I try to do this on my own I don’t seem to be able to keep it 'clean'–it drifts into some kind of overdrive. I am trying too hard somehow and don’t know how and when to just let be. Then it feels like self-indulgence which I know goes nowhere and so I revert to old patterns that are a whole lot better than self-indulgence but still are not conducive to connecting more deeply.

    You say: ‘We might silently reassure ourself that we will come back to them later.’ 
– I cannot reassure myself in this way as long as I am a bit stuck on the above can I? Have you some more tips for that?

    You say: ‘We're able to include everything that’s present…’ 
– I am sure that is right. You mean empathy, I think? So what I need to do now is find a way of listening to myself more empathetically. I find I slip too easily into sympathy for myself instead of empathy–and of course that is what I do when I am listening to others.

    Can you give me some tips on how to make that distinction more readily, the distinction between sympathy and empathy?

  4. Dear Susan: I’m glad my answer was helpful. I’m struck by a lot in your reply–particularly your expression, ‘a fragile truce’. I can relate to this myself. I may have ‘calmed something down’ by my listening, but it isn’t complete because I know all my buttons are still pressed, and might go off at any moment. And I also get the impression the other person knows this, so they are not completely calm or reassured either.

    You ask for some more tips on how to deal with this. Especially: how can we empathise with ourselves effectively, so that it doesn’t become ‘self-indulgence’. Naturally, you don’t want to focus within only to find yourself going over and over the situation in your mind, and feeling worse as a result. And yet it's quite easy for this to happen, I know. Then you raise the question of the difference between empathy and sympathy. These are such juicy topics they deserve a whole blog to themselves. So I'll respond to them shortly in a future post.

  5. I find this valuable. I told one of our group to read it as it related to a live issue for them.

  6. There's lots I loved about this– it's clear, gets to the heart of the issue, seems like a clear distillation of the heart of the Nonviolent Communication. I thought you wrote v. compassionately and sensitively. I've printed it off to refer to again, as I thought somehow it held the central NVC wisdom. 

And, thinking of Susan reading this, my heart does kind of sink, and I'm not sure why. I have the sense that if it was me with that question, I'd read your reply and just want to give up. I think it is something like: Here’s your reader, trying to say something, trying really hard, never getting their turn, putting the other person first, and then the advice is that they have to become even more saint like. (I know that's not what you're really saying, but that's sort of how I heard it). 

I'm wondering about more affirmation that their needs really matter too, and whether there is unresolved anger and frustration, which could explain why the conversation goes off the rails in the first place, and the other person kicks off in response–like they need the transformed energy of that anger to value themselves?

  7. Hi Ruth: Yes, I can see where you’re coming from. And I agree with what you say near the end: Susan is feeling upset, which is why she isn’t able to listen fully to the other person, precisely because her own needs are important and need attention too. 

You wonder whether there is ‘unresolved anger and frustration’ in the conversation to begin with. If there is, then this would be a sign that there is already some disconnection. When we’re disconnected from another person (or people), we aren’t likely to hear or be heard on the level of what really matters to us. Nor can we move successfully into action. My experience is that connection can be restored quite quickly, and problems resolve, when there is genuine understanding on both sides. The sort of high-quality listening which leads to mutual understanding is what I’m trying to get at in my reply. Once we have this in place, it naturally leads to finding a way forward with the practical content of the conversation. (Of course, not everybody wants to have that sort of conversation, but that’s a different matter.)

  8. I read your recent answer and...found it very helpful. There was a lot in it that is relevant to something that happened to me recently. I think in my issue, something in me had gone into defence-mode and wanted to protect me, which meant saying nothing because it could be inflammatory and then withdrawing (which is what I did, but then felt dissatisfied!) or showing the other person just how furious I was. Anyway, I very much appreciated your answer, and I really hope that you continue.

  9. I read your recent answer and found it very helpful. There was a lot in it that is relevant to something that happened to me recently. I think in my issue, something in me had gone into defence-mode and wanted to protect me, which meant saying nothing because it could be inflammatory and then withdrawing (which is what I did, but then felt dissatisfied!) or showing the other person just how furious I was. Anyway, I very much appreciated your answer, and I really hope that you continue.

  10. Dear Lesley, 
I’d like to pick up on this theme in a future Communication Tip, as I think there’s so much to say on the question of strong emotions. Would you like to email me a little more about your question?