At one time, I was quite smug about my ability to multitask while listening. In high school, I could write notes or send sign-language messages to my friends while locking eyeballs with the teacher. Later, I learned to mop the floor and floss my teeth while on the phone. And I was a master, I thought, at listening to my children while offering a sincere “uh-huh” during their pauses.
Until I got busted by the baby.
Molly, my fifth and youngest child, was either the most perceptive or the most indignant. One afternoon, the little extrovert with bouncing blond curls and a joie de vivre that wouldn’t quit, was sitting across the kitchen counter, gracing me with her animated stories. I was listening. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Ohhhhh. Uh-huh.
Suddenly Molly reached across the counter, pressed my cheeks together, peered into my eyes, and implored” Don’t say uh-huh. Listen to me!”
Humbling, huh? I, too, can tell when someone’s not really listening, and it feels demeaning. But rather than expound on how important it is to be an active listener—everyone knows that—let me explain what might be going on in the mind of someone who doesn’t appear to be listening.
The slow processor. My friend Jean was discouraged. “My client thinks I never listen to him,” she said. “But I am listening. It just takes me time to absorb it.” Jean has dyslexia, a genetic language-processing difference that causes difficulty with processing information quickly. Her long delays in responding to her client give him the wrong impression. He can’t know that she’s working double time as her mind scrambles to make sense of what he says.
The introvert. Some people, reported to be in the minority, are introverts. They process interiorly, whereas extroverts process verbally. Such was the case with Allison. When her daughter, Rosie, shared her boyfriend’s exciting career plans with her, Allison’s mind did what introverts’ minds do: she spent time mulling it over in her mind. Even though Allison had heard every word her daughter said and had captured her enthusiasm, she had to think about it before responding. The long silence gave Rosie the impression that she either didn’t care, didn’t agree, or wasn’t listening.
ADD. And then there is the surprising number of people with attention deficit disorder. When someone speaks to Kate, a single comment can hijack her mind and drag it off to a world of thoughts, related and unrelated, and off she goes, following them wherever they lead—which is away from the conversation. She starts uh-huh-ing to disguise her distractibility while trying desperately to get out of the tangles of thought and find her way back to the moment.
These are only three of any number of reasons why a listener doesn’t appear to be listening. Once we understand, we can choose to be compassionate when the listener is not responding as one would expect.
Here are a few tools you can use when listener seems unresponsive:
- Stop occasionally and ask, “Does it make sense that [repeat something you just said].
- Change your tone of voice or its volume from time to time.
- Wave your arms, clap, snap, or make some other surprising gesture or sound when your listener is least expecting it.
- Write down, sketch, or physically demonstrate what you’re saying so as to offer modalities for comprehension other than just hearing.
- And if the speaker is a Molly, shake your head a few times, splash cold water on your face, stretch your eyes wide open–and focus. There is nothing more important.
As communicators, we all have an obligation to each other. The speaker needs to recognize that some listeners have extenuating reasons behind their blank face—or their half-hearted uh-huhs. And the listener should know that the speaker really wants to be heard. So acknowledge that, even if it means admitting to vulnerability in yourself.
Copyright 2015. Maggie McCann Pike.
Maggie McCann Pike
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