You don’t listen – No, I don’t obey

”You don’t listen to me!”
”Yes, I do, I’m listening right now!”
”No you don’t, you’re not listening at all.”

This type of exchange is common and yet confusing. You’d think that it’s obvious whether the other person is listening, or if I’m listening or not. Yet I’ve repeatedly stumbled into disagreements about listening in my personal life, at work and in literature.

The topic came up when I wrote about harping on about something. Maaret Pyhäjärvi had a very interesting comment:

”Once upon a time, in a certain relationship, I was constantly told that I don’t listen. In my view, I don’t obey.”

What do you mean, I don’t listen?

If you constantly get feedback that you’re not listening, it’s good to stop to ask what listening means to the other person. It just so happens that we have very different views on what listening means or how do we know that the other person has listened to us:

  • Some people need your undivided attention; for others it’s enough that you’re in the room.
  • Some people need eye contact, others don’t.
  • Some people hope you’ll react, ask questions and sympathise; others are satisfied with your quiet presence.
  • Some people want to hear their story summarised, others are happy with a short comment and yet others don’t need any confirmation that the message got across.
  • For some people it’s a sign of listening that the other person changes their behaviour or takes action. For others, a conversation is a prerequisite to being heard. Some others are satisfied with simply getting it off their chest.
    • Additionally, the same person might behave in any of these ways depending on the issue.

It might feel simple to ask, “What does listening mean to you?” Yet it can be a hard question to answer. Especially if the other person is already frustrated, the answer you’ll get might be: “What do you mean, ‘what does it mean’, it means that you listen to me, is that so difficult!” In such a situation, you can try to calmly explain:

”In my view, I’m listening to you and have heard everything. Nevertheless, you clearly do not feel that you have been heard. That means that our views on what listening means are somehow different. How would you know that I’ve listened to you?”

Learn to ask for exactly what you need

We can easily get stuck feeling that the other person isn’t listening or doesn’t believe that we’re listening. We think it’s glaringly obvious, and yet the other person doesn’t believe or accept our reality. That’s why one grown-up super skill is to learn to recognise what we need and to ask for exactly that.

Instead of asking, ”Will you listen to me”, we have to be more precise:

  • ”It’s important to me to share this. Could you sit down with me for about ten minutes, put away your phone and listen quietly while I tell you?”
  • ”I sometimes get the feeling that you don’t listen to me and that you’re not interest in my stuff. I’m going to tell you something. Could you ask me one question about it so that I’ll feel that you’re interested?”
  • ”I’m not always quite sure if you’re listening or just pretending to. The next time I tell you something, could you briefly repeat what I said so that I feel certain that you heard all of it?”

Do the above make you think something like, “oh my god, how stiff is that” or “I shouldn’t have to ask this” or “but you can’t do that”? That’s very human. We’re not used to asking for what we need. Yet it might be impossible for the other person to listen to us the way we’d like them to if we don’t express and ask for exactly that.

Do you expect me to listen or to obey?

But how about a situation where you do hear what the other person is saying, asking for or demanding, but you have no intention of doing so? If you begin to suspect that the other person is expecting your behaviour to change, you can ask about that specifically: “You say that I don’t listen, but I feel that you’re rather expecting that I’ll obey you and change my behaviour. I do hear what you’re asking. I just don’t plan on doing it.”

The same applies to the sort of listening the other person needs. It could be that the other person needs eye contact, but that’s hard for you. Then the meta conversation about listening goes in the other direction:

”When I don’t look you in the eye when you’re telling me things, you feel like I’m not listening. It’s hard for me to look people in the eye, but I’m still listening intently. How could we take both of our needs into account?”

In any case, the meta conversations about listening should be mutual and equal. My needs and your needs are equally important, and it’s up to us to find a way that works for both of us as well as possible. We can’t get there, however, unless both people recognise and share their specific needs.

Luckily, that’s a skill that can be practiced – the same way listening is.

TL;DR: Listening causes constant disagreements

  • If someone constantly claims that you don’t listen, ask them what listening means to them.
    • People have very different views on what listening means or how you recognise it.
  • Learn to recognise what you need and to ask for that specifically.
    • It’s nearly impossible for the other person to listen to us the way we hope if we don’t tell them what we want.
  • All meta conversations about relationships should be mutual and equal.
    • That’s why both parties need to recognise their needs and share them precisely.

Read for example:

Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent communication
Liv Larsson: A Helping Hand

Or what do you think?

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