Isn’t it irritating when you’re having a conversation with someone, and they accidentally cue you in that they seriously haven’t been listening the whole time?
Personally, I hate repeating myself, so if someone doesn’t hear me the first time, it’s super hard for me to not say something snarky and walk away. I’m trying to work on that, but it doesn’t exactly come easy, just because I’ve started trying.
My current partner and I have what I’d like to call a “listening confirmation problem”. I tend to take it for granted that she’s listening when I talk to her, and sometimes, I’m embarrassingly wrong. Sometimes, she didn’t even know I was talking. Yikes.
I’m almost convinced that it’s something to do with me, because it’s not even just with her that I have this problem… Although it definitely happens more with her. Recently, I’ve started wondering what could cause these listening confirmation problems to happen. Which do you think is the case in your relationship?
Reason #1: Narcissism.
Narcissism is an ugly word for an uglier situation: When you’re dealing with someone who legit only cares about themselves. Most of us have dealt with narcissism for at least a brief period of our lives, but we usually outgrow it shortly after we finish our teenage years. Narcissism makes it difficult for people to listen to conversations unless they hold praise for them. They’re usually not very fun to talk to even if you’re not trying to date them, but dating a narcissist can be a downright dreadful experience.
More than just directing the conversation to positive things about themselves, a narcissist may try to take control of the conversation, and might even insist that they know best – even when speaking to someone who is literally a professional at something the narcissist knows nothing about. The good news is that narcissism is habitual, not neurological, so narcissistic people who want to learn to listen better just need to start training themselves to be open to the other person’s ideas, too.
Reason #2: Mirroring.
Fun fact: To a certain extent, people treat you how you treat yourself. People usually think about you the way you think about yourself. And if you listen to yourself, your inner voice if you will, other people are more likely to listen to you, too. Obviously I’m not saying you should be hearing voices and doing what they say, but think about your body’s internal cues. When you start to get tired, do you go to bed, or do you push yourself to stay up? Do you eat when you’re hungry, or when you’re bored? Are you reaching for soda when your body clearly needs water?
Obviously, we all want to think that we’re treating ourselves with the love and care we deserve, but sadly that’s not really true for most of us. We tend to write off our body, either consciously or subconsciously, and we dismiss the things that we know are true, in order to chase the things that might not be. We are conditioned to put ourselves second, without realizing that you can’t give if you have nothing to give – you need to think of yourself first. Love, respect, and listen to yourself, and your partner will have no choice but to do the same or to move on.
Reasons #3 and 4: Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
If you haven’t heard of either of these terms, don’t worry – you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard of them, either, until I started doing research on relationship psychology.
Basically, confirmation bias occurs when the things someone is hearing are automatically filtered through their built-in views about the world, and exposed to our own personal prejudices. This seems like it’s pretty unfair, but the truth is, it’s human nature – we can’t really change it, unless we actively try to change our opinions. (And, to be clear, this isn’t necessarily a good idea – although it will depend on the situation.)
Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, occurs when facts seem to go against our opinions, causing some internal turmoil. In other words, if your partner thinks of herself as super honest, and you have evidence that she lied to you about sometime, she’s going to have a hard time accepting this news, and may even argue illogically against it. However, cognitive dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad idea, as this is how our views are challenged in order for us to grow into a better person.
Reason #5: Unwanted advice.
Picture the scene: Your friend, coworker, or love interest has just told you this horrible story about how their morning has been. Do you try to fix the problem for them, or do you just let them talk it out? You might assume that the second option would be rude… But that’s where you’d be wrong. Most people don’t tell their troubles in order to get advice and answers, and if they are searching for that, they’re probably going to come right out and say it.
When you give advice, you’re basically telling someone that your answer to the problem is the correct answer to the problem – and if they weren’t looking for a better answer, you’re going to get written off, without even trying. Most people are looking for information to help them solve their problems on their own, or they’re looking for a sympathetic ear. Rarely will they be looking for someone to tell them they’re wrong.
Reason #6: Anger.
One of the keys that goes along with cognitive dissonance, above, is a person’s reaction to anger. Most people are incapable of having a rational conversation when they’re angry, and the more level-headed you try to force yourself to stay, the more likely you’ll end up humiliating yourself with an outburst. Well, when you’re dealing with anger, it can be pretty hard to actually listen to what the other person has to say – even if what they have to say will relieve your anger.
In some people, anger can immediately lead into narcissistic behavior (think temper tantrums, but only slightly more grown-up). This anger/narcissism combo ends up feeling like “what you say is irrelevant – I’m mad and I have to be right”. We know that this is not the way to handle our problems, but when we’re angry, we just don’t care. Try revisiting the conversation after you’ve both fully calmed down, and your voice might be heard a little better.
