Why Is It So Hard to Listen? Three Keys to High Quality Listening

June 15, 2023
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“You’re not listening to me!”

“Did you even hear what I said?”

“Are you paying attention to what I’m saying?”

“It feels like you’re just waiting for me to finish so you can dive in with your thoughts!”

We’ve all been there, trying to talk to a distracted, disinterested, or defensive partner! It can be frustrating, disconnecting, and sometimes it feels rejecting. If we’re honest, we might have been the struggling listener as well.

Why is it so hard to listen?

The Generous Explanations…..that are easier to accept

Being tired, stressed, worried, distracted, hungry, hot or cold all make it more difficult to concentrate and give our full attention to the person who is speaking. We don’t necessarily mean to listen poorly, but our bodies and/or our minds have alarm bells going off that often drown out the speaker and make listening difficult.

The Frequent Reality…..that often leads to blame and defensiveness

Poor listening is often a product of relationship gridlock – when partners get stuck in a negative conflict cycle they can’t seem to break free from. Gridlock comes in many forms—a quiet, avoidant stalemate; a walking on eggshells uneasiness; a passive aggressive bite; or firework- infused battles. When gridlock sets in, it creates a sense of stuckness, a sense that we are spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere, a “here we go again” feeling. The reinforced steel frame holding up our relational gridlock is the defensive space that has been created and lives between us, preventing connection and understanding from getting through. It’s there for a good reason, of course. We’ve been hurt, frustrated, let down, dismissed, maybe even betrayed. And these experiences create the steel frame of the defensive space. When communicating, they lead to interrupting, questioning, guardedness, dismissing, and the general defensiveness and self-protection that torpedo high quality listening. They also lead to narrow, rigid, and often inaccurate beliefs about our partner (e.g., they don’t care, they are selfish, they don’t love me) that make it incredibly difficult to listen to what our partners have to say, let alone understand them.

Listening well is really hard, but also an essential ingredient in building a strong relationship.

Three components of listening well

  1. Consideration is the key ingredient in high quality listening. Consideration is an attitude of respect and thoughtfulness that is brought to a conversation.  Consideration says, “you matter” and “you’re important to me, so I’m here to play my part in creating the space for a conversation.” This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what your partner says, just that you will do your part to create the space for a conversation to happen.

What does consideration look like? It starts with conveying attention—eye contact, an open body posture, and nonverbals (e.g., head nodding) that convey you are present in this very moment. Consideration values the person you are interacting with–even when they are acting in ways that are hard to value.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What beliefs, attitudes, and/or feelings are blocking me from showing my partner more consideration during conversations?
  • What could I do to prepare myself to enter our conversations with more consideration?
  • How would I like to show up for our conversations?
  1. Curiosity is a mindset. It suggests an openness to investigate, to learn, to know more. Behind it is an attitude of “I don’t have all the answers” or “There’s likely more to the story than I’m assuming right now.” Curiosity shows up in the words you say—“interesting, tell me more”, “go on”, “what else”, “I’m not sure I understand, but I want to”—and how you say them. Think interested friend wanting to understand rather than a prosecuting attorney trying to poke holes in a story. Curiosity dies in the defensive space and it’s nearly impossible to listen well without curiosity.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What beliefs, attitudes, and/or feelings are blocking me from being more curious during our conversations?
  • What could I do to prepare myself to enter our conversations with more curiosity?
  • What would I be doing/saying if I was being more curious?
  1. Comprehension is about understanding, and it has two components. The first is understanding what is being said. You get it, you grasp what your partner is saying. It’s not a rushed “yeah, yeah, I hear you”, but more of a deeper, considered, reflective, “yeah, I hear you, I understand.” You understand what your partner is sharing.

The second component is deeper, it’s comprehending not just what is being said, but why it’s being said, what it means to your partner, and why they care. This level of understanding goes beyond an intellectual grasp of the topic and includes a relational quality and depth that suggests you get them. You understand why they think or feel the way they do or want what they want. Bringing an attitude of consideration and leading with curiosity allows for this deeper level of understanding to emerge.

I get you.  

A key distinction is that comprehension or a deep understanding does not equal agreement. You can understand your partner at a very deep level and still not agree or see things the same way. That’s ok and important and not a requirement for a healthy relationship. And believing that understanding equals agreement often creates a barrier to curiosity and really listening. But, truly understanding each other is a prerequisite for problem solving.

Consideration, curiosity, and comprehension create a relational space where caring, openness, mutual respect, encouragement, and ultimately connection can grow and deepen. In this environment, there is greater connection and more receptiveness and freedom to be oneself. Hard things can be shared. Disagreements are not only allowed but can serve as a vehicle to deeper understanding and connection. It’s not easy. None of us bring these three C’s to all of our conversations. But we all have the capacity to make small improvements that over time can make all the difference.

If you and your partner are finding it difficult to listen well, you are not alone. For many of us, the cycle of hurt and unproductive fighting leads to frustration and bitterness, which make consideration, curiosity, and comprehension very difficult. If you find yourself stuck in a gridlocked cycle, consider reaching out. Our team of highly trained relationship specialists are here to help: admin@kcrelationshipinstitute.com/816-537-1350.


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