From our conversation with Dr. Dani Smith, Chapman University Professor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, on June 29, 2020.
Here are twelve blocks to listening. You will find that some are old favorites that you use over and over. Others are held in reserve for certain types of people or situations. Everyone uses listening blocks, so you shouldn’t worry if a lot of blocks are familiar. This is an opportunity for you to become more aware of your blocks at the time you actually use them.
1. Comparing: Comparing makes it hard to listen because you’re always trying to assess who is smarter, more competent, more emotionally healthy – you or the other. Some people focus on who has suffered more, who’s a bigger victim. While someone’s talking, you think to yourself: “Could I do it that well? . . . I’ve had it harder, he doesn’t know what hard is . . . I earn more than that. . . My kids are some much brighter.” You can’t let much in because you’re busy seeing if you measure up.
2. Mind Reading: The mind reader doesn’t pay much attention to what people say. In fact, he often distrusts it. He’s trying to figure out what the other person is really thinking and feeling. “She says she wants to go to the show, but I’ll bet she’s tired and wants to relax. She might be resentful if I pushed her when she doesn’t want to go.” The mind reader pays less attention to words than to intonations and subtle cues in an effort to see through to the truth. If you are a mind reader, you probably make assumptions about how people react to you. “I bet he’s looking at my lousy skin . . . She thinks I’m stupid . . . She’s turned off by my shyness.” These notions are born of intuition, hunches, and vague misgivings, but have little to do with what the person actually says to you.
3. Rehearsing: You don’t have the time to listen when you’re rehearsing what to say. Your whole attention is on the preparation and crafting of your next comment. You have to look interested, but your mind is going a mile a minute because you’ve got a story to tell, or a point to make. Some people rehearse whole chains of responses: “I’ll say, then he’ll say, then I’ll say,” and so on.
4. Filtering when you filter, you listen to some things and not to others. You pay only enough attention to see if somebody’s angry, or unhappy, or if you’re in emotional danger. Once assured that the communication contains none of those things, you let your mind wander. One woman listens just enough to her son to learn whether he is fighting again at school. Relieved to hear he isn’t, she begins thinking about her shopping list. A young man quickly ascertains what kind of mood his girlfriend is in. If she seems happy as she describes her day, his thoughts begin wandering. Another way people filter is simply to avoid hearing certain things – particularly anything threatening, negative, critical, or unpleasant. It’s as if the words were never said: You simply have no memory of them.
5. Judging: Negative labels have enormous power. If you prejudge someone as stupid or nuts or unqualified, you don’t pay much attention to what they say. You’ve already written them off. Hastily judging a statement as immoral, hypocritical or crazy means you’ve ceased to listen and have begun a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. A basic rule of listening is that judgments should only be made after you have heard and evaluated the content of the message.
6. Advising: You are the great problem-solver, ready with help and suggestions. You don’t have to hear more than a few sentences before you begin searching for the right advice. However, while you are cooking up suggestions and convincing someone to ‘just try it,’ you may miss what’s most important. You didn’t hear the feelings, and you didn’t acknowledge the person’s pain. He or she still feels basically alone because you couldn’t list
7. Dreaming: You’re half-listening, and something the person says suddenly triggers a chain of private associations. Your neighbor says she’s been laid off, and in a flash you’re back to the scene where you got fired for playing he4arts on those
long coffee breaks. Hearts is a great game; there were great nights of hearts years ago on Sutter Street. And you’re gone, only to return a few minutes later as your neighbor says, ‘I knew you’d understand, but don’t tell my husband.
You are more prone to dreaming when you feel bored or anxious. Everybody dreams and you sometimes need to make Herculean efforts to stay tuned in. But if you dream a lot with certain people, it may indicate a lack of commitment to knowing or appreciating them. At the very least, it’s a statement that you don’t value what they have to say very much.
8. Identifying: In this block, you take everything a person tells you and refer it back to your own experience. They want to tell you about a toothache, but that reminds you of the time you had oral surgery for receding gums. You launch into your story before they can finish theirs. Everything you hear reminds you of something that you’ve felt, done, or suffered. You’re so busy with these exciting tales of your life that there’s no time to really hear or get to know the other person.
9. Sparring: This block has you arguing and debating with people. The other person never feels heard because you’re so quick to disagree. In fact, a lot of your focus is on finding things to disagree with. You take strong stands, are very clear about your beliefs and preferences. The way to avoid sparring is to repeat back and acknowledge what you’ve heard. Look for one thing you might agree with.
One subtype of sparring is the put-down. You use acerbic or sarcastic remarks to dismiss the other person’s point of view. For example, Helen starts telling Arthur about her problems in a biology class. Arthur says: ‘When are you going to have brains enough to drop that class?’ Al is feeling overwhelmed with the noise from the TV. When he tells Rebecca, she says, ‘Oh god, not the TV routine again.’ The put-down is the standard block to listening in many marriages. It quickly pushes the communication into stereotyped patterns where each person repeats a familiar hostile litany.
A second type of sparring is discounting. Discounting is for people who can’t stand compliments. ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything . . . What do you mean, I was totally lame . . . It’s nice of you to say, but it’s really a very poor attempt.’ The basic technique of discounting is to run yourself down when you get a compliment. The other person never feels satisfied that you really heard his appreciation. And he’s right – you didn’t.
10. Being Right: Being right means you will go to any lengths (twist the facts, start shouting, make excuses or accusations, call up past sins) to avoid being wrong. You can’t listen to criticism, you can’t be corrected, and you can’t take suggestions to change. Your convictions are unshakable. And since you won’t acknowledge that your mistakes are mistakes, you just keep making them.
11. Derailing: This listening block is accomplished by suddenly changing the subject. You derail the train of conversation when you get bored or uncomfortable with a topic. Another way of derailing is by joking it off. This means that you continually respond to whatever is said with a joke or quip in order to avoid the discomfort or anxiety in seriously listening to the other person.
12. Placating: ‘Right . . . Right . . . Absolutely . . . . I know . . . Of course you are . . . . Incredible . . . Yes . . . Really?’ You want to be nice, pleasant, and supportive. You want people to like you, so you agree with everything. You may half-listen; just enough to get the drift, but you’re not really involved. You are placating rather than tuning in and examining what’s being said.
Source: How To Communicate; The Ultimate Guide to Improving Your Personal and Professional Relationships. McKay, M., Davis, M., Fanning, P.