We are born with two ears and one mouth for a reason, or so the old saying goes. Why? So we can listen twice as much as we speak, of course.
But if you’ve ever been stuck spending time with a terrible listener, you’ll know it’s one of the most unsatisfying – sometimes positively disheartening – experiences you can have.
Of course we all have our off days. The demands of work, raising children, or simply being preoccupied with everyday conundrums such as what to eat for dinner can lead all of us to tune out occasionally.
However, a regular failure to take notice can have some pretty big consequences – leading to the end of friendships and romances, a poor relationship between employees and bosses, and even unhappy children.
So why is it such a struggle for some people to stop and actually listen?
“For some people it’s absolutely a lack of interest,” says clinical psychologist Amanda Gordon. “But for most of us the not listening happens when we’re just busy; we’ve got so much going on that we don’t listen to the other.”
Sooner or later, the person on the wrong end of this conversation will notice their companion’s poor listening efforts, says Gordon, who is also founder of the practice Armchair Psychology.
“They feel like they don’t have your attention, they feel like they’re not worthy – like they’re not important to you.”
In this case, that person may either start to withdraw from the conversation, or try harder to get your attention, she says.
Gordon says it’s not uncommon for couples to fall out over their partner’s failure to listen.
In many cases the partner copping the flak will argue that they heard every word. However hearing the words someone is saying, and understanding the nuances behind them, can be two very different things, she says.
“Often people are able to repeat back the words but they’ve missed entirely the meaning behind the words.”
So if you suspect your listening skills could do some serious attention, what can you do to up your game?
“One tip is to clear yourself of the other things you have to do before you go into an important conversation,” says Gordon.
However if you can’t do this – say you’ve just picked up your kids from school, but still have work to do or calls to make – ensure they know that your undivided attention is on the way.
“Give them some attention or say to them, ‘I just need to do these two things, but then I want to hear all about your day’,” says Gordon. “And do the same thing with your partner when they come home in the evening.”
In other situations, perhaps while chatting with friends, make sure that you’re actually present in what is being said. “If you’re busy constructing what you’re going to say next, then you’re not concentrating on what’s happening in the moment.”
Gordon says real conversations don’t always have to flow smoothly – you can always take a pause after the other person has finished speaking to think about what they’ve said, or what you might add next.
Body language, particularly eye contact, is another easy way to show you’re listening intently.
And while you may not give the same attention to every single conversation that takes place in your life, it is vital to concentrate on the ones that matter.
“If you want to show you’re listening, stop doing other things and pay attention,” says Gordon.
“You have to give your important conversations time in your day, because really that’s what’s going to be the fabric of your life.”