Saturday, 1 June 2013

Q19: How would you approach someone who doesn't want to hear what you're trying to say?

Following last month's post on 'how to criticise your boss', one reader wrote to ask what to do if our boss just refuses to listen. Since this could happen with anyone, let's start there - and then cover a few 'extras' for your boss.  

Examples ...

In these true examples, I have every confidence the person who started the conversation did so with respect, clarity and kindness. And yet it seems the other person was unable to hear or understand. Why not?   

An 'overly helpful' mother
A friend of mine was telling me how difficult he found it when his mum came into his flat when he was out - even when her intention was to help him by doing his ironing. He wanted privacy and autonomy, even more than he wanted ironed shirts (besides, he added, he likes ironing!). However much he acknowledged all her good intentions, he didn't feel his mum understood his perspective. In fact, she was pretty upset that he'd raised the issue.  

An 'inconsiderate' colleague
A busy project manager asked a close colleague for a quick chat to sort out a stressful supply issue before the Easter break. But despite a series of increasingly desperate messages begging him to be in touch, her colleague went away without returning the calls, leaving her unsettled and angry, and - given the consideration she felt she'd shown towards him - hurt.   

Checklist: reasons we may not hear another person (and vice versa)

Here are some reasons the mother and the colleague may have found it hard to listen - or why we might struggle ourselves, if we were in a similar situation.   

Try thinking of your own example - 
a time you didn't want to listen to somebody!

1.    My own needs are unmet
My own needs are not met, heard or acknowledged, which leaves me feeling uncomfortable, stressed, unhappy or annoyed. I'm too full up with my concerns to hear yours.

2.    Either/or
The deep-seated view that 'it's either you or me' - if one of us gets our needs met, the other one won't; if you meet your needs, it will be at my expense.

3.   Being over-responsive
Believing that I need to meet the other person's needs - the view that if I hear your needs, I must be responsible for meeting them (and so give up on my own).

4.   Over-focus on my own needs 
My own needs are so pressing that I do not, or cannot at that moment, see or acknowledge a particular person's needs. NB: my needs include my wish to meet other people's needs (to serve my family, clients, team or organisation).

5.   Judging needs as unimportant
I don't recognise or value certain needs in certain situations, and believe them to be unimportant. I inwardly dismiss or discount them. (I may do this to myself too!)

6.   Believing judgements are deserved 
I'm irritated or angry, and believe the other person deserves my reaction. Since I believe they are to blame, they must put up with the consequences.

Reaching an impasse

So there are serious reasons we may not hear what another person is really telling us. 

  • Perhaps the mother is upset because she wants to express her love and care, to feel valued and wanted. If she believes that going along with her son's wishes is at the expense of her own needs, no wonder she won't want to hear him (Points 1, 2 or 3).
  • Perhaps the colleague who goes away can't relate to the project manager's concerns because of the stress he's under. He may even judge her request negatively ('unnecessary', 'incompetent', 'controlling'). Or in his exasperation, he feels it's all her fault, and she 'deserves' to wait for his reply (Points 4, 5 or 6).

How to move forward?

I find a good rule of thumb is (as in my last post):  
There's no point speaking if the other person cannot hear

So I try to work out what's stopping the other person hearing me. I may reflect by myself. Or I may ask them directly about their needs. If I can be genuinely curious and honestly ignorant, then I can ask without hidden judgements causing problems in the communication.    

For example:

  • To the mother: "Are you worried that if I ask you not to iron for me, that I won't appreciate you? That I won't see how much you love and care for me?"
  • To the colleague (when he finally returns!): "Did you have a huge amount on your plate before you left?" Or, "Were you thinking this issue wasn't really your concern?"

This is how my friend responded to his mum. While she wasn't able to really hold a conversation about her feelings, she quickly calmed down, and immediately suggested a solution he liked (i.e. if she wanted to help him out, they could do the housework together!). 

The key is to consider what's getting in the way of someone hearing you - and then find your way forward from there.  

No guarantees

We can't ever guarantee that another person will listen to us, but when we try to understand them we introduce a magical new ingredient into the communication: we create connection. We see them as a whole person again - with their faults and good points together.  

Postscript - if it's your boss!

In some situations, especially professional ones, we may need to get our message across whether the other person is prepared to listen or not. If you can see you've truly reached an impasse, hold onto what matters. You may need to call on external support so that this person (your boss, perhaps) can gain a wider perspective - one that includes you and your needs. 

By Elizabeth English
with Peter Kuklis

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