Listening Beyond Hearing

Two or three weeks ago, something happened (I don't remember what) that left me feeling unheard, and I know I didn't hear much either. Listening wasn't happening at all. So, I dug through all my psychology books on counseling, theory, ways to help, and I found bits and pieces here and there. This is what I found, in summary. Why is it important?

Well, on the surface, that is an easy question to answer. We all talk. And talk, and talk. Sometimes, we actually have conversations, and other times, whatever we say falls on deaf ears. On a deeper level, what results from being unheard or misunderstood are feelings of devaluation, our self-esteem and confidence fall, we lose trust, and while we're licking our wounds, we are also then guilty of not listening.

A good conversation with listening is priceless. Heard, you feel valued, empowered, confident, and able to see new possibilities and potential. How far does the imagination have to stretch to envision a life where you listen and are listened to?

Listening is a skill. It is something that can be learned. And, as you go around listening to others, they start listening back. It spreads! You'll also find you do a good bit of the "do" list and not so much of the "don't" list already. A little bit of focus and monitoring and listening will become natural.

Blocks to Listening (Don't)

First is a list of 12 blocks to listening. Try to honestly think about these to see which ones you've used before. They are pretty natural to fall into, and just a little awareness goes a long way in keeping them in check. (I've done a bit of mind reading and placating myself.)

Comparing - While the person is speaking, you're trying to figure out which of you is better, has more or does less in any way imaginable.

Mind Reading - Assuming you already know what the person is going to say while ignoring him/her and without bothering to ask questions to confirm your belief.

Rehearsing - No way to hear when you are practicing your next lines in your head.

Filtering - The only thing you're going to hear is what you want to hear, nothing else.

Judging - You've already determined that the person speaking has no value for you, so you don't bother to pay attention to what he/she says.

Dreaming - Something half heard sends you off into your own little world to think about a similar aspect in your own life.

Identifying - As someone shares an experience, you relate it back to your own life.

Advising - Before someone can explain, you are offering advice. You completely miss the point, the feelings and the scope, and leave the person feeling misunderstood.

Sparring - You listen, but only for something to disagree with, argue over or debate.

Being Right - You will rationalize, make excuses, shout or accuse the speaker of anything you can think of just to avoid being wrong.

Derailing - Bored or uncomfortable about what is said, you change the subject.

Placating - No matter what is said, you agree. You listen just enough to catch the places where you can agree.

Effective Listening (Do)

Now, here is a short list of tips to effective or empathic listening. You probably already do a lot of these, especially when the person and the conversation are particularly interesting to you. See if you can 'catch' yourself using any of these. Then, see if you can use them at will.

Acknowledge the speaker by being attentive, genuinely interested, alert and positive. Be in the moment and focused.

Show you are listening with "uh-huh", nod your head, lean forward in a relaxed way, make frequent eye contact, and invite more to explore with open-ended questions.

Be a sounding board and a mirror by restating what is said in your own words. Let the speaker dominate the conversation.

Reflect back what you understand and how you think the speaker feels. Listen for the person's positive intention or "hope" to respond to and support.


  1. I think this post should be followed by one called "Have something to say" Maybe feeling unimportant is Gods way of getting even with those people that command ones attention for untold periods of time and have nothing worthwhile to say. My Aunt Lilly used to call my mother several times a day and keep her on the phone at least an hour. My mother got to where she would utter an "Uh-Huh" every time Aunt Lilly would stop yaking long enough to take a breath. Mom could even "Uh Huh" while catching the same kind of Z's a student does in a boring class. When we would ask Mom why she wouldnt just tell Lilly she had to go, mom always answered "shes just lonely" Mom had decided that just being there on the other side of the telephone line was all Lilly really wanted as there never really was much of a two way conversation going on. This went on for many years. Sometimes I wonder how many years of her life my mother wasted with that phone glued to the side of her head mumbling "uh..Huh" So... I think the answer to getting people to "Listen beyond hearing" is to speak of something more engaging than just the noise in your own head. hrslady

  2. I had previously responded, but deleted what I wrote. I had thrown out there what I felt was going on between Mom and Aunt Lilly, then decided it wasn't fair since I had not witnessed it first hand. So, taking advantage of the power of the delete button, in the trash it went.

    What I would like to ask you is if you would be willing to take a risk and explore more of how you feel as you remember the hours your mother was on the phone with your aunt?

  3. Well, mom was almost without exception placating Lilly the whole time. Nodding "yes" and "Uh huh" like a mindless bobbing dog in the back window of your car. We as kids felt ignored of coarse, and that mom was out of pocket to tend to us. Regardless mind you of how much or little our mother was enjoying ANY phone conversation. Oblivious in our selfish childs way about the fact that she tended to us constantly the other 12 waking hours of the day. What I learned from it as an adult was to realise just how very painfully lonely people sometimes are. Also that something as simple as listening to even pointless rambling can be such a gift of kindness to a lonely soul. To this day I try not to be the one to end a phone conversation. I figure if someone has bothered to call me that they will say they have to go when they get enough of the interaction from me that they wanted. Hrslady

  4. Even though Mom wasn't actively participating in her phone conversations, she also wasn't participating in what you were doing either, which sounds like it could be frustrating and maybe a bit lonely for you too - ? Now, when you look back on it, you understand more of what might have been happening with a clearer sense of fairness?

    I noticed that you used the word "interaction" to describe your role in phone conversations now. Could you expand?