Four women raised their eyebrows as we stepped on the elevator. Their curiosity rested in our name-tags. I wore one, my husband wore one and the other couple already on the elevator wore them, too. The name-tags explained our presence at the hotel. They looked at our faces and took note of our last names, green-lighting them to speak candidly in their native tongue. The four giggled a bit, said a few words and erupted in a cycle of chatter and laughter, chatter and laughter.
I looked to Dennis, who was smiling and masking his own laughter. They clearly didn’t expect him to be a Spanish-speaker. How could they know he was Polish in name only, the son of his Hispanic father?
We got off the elevator and I begged Dennis to let me in on the joke.
What Was So Funny
Woman #1: Look! They are here for a marriage conference.
Woman #2: Marriage conference? I’ll tell you what would help my marriage: if he would listen to what I say.
Women #1, #2, #3, #4: (laugh all the way up to our floor.)
Woman #2: Listen!! Listen!! He just needs to listen! That’s all! We don’t need a marriage conference!
Women, #1, #2, #3, #4: (continue giggling and laughing, 100% confident none of us know what they are saying.)
Woman #2 speaks, expecting her husband will listen.
And she speaks, expecting I and my husband can’t.
Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Anyone?
I would’ve laughed aloud with her. We both would have. Our marriage has been full of listening debacles. I told you that. Did you hear me? Why didn’t you ____? Did you remember to ___? I knew nothing about that. Why didn’t you tell me?
In both directions. And for all sorts of reasons. Tuned out. Preoccupied. Apathetic. Tired. Assuming.
I’ve been to some spectacular listening seminars. Folks have filled books with principles and practicals. We could all stand regular tune-ups on our listening skills.
But, listening is not a solo act. Listeners do their part, but open mouths are not off the hook. Here are ten reasons even the best listeners aren’t listening when you speak.
10 Reasons No One Is Listening to Us
We’ve lost them from the get-go
Just as a headline has one shot to grab attention, you have one line. Make it intriguing, surprise them, ask a question. Sprinkle your words with salt, so they come back for more. Or equally as important, don’t shut them down before the conversation even gets started.
We’re not speaking their language
A whole bunch of me-speak can sound like a Peanuts’ character’s wah-wuh-wawt-wahh to a would-be listener. Words, tones and phrases may have different definitions or connotations to all involved. They might want to hear you, but it gets lost in translation.
Their ears hurt
When I speak to my kids in an ever-increasing volume or a chilling tone, their little brains scream “The pain! The pain! Make it stop!.” But, when I whisper my most insistent commands, something magical happens. They come flying in the room, MAKE EYE CONTACT and even ask me to repeat what I said. You may not be yelling at your listener, but varying your tone, speed, inflection and meter triggers a fresh engagement in their mind. It breaks up the tune-out, much like a hushed restaurant stops conversations in their tracks.
We’re polarizing them
Most enjoy healthy debate, but will only tune-in for so long. If you rapid fire too many things they disagree with, they’ll dismiss whatever you are saying. Every few sentences, you need to lay some common ground to draw them back in.
We’re not giving them credit
When your words (or tone) convey shame, put them on the defense or patronize, your listener’s brain goes in fight-or-flight mode. They’re no longer hearing you; they are protecting them.
We won’t shut up
If you Energizer-Bunny them, they have no chance to engage. Short-term memory has limited capacity. A monologue puts their brain in power-save mode. Author Liz Wiseman once shared a surprisingly-successful method for encouraging kids’ cooperation. Instead of running bedtime or out-the-door-time or homework-time with sergeant-like directives, she only asks questions. “What do you need to do next?” “Where do you need to be?” “What’s still missing?” “Have I forgotten anything?” Ask away, but with one caution – patronizing tones can sneak in.
We’re boring them
Call it nagging. Call it over-informing. Call it boring-the-snot outta people. Mix it up. Keep ‘em guessing. No one turns off the movie when they don’t know how it ends. Rip up the script and toss the template.
They don’t care
You need buy-in. Start with vision. End with vision. Toss your meat in the middle. If they don’t buy the box, they won’t get the cookies. It’s marketing. It’s packaging. It’s convincing them what you are saying matters. Figure out what makes them tick and marinate your content in it.
We’re not listening to them
Someone has to go first. But, if your listener is distracted, preoccupied or predisposed to not give two hoots as to what you’re saying, they won’t stick around long. But pass them the podium and they’ll pass it back. Hear them out and you might save yourself a bout of foot-in-mouth disease. Give them empathy and they’ll give it back.
We’re not asking; we’re implying
Half the stuff we say is passive-aggressive or shrouded in hopes of mind-reading. Don’t make them read between the lines. Ask for what you want; say what you need. More times than I want to admit, I’ve been “hurt” because someone didn’t respond to “what I really meant, but didn’t say.”
Speaking is just as challenging as listening. It takes work. It takes patience. It takes selflessness. But, too often, I open my mouth quickly and it’s only the shockingly-bilingual strangers who bother to escuchando.
Which do you think is worse? Thinking someone isn’t listening, but they are? Or thinking someone is, but they aren’t?