The Joy Of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

The Joy Of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers

Both in and outside my work, I do a lot of listening to people.  This is no accident—it’s actually one of my favorite things to do.  Because of my fascination with the subject, I’ve decided to write a few posts on learning to enjoy listening, and overcoming some of the barriers we often face to fully bringing our minds and hearts to hearing someone out.

Listening, on the surface, seems like an easy thing to do.  After all, in theory, all you’re doing is sitting in silence and paying attention.  In fact, I suspect that for all of us, from time to time, hearing someone with authentic compassion and with our full attention can be challenging.  In this post, I’ll talk about a few of the blocks that tend to get in our way, and some ideas for moving beyond them.

1.  A Need To “Deliver Value.” One reason many of us have trouble just sitting back and listening to someone is that we worry that our mere presence and desire to hear what they’re saying “aren’t enough.”  That is, we’re afraid we aren’t contributing enough to them by just hearing them out—we need to say something insightful or valuable.

If we don’t “make a contribution” in this way, we assume, the other person will think there’s something wrong with us.  Maybe they’ll decide we aren’t special enough, we’re stupid or unimaginative, we lack “social skills,” or something else.  And they’ll decide they don’t want to talk to us and leave.

The irony is that, when we try to “deliver value” this way, even though we’re sincerely trying to help, our efforts often backfire.  You’ve probably seen this for yourself—think of a time when you were explaining a problem you were having to someone else, they started telling you what you “should” do, and you felt patronized and annoyed.

I’ve heard some people suggest (a la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) that men and women see this issue differently, and this creates a communication barrier between the sexes.  Men supposedly tend to give and expect advice, while women prefer to listen and be heard.  But I haven’t found this to be true—in my experience, men (myself included) seem just as likely to bristle at unsolicited advice.

I think genuine listening and compassion require some self-trust.  We need to trust that it’s “enough” for us to simply let go, sit back and hear the other person.  Developing that, in my experience, makes interacting easier and more fun, and has the other person feel the sincerity of our listening.  In short, whether we feel like we’re “delivering value” depends more on how we feel about ourselves than anything we say or do in the conversation.

2.  Judgment. Another common barrier to listening with our full attention is our tendency to mentally evaluate and judge what other people say.  Perhaps we don’t like the way they’re handling some aspect of their life, we think they should stop complaining, we don’t like how they’re looking at us, or something else.

Another common judgment can arise if the person we’re speaking with keeps talking for a long time about their situation and concerns.  Some of us start feeling disrespected or neglected.  “What about my feelings?” we start wondering.

Some of us, instead of judging the other person, start attacking ourselves.  Perhaps, in our minds, we’re unfavorably comparing ourselves to the other person.  For instance, we might be thinking “this person is doing better than me.  Look at all the success they’re having.”  Or maybe our attention keeps drifting back to some unresolved issue in our lives—“oh, no, what if the bonus at work is too small this year?”

However we may judge the other person or ourselves, some of our attention gets occupied with the act of judging and criticizing, and diverted from what the other person is saying.  Our compassion for them shuts down, and the conversation becomes an exercise in tolerating rather than enjoying them.  Although we might not say what we’re thinking out loud, others can feel this change in our attitude.

I think a key step in letting go of our judgments, and listening with our full minds and hearts, is to simply notice the judgments are there.  By this, I mean just observing the running mental monologue that may be going on while you’re in a conversation with someone, and what it’s saying.  In my experience, our mind activity tends to quiet when we focus our awareness on it, allowing us to gently return our attention to the conversation.

3.  A Need To Look Like We Care. Some of us, when we’re listening to someone, start worrying about the image we’re projecting.  We get anxious that the other person might doubt that we’re really listening, or assume we don’t care about what they’re telling us, because of some aspect of our body language or verbal responses.

To relieve our fear, we consciously start smiling, nodding, saying “mm hmm,” and adopting all the other mannerisms we think a genuinely caring person would have.  Or perhaps we try some more sophisticated NLP-type thing like “matching and mirroring” their movements.  Maybe we’ve even read a book or blog post on the “Top 10 Ways To Build Rapport,” and use the conversation to test-drive those techniques.

The irony here is that, when our attention is on whether we look like we’re listening, it’s no longer on actually listening.  And when we’re wrapped up in the image we’re presenting, we aren’t genuinely caring about the other person’s wants and needs—we’re concerned with managing how they see us.  Human beings are much more empathic than we usually give each other credit for being, and my sense is that people can detect this kind of pretense.

As with the feeling that we need to “deliver value,” which I talked about before, getting over this compulsion to look like we’re listening requires us to trust ourselves—to trust that, if we’re genuinely concerned for someone’s wellbeing, we don’t need to make any special effort to get them to believe it.  Instead, we can relax our minds and bodies, and just absorb what’s going on in front of us.

