Recently, Rose and Don visited me for an initial consultation regarding their wedding ceremony. We met in my living room. Rose and I were soon in animated conversation, while Don tried his best to “look” like he was listening. At one point he interrupted with “Great TV — do you mind if I ask how much?” Immediately, Rose got annoyed that he wasn’t focused on the conversation and he got annoyed that she was annoyed over “nothing.”
We’re constantly surrounded by distractions that are tempting us from giving the other person our undivided attention. And then we devise ways to cover up that we’re not fully listening. Because listening well takes time, effort, and commitment, we look for “shortcuts” to listening and end up not really listening. We often use these shortcuts with our partners and close associates.
An all time favorite shortcut to not listening is “pretend-listening.” This is when you gaze at the other person, nod your head at regular intervals, throw in a few “oh, wows!” at seemingly the right moments, yet all the while in your head you’re going over your to-do lists of people to call and plans to make.
However, more times than not, pretending to listen is going to backfire on you and fuel stress in the most awkward of times.
If you don’t have time to listen — for whatever reason — just tell the other person. Decide on a time when you can talk and listen. Make it a priority to get together and communicate when you can listen. When you do this, you reassure the person that giving him or her your attention is a genuine priority.
Another favorite shortcut is “selective listening.” Many of us began practicing this when we were little, especially around bedtime. A mother says to her child, “time for bed,” and the toddler suddenly goes deaf. The frazzled mother repeats herself until the child turns, and with a puzzled look asks, “What?”
Not only did we “listen” like this when we were kids, many of us have perfected this skill as an adult! If we don’t like what’s being discussed we tune out. If we’re not interested, we zone out. If we don’t want to have to deal with what’s talked about, we suddenly go deaf.
When you find it hard to listen to what your partner is saying — acknowledge that. First to yourself and then to your partner. Tell them; explain why; use that magic word, “because.” Don’t shut down. Don’t suddenly become deaf. Face being uncomfortable and work through it together.
Important conversations demand you turn off the TV, close the laptop, and not answer your cell. No distractions. This is the greatest sign of respect!
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