So what could be going on when listening blockages occur?
1. S/he doesn't listen to me because of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance
Most people open their ears to information that confirms what they already believe, and, alas, close them to disconfirmatory information. If I already believe, for instance, that religious affililations augment life, I will be open to research that suggests the benefits of prayers. If my belief is that religion is the opiate of the masses, I will be highly skeptical of positive reports about the impacts of prayer.
Because of confirmation bias, people tend to listen to people who express opinions that are similar to theirs. Politics particularly brings out this unfortunate reality. People with left-wing political assumptions, for instance, tune in to MSNBC which feeds them further information that supports their prior beliefs. People with right-wing political assumptions watch Fox News. Neither group's adherents will tend to listen to the other group's newscasters. And if they do, the listeners will be more likely to disparage than to take seriously what they hear.
Cognitive dissonance plays a role here too. If you like someone, you are likely to be interested in hearing their perspectives. If you are angry at someone, your knee-jerk reaction is likely to be to reject what they say as wrong, unimportant, or otherwise not worth listening to. That is, we take in information if data, or the giver, feels consonant with how we feel either about the speaker or about the issue.
Both confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance make us all prone to reject dissonant data, that is, data that differs from what we previously have believed or that is spoken by someone toward whom we harbor negative feelings. If negative political talk has convinced us that we should not like a particular politician, for instance, we are unlikely to listen seriously to that politician's ideas about what our city or nation needs.
2. S/he doesn't listen to me because of narcissism.
The essence of a narcissistic way of being in the word is a stance of "I know best" so "Your perspective is not worth listening to." This all-about-me and I'm-always-right stance leads individuals with narcissistic tendencies to do lots of talking with quite minimal listening. When they do listen, they listen to dismiss or show what's wrong with what others say instead of to take in new information.
The worst listener I ever have encountered in my clinical practice turned out to have been a highly successful professional athlete. His sport was baseball. Guess what position he played? He was a pitcher. He believed in throwing but not in catching. Mr. Pitcher tossed out information to people, and had little to no interest in hearing what others, and especially his wife, had to say — unless it was praise or other positive input about how great he was.
Teenagers, alas, tend to specialize in narcissistic stances. They often believe that they know best, and listening to Mom or Dad can easily feel to them like an action that would compromise their integrity as emerging separate individuals.
In any case, there's good news here. Whether actual narcissism, narcissistic-like listening, or the narcissism of teenagerism is causing habitual but responses, a butting listener who has become aware of the habit may be willing to learn to respond instead with Yes...And at the same time.
3. S/he doesn't listen to me because of anger.
Anger opens the mouth and closes the ears.
Intense anger especiallly diminishes listening capacity. The more anger, the more inability to uptake new information.
Ever try talking with someone who is raging? You might as well talk to a statue or a rag doll in terms of how much what you say will be heard.
As with narcissistic listening, if someone who is mad does "hear" you, it will be just to knock away what you have said with reasons why what you said is wrong. Expect what you say to be met with "But..." Anger creates narcissistic functioning, i.e., "What I believe and want is holy, and what you believe and want is irrelevant."
Once you have said or done something mean, hurtful or dishonest to someone, that person is likely to remain wary of whether you are for or against him/her. Once shattered, trust is slow to heal.
Just as we spit out food that we think may be spoiled and therefore toxic to us, we reject information from those who appear to be more enemy than friend.
5. S/he doesn't listen to me because of treating me the way I treat myself.
How well do you listen to your own quiet vioices? When something within you speaks, e.g., says, "I'm tired," do you listen, or do you ignore that inner voice?
Listeners subjectively tend to mirror speakers' attitudes toward themselves. If you like yourself, others will tend to like you. If you listen to yourself, others are more likely to listen to you. If you "but" yourself ("But I have too much to do to go to sleep now"), others are likely subconsciously to do the same toward you.
6 S/he doesn't listen to me because of my aggressive manner.
Everything we say comes with a little invisible and yet clearly perceptible tag on it that says either "You're OK" or "You're not OK." So if you say "It's a beautiful day," your tone of voice will convey either good cheer ("I'm OK, you're OK") or annoyance ("I'm OK, you're not OK"). For instance if you are frustrated that your friend is still at home when you wanted to go out together to do errands, "It's a beautiful day," though seemingly benign words, may convey, "What the devil is wrong with you, staying home in this weather!"
