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Are Your Listening Skills Causing Miscommunication?

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Are Your Listening Skills Causing Miscommunication?

Are your listening skills making you persona non grata?

The hardest part of talking together is listening well. Listening is loving. Great listeners are great lovers.

Listening, which is one half of the art of conversation, is an act of connection.  Even if you can’t touch or see someone, you feel connected if you hear their voice. Listening, even via email or text messages, enhances the health of your marriage and other close relationships.  Listening well makes you inviting to connect with.  And between a couple, listening is an act of love.

Eating lunch today in the doctors’ dining room where I work I was struck by the broad range in quality of the listening skills of the various professionals who were eating there.

Some folks in our dining room are consistently fun to talk with.  They are the great listeners. Other folks are consistently unpleasant to interact with.  They appear to be deaf, showing little interest in what others say. Or they respond only by saying what they disagree with, making them quite disagreeable. Deafness, disinterest and disagreeing suck the energy out of conversations.

Here’s five effective and two problematic listening patterns. Truly great listeners do all five of the good and virtually none of the three problematic listening styles.

1. Hungry listening:  A hungry listener has a real appetite for learning others’ perspectives. Their responses convey interest in what you say, encouraging you to say more.

By contrast, some folks are anorectic when it comes to listening.  They have little interest in others’ worlds. It’s not much fun to talk with them, even if they have lots to say.

2. Hunting: Exploring with open-ended how and what questions, a good hunter has a knack for asking the kinds of conversation-starter and follow-up questions that build fascinating conversations.

3. Gathering: Thinking out loud about what you have heard enables you to be nourished by new data, new thoughts, new insights and understandings.  It enables you to register new data by attaching it to formerly held ideas, create a new file, or in some other way register more and more information in your mental data base.

At the same time, chewing aloud to digest data you have taken in indicates to your conversation partner that you care about what you have heard. It lets them know what you took in.  As you chew aloud on what you have heard, expanding on this information by adding your thoughts about it, you’ve got the makings of being a great conversational partner.

4. Clarifying: Misunderstandings often occur in dialogue about important issues.  Asking open-ended questions, that is, questions that begin withHow..?  or What…?, requests further information when anything sounds at all unclear.

Information is power. Misunderstandings are powerful sources of upsets.

5. Porous Listening: Porousness referse to the extent to which there are openings in a membrane.  Porousness in listening refers to the extent to which you are open to receiving new information. Porous listening includes hungry, hunting, gathering and clarifying listening. It signals someone open to deeper connections, intimacy, and capable of interesting conversations.

Now here come the three problematic listening habits:

1. Non-responsive lIstening: If you habitually close your mouth, that is, say nothing, in response to new data that people feed you, you will end up starved for personal connection as well as under-nourished in terms of new ideas.

Non-responsive listeners say nothing about what was just spoken to them.  They may have listened or maybe not.  There’s just no way to tell.

Sometimes this silent-response listening mode indicates resistance to uptake of new data.  In these cases it is the antithesis of the hungry, hunting, gathering and problem-solving porous listening characteristic of folks with whom people enjoy talking.

Some non-responsive listeners are in fact hearing what has been said to them.  They just give no verbal or non-verbal indication.  Commenting on what you heard, building on the thought you heard, or even just nodding your head up and down convey that listening has occurred. Non-responsive listening, because it gives no visible or audible sign of what has been done with the data, tends to convey that no hearing occurred. That’s a turn-off to the person who spoke.  “Why bother saying more if I’m getting no response?”

2. Listening like a goalie:  Here’s-What’s-Wrong-With-What-You-Said listening responses indicate that someone has been listening to knock away data rather than to take it in. Instead of listening to learn, this is listening to negate.

The tip-off is either the word but, which butts away what you said, or not, which replaces your point with the opposite.  Here’s some examples: “It’s nice outside.”  “No it’s not; it’s too hot.”  or “Yes, it is sunny, but it’s too hot.”

Listening to negate makes every conversation an exercise in “I’m right; you’re wrong.”  It’s also frustrating for the speaker because data rarely enters the listener’s data base.

3. Rebound listening:  Whatever you say, a rebound listener grabs the spotlight, bringing the conversation back to him/herself.  What you say just invites this person to talk about himself.

