Listen Up

9 Common Mistakes That Make You A Bad Listener — And How To Correct Them

Good communication begins with good listening. Becoming a better listener means becoming aware of — and breaking — these bad habits.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 

Listening is the key to making every relationship work. Marriages, in particular, require it to thrive. But listening is a skill, one that needs to be developed and honed. It doesn’t come easy to people, particularly men who may find it unnatural to be still and let in someone else’s words. We’re compelled to analyze, argue, interject, react, joke, problem solve or do whatever it takes to make our voices heard and, consciously or not, assert dominance. That’s true for almost any conversation, from business meetings to negotiating details for an oil change. It’s why all the crosstalk and yelling on Sportscenter speaks to us on a primal level.

But if you can’t listen, your partner can’t be heard. And partners who aren’t being heard aren’t likely to stay around deaf ears for too long. So, it pays to improve your listening. If you’re worried your listening is lacking — or just want to improve on the skill — here are some signs of bad listening to know, and some tips for becoming a better listener.

1. You Talk More Than Your Partner

“If you’re talking more than she is, it’s a really obvious sign,” says Susan Quilliam, relationship coach and author of book Stop Arguing, Start Talking. Obvious though it may seem, this is a common mistake. Men, especially, often think they’ve heard enough to understand their partner’s meaning and move on to a next step. But that tactic, per Quilliam, inevitably leads to missed information and forgoes the real goal of a conversation. The solution is to earn to pause and let your partner speak. “The first rule of listening is to take the gaffer tape and apply it over your mouth,” she says.

2. Every Conversation Goes to 11

“When people don’t feel heard or understood, they work harder to make themselves known, usually by becoming increasingly passionate — aka angry,” says Lisa Marie Bobby, psychologist and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. You may shrug off the heat by saying you’re passionate people with a tendency to run hot. But try being quiet and see what changes. “If your wife feels like the door is shut and she’s not getting through to you, knocking on the door turns into pounding on the door,” Bobby adds. “If your partner is angry with you it is because she is feeling unheard, uncared for, or that you are not being responsive to her.”

3. You Don’t Try to Quiet Your Mind When Someone Else Is Talking

Listening can be very difficult, especially when people are talking truthfully about emotional topics. Because people haven’t sorted through everything they’re thinking and feeling, the words come out slowly or a little jumbled (it’s hard to form thesis statements when you’re upset). Waiting for someone to work through what they’re feeling requires a lot of patience and self control. Your mind will want to wander away from what the speaker’s talking and toy around with easier, faster-moving, more comfortable thoughts.

But you have to fight that overwhelming impulse to retreat into yourself and let the conversation be about your partner. “Effective listeners take their ego and put it on the shelf,” says Leslie Shore, author Listen to Succeed. “There’s always a film of ego that gets all over what’s coming into you as a listener. This is where the biggest amount of practice is needed. The way you know that’s happening is that you have mind chatter. The moment that you have mind chatter, you need to put the ego aside and start listening.”

4. You Can’t Stop Dominating Conversations

This isn’t true of all people but generally, men and women approach conversations differently. “Very often, male conversation is combative rather than collaborative,” Quilliam says. “Men learn that if they don’t speak, nobody listens to them or takes them seriously. Whereas women learn is that it’s a good thing to give the other person space.” After a quarter of a lifetime feeling like you need to win every conversation you’re in, it can be hard to adjust your style. But if you don’t, your partner is likely to withdraw from you.

“If you are telling your story and someone gives advice or tells a relatable story or seems to judge you, you stop talking,” says Rochester, NY marriage therapist Jodi Aman. “You not only stop sharing, but you feel worthless and invalidated.”

5. You Rush Towards Solutions

We’ve all rolled our eyes at sitcom relationship problems getting resolved by men learning they need to let women talk about their problems and not just solve them. It’s become a cliché, but it’s grounded in truth about how men and women communicate. “Women listen for emotion and men listen for facts and how they can fix,” Shore says.

You don’t need to ditch the masculine search and solve impulse altogether. Just work on your timing and understand that efficiency shouldn’t be your goal. Women often prefer conversations to gradually build to a conclusion after each partner takes turns and invites the other to share — Quilliam likened the process to foreplay. Remember: not every conversation can be a quickie. “Helping her to find solutions about two hours earlier than she’s ready to find solutions isn’t really helping,” she says.

6. Everything’s Always About You

When your partner is sharing an emotionally charged story, it can be helpful to share a personal story that relates to their experience. But no matter how applicable the anecdote, you can’t launch into whenever you want. The moment you do so, you’re taking the reins of the moment. You are telling your partner that their trauma, passion or excitement is secondary to the thing that you felt. There will be a right time to tell your story and, Quilliam says, the right time to tell it is when your partner asks to hear it. “Drawing parallels to provide a link for someone else’s experience is often good,” she says. “Drawing parallels between experience where it sounds a little bit as if one is competitive.”

7. You Lead With Judgment

When bad listeners hear about problems, they’re quick to critique and eager to tell you where you went wrong. No matter how insightful or useful the advice is, no one wants to hear it straight away. “Offer validation rather than trying to find ways she needs to behave differently,” Quilliam says. “[Solutions] can happen in the solutions stage. But at first she needs to know it’s okay to divulge it.”

Finding faults too fast is almost always an ill-advised conversation gambit. But the problem is magnified when a husband does it to his wife. In doing so, you stop being the suave, cool competent guy they fell in love with and become the angry dad they hoped they left behind. “It’s very patriarchal,” Quilliam says. “It’s putting her in the position of a child and the person who needs help. It takes away the equality in the relationship.”

8. You Always Fill Silences

People can get nervous during lulls in conversations. Without conscious thought, they fill the space with quick words lacking impact or meaning. But often it’s better to leave that space unfilled. That silence can have great value for your partner as a time to catch their breath and process what you’ve been talking about, what they’re thinking, and what they want to say. Your nervous interjection can be keeping your partner from getting to the next step.

“She may need time to reflect,” Quilliam says. “Listening is not just paying attention. It’s helping her to understand in terms she didn’t understand before. Talking isn’t only letting off steam or only telling a story. It’s allowing the other person to make sense of what happens.”

9. Your Body Language Is Off

You don’t have to maintain eye contact for the entire conversation — in fact, you probably shouldn’t. A conversation is an exchange of ideas among spouses, not a cop interrogating a suspect. But be conscious of what your body is communicating. You may say you’re listening while you glance at your phone or tap your foot. But your partner will know better. “The body doesn’t lie,” Shore says. “The reality is that when you’re in a face-to-face conversation and your body says one thing and your voice says another, the person listening to you is always going to believe the body.” Aman says good listeners show that they’re listening. “They lean in, make eye contact, nod along,” she says. Yes, they are patient and ask questions out of curiosity. They don’t judge or offer advice. They keep the person’s story at the center and refrain from switching to their relation to it.

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