The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests

14 thoughts on
The Joy Of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers

  1. Pingback: Posts about blog as of March 18, 2009 | - Make Money Online, Blogging Tips and Reviews

  2. Daphne


    You covered each obstacle to listening well very well :) I’m probably most prone to 3, then 2, then 1. You’re very blessed if you naturally enjoy listening to people. I enjoy listening to most people but have to admit that if I find a conversation boring, I drift and stop listening.

  3. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Daphne — thanks for your comment. Yes, I’d say I tend to encounter these issues in that order too. On moments when my attention drifts away, one possibility I didn’t consider until I learned it from a mentor was that those moments can actually teach me something. Maybe the conversation is going to a place I’m uncomfortable with, or maybe what I’m sensing is the other person’s lack of interest in what they’re saying. In coaching someone it can be a useful thing to call out, I’ve found, if I find myself “checking out” while someone is talking — maybe what I’m feeling is their disconnection.

  4. Amanda Linehan

    Hi Chris, I love this topic! In your first point, about just being present with another person, I very much agree. Just sitting with someone, listening to how they view the world is a very powerful process and makes the person feel accepted as they are. It may look like you are doing “nothing” while listening, but there is a lot going on in the process. Thanks.

  5. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Amanda — thanks for your comment. I’m glad you seem to have experienced the joy of this too. It seems simple, but as you may have experienced as well it’s actually hard to find someone who will truly listen with compassion and without judging.

  6. Sara


    This post made me squirm. My boyfriend has been struggling with some issues lately…too much work and not enough time. He’s been distracted, which is natural. Reading your post reminds me that I haven’t been listening very well, but rather giving him suggestions. He doesn’t need my suggestions; he needs me to really hear him and let him know that I trust him to resolve what’s going on. This post is a GOOD reminder for me. THANKS :~)

  7. Chris Edgar - Post author

    @ Evan — thanks — I agree that listening seems like such an important but overlooked way to deepen every kind of relationship.

    @ Sara — I’m glad you found the post helpful. I hope it didn’t have you beat yourself up too much. :) I was inspired to hear you say you’re going to let him know you trust him — that’s been something I’ve always found myself wanting in my relationships and I think that’s often true of other people too.

  8. Barbara Swafford

    Hi Chris,

    This is the first time I’ve visited your blog and love what I’ve found. Your posts are so informational.

    What I do love about listening is how just by watching a person and seeing their body language often what they say is contradicting to how they are acting. I try to use those opportunities to ask open ended questions and become an ear.

    I have, however, been in situations where another person is talking and all I hear is “blah, blah, blah”. I know it’s because I get impatient as the subject matter is beginning to be repetitive and/or boring.

    Ironically when “talkers” know we like to listen, if we’re not careful we can end up being a target for their daily woes. It’s a fine line we walk,

  9. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Barbara — thanks for your kind words. It sounds like you’ve had the experience of people talking your ear off because they get that you’re willing to listen, and this has put you in situations where you’ve felt bored or exploited.

    The question that came up for me was whether you feel okay setting a boundary with people who want someone to talk to. This has been a challenge for me in the past with clients who want to go on past the end of our sessions. What I’ve found is that a few people have actually told me they felt safer with me when I said “I hear what you’re saying, and we’re going to stop now,” because they feel like the rules governing our relationship are clearer when I spell them out.

    One other observation is that it may actually be helpful to people to know that you’re feeling bored. Not in a blaming way, like “you’re boring me,” but just to say something like “I find myself checking out when you talk about how you got a new blender. Is that something that really matters to you?” Marshall Rosenberg discusses this in Nonviolent Communication, which I talk about in Part 2 of this series — he points out that, if we find ourselves uninspired by what the other person is talking about, they’re probably not very interested in it either, and they may actually be grateful if someone notices that.

    But now I’m talking your ear off. :)

  10. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Paul — yes, I’ve found it to be a rare experience as well, and it’s amazing how we can create such deep connections by really listening to others.

  11. Kye

    Chris, I’m delighted to read your comments about listening. Our ‘mere presence’ is such a gift to others! –and though very simple, not necessarily easy. You have written a very clear guide to pitfalls in listening and how to get around them.

    In my experience (I listen and also teach listening) another thing that helps in letting go into just pure presence is when we learn to trust that this person we’re listening to, is fundamentally okay. We all have powerful inner resources and we can and do make it through so much.

    Receiving the pure attentive presence of another person makes it so much easier for us to hear ourselves and get more deeply in touch with our own vital energy, right now.

    I’ll be back to read more of what you have to say. Thank you!

  12. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Good to see you here Kye. Yes, the term “mere presence” illustrates how we tend to see just being with someone in this culture, hmm? If talk is cheap, just being there is supposedly cheaper. But like you say, just sitting there and trusting that everything is unfolding as it should can be such a gift to someone.

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