Reason #7: Aggression.
Okay, so it’s not just her anger that makes it hard to listen – it could also be your anger. If the things you say and the tone of voice you use convey that you’re pissed off, she’s going to pick up on that – and her fight-or-flight response will fly off the deep end. If she does hear the things you say, she’ll be too busy getting irritated with your snotty tone to fully comprehend your point.
While the words themselves play a role, the tone of voice makes a bit more of a difference. When humans hear a hostile tone, they’re most likely going to block it out, in order to preserve their own feelings. It’s not like it’s entirely her fault, either – it’s important that you understand that angry words are not an effective method of communication. Like we said in #5, try to wait until you’re less pissed off – or at least until you can handle your sass.
Reason #8: Broken trust.
Once someone has broken your trust, it’s super hard for you to build up that trust a second time. The cracks will always be there, even after the slow healing process, and if you’ve ever done or said anything mean or dishonest to someone – and they found out about it – they’re significantly less likely to listen to what you have to say in the future. You’ve taught them that what you have to say doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You’ve taught them that you can’t be trusted.
I wish I could tell you that you can rebuild the trust after it’s been broken… Human psychology doesn’t exactly work that way. At least, not often. If you are able to repair your trustworthiness with someone, it’s imperative that you don’t screw it up again, because the likelihood of getting yet a third chance is pretty freaking slim. Just don’t get your hopes up.
Reason #9: Empty filler words.
Have you ever spoken to someone who used the word “like” about 40 times in a sentence? Or maybe it was a different word, but it was repeated so many times it became meaningless? Even if a single sentence goes on too long, it’s a lot more difficult to listen to. What’s worse is that we’re not often aware of these words as they’re leaving our mouths, because they mean nothing – they’re just an errant word that slipped out our mouths when we were saying the meaty stuff.
The problem is, people don’t want to sift through the filler words to get to the point – that’s your job as the speaker. You can’t expect your partner to listen to you if you drone on and on with the same thing. Practice removing extra words when you talk. Writing is a great practice for this, because you can actually map out your sentences without anything extra. Of course I’m not suggesting you script everything you say, ever, but doing a little rehearsing while you’re changing your habits can be helpful in the long run.
Reason #10: Dismissiveness.
It’s important to realize that “treat others as you’d like to be treated” is, quite frankly, not the way most people work – and for good reason. If you’re always nice to someone who’s not nice to you, you’re going to grow to resent your life. If, instead, you don’t waste your energy on people who won’t put in the effort with you, you’re conserving your resources and focusing on those who make you better. Maybe it sounds mean – but it’s the way you need to be.
If you’re struggling to find a reason why your partner isn’t listening to you, have you considered that you might not be listening to her? If someone never listened to you, you’d probably stop listening to them over time. It’s not a matter of revenge, either. It’s a matter of self-preservation. We don’t waste our energy on people we deem unworthy of the effort. Try to adjust your own listening habits, but keep in mind that your partner might not be willing to give it another shot.
Reason #11: Ineffective communication habits.
Communication is an art form, and if you’re not using it properly, there are bound to be misunderstandings and disagreements. While much of these communication rules are taught at a young age (such as don’t speak too quickly or too quietly), others aren’t learned until we’re well into our adult lives. This can lead to major miscommunications, especially if both conversation partners are clueless to the conventional rules of dialog and etiquette.
Pay attention to your own communication style. Do you speak too loudly or too softly? Do you speak too high- or low-pitched? Do you speak too quickly, or do you speak too slowly and lose interest? Do you use the wrong inflections when speaking, such as using the question-ending uptick at the end of your declaratory sentences? As much as I really hate to say this… Think back to middle grade English class, and remember all those sentence rules. Yep, every one of them. If you don’t remember them, and a good number of people in your life seem to ignore you… It might be worth taking a communication class or two.
So… whose fault is it, anyway?
Well, in most cases, it’s not going to come down to one single reason. But examining the different possible reasons and assessing which ones apply in each aspect of your life might be helpful in making better changes. Just remember that you can’t count on the other person to change – you can only count on yourself and your ability to change your own habits.
If you think your partner would be interested in making some changes, too, feel free to share this post with her. If the two of you are able to sit down and assess the nature of your miscommunication, you stand a much better chance of fixing it. Try not to make it about who’s right and who’s wrong – that’s exactly the type of thing you’re trying to get away from! Instead, each of you focus on the things you personally need to change, and move forward from there.