If you mention that one of your children has been ill, the response might be, “I was sick yesterday too.”  This kind of response could be fine if it’s followed up with “What are your child’s symptoms?” That would return the topic to the one on the mind of the speaker.  That’s fine.

The problem comes when every conversation ends up being all about me.  Beware.  That’s a listening habit that suggests narcissism.

What’s so important about listening skills?

When people talk about having a “great relationship,” they in large part are referring to how openly they listen to each other, plus how much positive feedback they give each other.

A huge part of feeling connected with someone entails feeling that when you speak, the other person cares about what you think. Feeling heard is feeling valued.

Because such a big indicator of loving is listening, a great listener is a great lover.

How would you rate your listening habits? Try this self-assessment quiz:

Score yourself on each question as 1 (the statement is not true for me at all), 2 (I mildly disagree), 3 (I partly agree and partly disagree with the statement), 4 (I mildly agree), or 5 (the statement is totally true for me) .

___ 1. I prefer talking to listening to what others may say.

___ 2. It mostly doesn’t occur to me to ask questions.

___ 3. When others are talking I’m often thinking about what I’ll say next.

___ 4. The main point of talking is to impress people, or at least to entertain them.

___ 5. My perspective is usually right, so if others disagree, I convince them to see it my way.

___ 6. It bothers me when people get their facts wrong.

___ 7. It’s important to point out when people are wrong about something.

___ 8. Most people are boring, so I usually do most of the talking.

___ Total score

Scoring: The higher your score, the lower your listening skills.  The closer your score is to 40, the highest possible score, the more strongly you probably need a skills upgrade.  By contrast, the closer your score is to 8, the better your skills probably are.

I have written more about listening skills in my books The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook., and online atPowerOfTwoMarriage.   I hope you find these resources helpful, especially the free relationship communication skills quiz at

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Author’s Books

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties. An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitler is best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy. David Decides About Thumbsucking, Dr. Heitler’s first book, has been recommended for over twenty years by children’s dentists to help young children end detrimental sucking habits. From Conflict to Resolution, an innovative conflict-resolution theory of psychopathology and treatment, has strongly influenced the work of many therapists. The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, and also Dr. Heitler’s  website for couples called, teach the skills for marriage success. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Heitler coaches boards of directors in skills for collaboarative decision-making and, in the world of professional sports, Dr. Heitler serves as mental coach for a men’s doubles tennis team. Education Dr. Heitler graduated from Harvard  University in 1967, and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from NYU in 1975. Awards and Accomplishments The editors of the master therapist video series Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders selected Dr. Heitler from all the marriage and family therapists in the US to demonstrate the theory and techniques of couple treatment.  Her video from this series, The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment has become a staple in psychologist and marriage counseling training programs. The editors of the Psychologist Desk Reference, a compendium of therapeutic interventions, selected Dr. Heitler to write the chapter onTreating High Conflict Couples. Other editors of books on counseling theory and techniques have similarly invited her to contribute chapters on her conflict resolution treatment methods. Dr. Heitler’s 1997 book The Power of Two (New Harbinger), which clarifies the communication and conflict resolution skills that sustain healthy marriages, has been translated for publication in six foreign language editions–in China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and Poland. Dr. Heitler has been invited to present workshops on her conflict resolution methods for mediators and lawyers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists throughout the country.  She has been a popular presenter at national professional conferences including AAMFT, APA, SmartMarriages, and SEPI and has lectured internationally in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Heitler is frequently interviewed in magazines such as FitnessMen’s HealthWomen’s World, and Parenting.  Her cases have appeared often in the Ladies Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”  She is often interviewed by Denver TV newscasters for her perspectives on psychological aspects of current events. In May, 2004 Dr. Heitler appeared on the CBS Early Show where anchor Harry Smith introduced her as “the most influential person in my life—my therapist.”  He encouraged his viewers similarly to seek therapy when they are emotionally distressed and pre-marital counseling when they are contemplating marriage. Most recently, Dr. Heitler, three of her adult children and one of their friends were awarded a U.S. government Healthy Marriages Initiative grant to produce interactive games for teaching marriage communication and conflict resolution skills over the internet.  See to experience their fun, low-cost, high-impact methods of teaching the skills for a strong and loving marriage. Personal Dr.  Heitler and her husband of almost 40 years are proud parents of four happily married adult children and are grandparents, thus far, of a a baker’s dozen grandchildren.

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