Any even slight tone of irritation, complaint, or criticism is likely to evoke defensive responses. Brash is abrasive. Defensive responses block hearing to prevent the "you're not OK" message from penetrating your database along with the main message.
If your messages are not going through, check out your voice tones, and with them, your attitude. Any hostile voice tones invite others to defend against instead of listening to what you are saying.
7. S/he doesn't listen to me because of my quiet or loud voice; because I talk too fast or too slowly; because of the uptick voice at the end of my sentences; because I string together too much data with excessive ands.
Listening effectively occurs only within a relatively narrow bandwidth. If a speaker's voice is too loud, or too soft, or the words come out either too fast or too slowly, listeners turn away.
Pay attention too to the common mistake of ending each statement as if it were a question, that is, with a melody that goes up (signaling question mark) instead of down (signaling a period). "This room is too hot?" is less likely to lead a listener to turn on an airconditioner than "This room is too hot."
Similarly, beware of linking multiple thoughts with "and." Run-on sentences turn off readers of written documents, and also turn off the ears of listeners. "I went to the store and saw Jack there and realized that I had left the oven on and so I ran out without even saying good bye and I've been wondering ever since if I hurt his feelings and now I would like to..." No matter how interesting your comments are, run-on sentences are a listening turn-off.
Parents of teenagers are especially at risk, with or without too many ands, for offering more information than their son or daughter will be willing to listen to. Specializing in the 3-sentence rule (no more than three sentences per comment to a teenager) can increase the odds that a teenager will keep his or her ears open when parents are talking.
8. S/he doesn't listen to me because of I've been giving advice instead of information.
People, and especially teenagers who have positive attachments with their parents, often tell their troubles to others. Does that mean that they want advice? Unlikely. Information, yes; advice, no. What's the difference?
Information empowers others to make their own decisions. "Planting flowers before June in Colorado often results in lots of frozen, never-to-grow-again plants."
Advice, by contrast, risks undermining others' sense of personal impowerment, especially when it is given with insistence that "You should do it my way."
"Wait to plan your flowers until after June 1st. You'd be making a huge mistake if you don't follow that rule." Your information may be right and at the same time your insistence is likely to block your listener's receptivity.
9. S/he doesn't listen to me because of I use annoyinglyrepetitive words: Like, you know ...
Repeated non-meaningful words clog a conversation like garbage can clog up the kitchen sink. "I went into town you know yesterday. Like, it was so hot out I thought I'd like melt in the bus."
Because teenagers learn language habits from peers as well as from home, they are especially at risk for picking up this off-putting habit, a habit that decreases parents' interest in listening.
10. Others don't listen to me because they treat me the way I treat them.
"Before you criticize me, better look at yourself." Those words from a famous song offer perennially helpful advice. Maybe the person you want to have hear you better has been getting short-changed on the listening end from you. Are you too often dismissive, minimizing the import of what others tell you, or listening to show them what's wrong with what they've said instead of listening for what's interesting?
If you have not been listening to them, the odds zoom downward that they will hear you. The good news here is that pretty much everyone else wants to be heard just like you do.
So next time you are dissipating, unheard, into vapor, or getting knocked aside with steady but responses, focus on how effectively you are conveying that you have heard what hat person is saying. Start your response with "Yes..." so that your willingness to see it their way is immediately apparent. Digest aloud what you heard, focusing on whatever you can find in what the person you are talking with has said that made sense to you.
--Mom: It's important that you be home by the midnight curfew time.
--Teen: But no one else has to be home that early.
--Mom: Yes, I agree. Dad and I have more conservative rules than other parents.
--Teen: Yes, I sure agree with you on that.
To assess your own listening skills, you might try the quiz in an earlier post I've written on listening patterns.
So if someone who is important in your life continues not to listen...
Diagnosis is a first step to treatment.
Understanding what you may be contributing to the listening blockages is especially helpful because what you have been doing, you can change. The old adage about where there's a will, there's a way has much truth in it.
As to factors within the other person, do remember the rule of sameness: More of the same will get you more of the same. Maybe think of the challenge of getting heard as a fun opportunity for creative thinking, let those creative joices flow, and, you never know....
Susan Heitler, Ph.D.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of the book and workbook The Power of Two, and of the online marriage skill-building program that teaches the talking and listening skills for relationship success, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.