Sometimes you explain your point patiently and thoroughly, and still can’t get it into someone’s head. It’s frustrating. The other person harps on and on, and sticks to their own point like week-old chewing gum. How many times, and in how many different ways, must you express something before it’s finally accepted?
Here are four quotes to shed light on a solution:
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen R. Covey
“People don’t care how much you know before they know how much you care.” – John C. Maxwell (or Theodore Roosevelt)
“First feeling, then fact.” – Katleena Kortesuo
“People often need empathy before they can hear what is being said to them.” – Marshall Rosenberg
We don’t always hear what is said to us
In human interaction, the message doesn’t always pass unchanged from the sender to the recipient, and it rarely gets through the recipient’s processes the way we intended. We would like to think that our sentences are clear and unambiguous, and the recipient might nevertheless interpret them in a rather different way. Even the different associations the listener makes when hearing certain words (that is, connotations) affect what they hear and how they react to it.
In addition to our words, another central reason to communication breaking down is interpretation. When we hear the other person say something, we give what is said an interpretation, and base our reactions and responses on this interpretation. Some people are very literal and don’t add a lot of interpretation. Others add a lot. The more emotionally connected to the issue we are, the stronger our interpretations typically are.
Mediation is an interesting process that makes it clear how the message gets lost in interpretation. When you’re the neutral third party listening in on the conversation between two people, you very clearly notice that the messages don’t get through. The people involved simply do not hear what the other party is saying, only what they assume the other person means.
Being heard is an experience
The fact that that we’re listening doesn’t always guarantee that the speaker feels they’ve been heard. If the other person cannot trust that their point of view has been heard, understood and acknowledged, they don’t dare move on in the conversation. In such a case, it’s easiest to get stuck and belabour your point. To hope that you will be heard if you repeat your point often enough.
The busier and the more frustrated with the situation we are, the quicker and the stronger we try to push our point through. However, it might ultimately be faster to slow down and spend a moment clarifying to yourself how the other person views the world.
- What makes them so insistent?
- How do they view the situation?
- How do they hear what I’m saying?
- What are they trying to tell me that I’m not hearing?
- What are they feeling right now?
- What would they need?
In these situations, we begin by confirming that we’ve listened to the other person. A neat tool to help with this is summarising the other person’s point. When we sum up and repeat what we’ve heard, the other person begins to slowly trust that their messages have got through unaltered.
Another good tool is to try to put into words what the other person possible is missing and needs. In a professional context, it’s easiest to preface your guesses with, ”Might you perhaps need…” Here are some examples of needs:
- faith in the solution working or the project staying on schedule or within the budget
- clarity on what the chosen solution means in practice
- predictability and certainty about what will happen in future
- efficiency or organisation when it comes to working together
- stronger co-operation or partnership.
When we stop worrying, our hearing improves
As long as we have a vague feeling that we’re not being heard, seen or understood, we’re plagued by a nagging worry that we’ll lose control of the situation. That we’ll get tricked or led astray. Or that we’ll get walked over and our views will get ignored.
When we notice we’ve been heard, we’ll more readily listen to the other person. We’re no longer worrying about our own point of view being accounted for. We dare to believe in the situation and can momentarily set aside our own needs.
So, if the other person harps on and on about the same thing, it’s possible that we haven’t yet managed to give them the experience of being heard. Fortunately, we can usually take a step back and try that again.
TL;DR If the other person doesn’t seem to hear you, listen
- A message changes when it moves from the sender to the recipient.
- Words have different associations to different people.
- Sometimes, we don’t hear what the other person is saying, but only our own distorted interpretation of their meaning.
- Repeatedly insisting on something might be a sign that the other person hasn’t been heard.
- Confirm by summarising that you’ve heard their message.
- Put their needs into words.
- Being heard creates trust between the people having a conversation.