- Not feeling heard can lead to depression, feed into anxiety, or invite anger.
- If what a person says is not taken seriously, that person will likely feel disempowered.
- One reason a person may not be heard is that people tend to listen to opinions that are similar to their own.
Nothing erodes a sense of personal empowerment like not feeling heard. What may be going on in someone else's head when you try to offer a perspective and it's ignored, brushed aside, or automatically negated?
In my clinical practice, I see again and again that not feeling heard often leads to depression, feeds into anxiety, or invites anger. (My TEDx talk on lifting depression, for instance, describes a case in which this issue proved to be central to both the cause of depressed feelings and the cure.) Feeling consistently unheard also suggests that work frustrations or marriage problems could be on the road ahead—or that they've already arrived.
Initially, another's dismissal of your viewpoint is likely to evoke a bit of anxiety. If it continues, being ignored or negated probably will engender irritation and eventually even anger. Consistently being ignored by someone of import to you also can invite depression. Depression is, in some instances, a disorder of power. If what you say is not being taken seriously, you will likely feel disempowered.
What could be going on when listening blockages occur?
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 affiliations augment life, I will be quite open to research that suggests the benefits of prayers. If my belief is that religion is the opiate of the masses, however, 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, in particular, brings out this unfortunate reality. People with left-wing political assumptions, for instance, may be much more likely to tune in to MSNBC, which may feed them further information that supports their prior beliefs. People with right-wing political assumptions, on the other hand, may be much more likely to watch Fox News. Neither group's adherents will tend to listen to the other group's newscasters—and if they do, they may 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. In other words, we take in information if it feels consonant with how we feel, either about the speaker or about the issue itself.
Both confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance make us 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 you because of narcissism.
The essence of narcissistic tendencies is a stance of "I know best—thus, others' perspectives are not worth listening to." These all-about-me and I'm-always-right stances lead individuals with narcissistic tendencies to do a lot of talking with minimal listening. When they do listen, they typically do so only to dismiss or show what's wrong with what others say, rather than to take in new information.
The worst listener I personally have ever encountered in my clinical practice turned out to be a highly successful professional baseball player. Guess what position he played? He was a pitcher. He believed in throwing but not in catching. Mr. Pitcher tossed out information to people, but had little to no interest in hearing what others (especially his wife) had to say in response—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. Listening to Mom or Dad can easily feel to them like an action that would compromise their integrity as emerging independent individuals.
In any case, there's good news here. If your teenager offers habitual but responses, point it out to him or her. 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 you because of anger.
Anger opens the mouth and closes the ears. Intense anger, especially, diminishes listening capacity. The more anger, the greater the inability to take in new information. Have you ever tried talking with someone who is in the middle of a rage? You might as well talk to a statue, in terms of how much of what you say will be heard.
As with narcissistic listening, if someone who is mad does "hear" you, it will likely be just to knock away what you have said with reasons why it's wrong. Expect what you say to be met with "But..." Anger can sometimes create narcissistic-like functioning—i.e., "What I believe and want is correct, and what you believe and want is irrelevant."
4. Distrust blocks the intake of information.
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 or her. Once shattered, trust is slow to heal.
Just as we spit out food that we think may be spoiled—and therefore toxic—we reject information from those who appear to be more enemy than friend.
5. S/he doesn't listen to you because they're treating you the way you treat yourself.
How well do you listen to your own quiet voices? When something within you speaks—says, "I'm tired," for example—do you listen? Or do you instead 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 to subconsciously do the same.
6. S/he doesn't listen to you because of your aggressive manner.
Everything we say comes with an invisible—and yet clearly perceptible—tag on it that says either "You're okay" or "You're not okay."
If you say "It's a beautiful day," for instance, your tone of voice will convey either good cheer ("I'm okay; you're okay") or annoyance ("I'm okay; you're not okay"). If you are frustrated that your friend is still at home when you wanted to run errands together, "It's a beautiful day"—though seemingly benign—may convey, "What's wrong with you, staying home in this weather?"
Even a slight tone of irritation, complaint, or criticism is likely to evoke defensive responses. Defensive responses block hearing, in order to prevent the "you're not okay" message from penetrating the other's sense of self.
If your messages are not going through, check your tone of voice, as well as your general attitude. Hostile tones invite others to defend against what you're saying, instead of listening to it.
7. S/he doesn't listen to you because of your quiet or loud voice; because you talk too fast or too slow; because of the uprising tone at the end of your sentences; because you 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 if the words come out either too fast or too slowly, listeners may 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 a question mark) instead of down (signaling a period). "This room is too hot?" is less likely to lead a listener to turn on an air conditioner than "This room is too hot."
Similarly, beware of linking multiple thoughts with "and." Run-on sentences turn off readers of written documents; they 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 goodbye 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 child will be willing to listen to. Specializing in the three-sentence rule (no more than three sentences per comment) 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 you because of you've been giving advice instead of information.
It's normal for family members, friends, colleagues, and even a boss to 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 empowerment—especially when it is given with insistence that it should be done in a particular 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—but at the same time, your insistence is likely to block your listener's receptivity.
9. S/he doesn't listen to you because you use repetitive words, such as "like" or "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 that, unfortunately, decreases parents' interest in listening.
10. Others don't listen to you because they treat you the way you 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, too—from you. Are you too often dismissive, minimizing the import of what others tell you? Do you only listen to show them what's wrong with what they've said, instead of listening for what's valuable?
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. (To assess your own listening skills, you might want to try the quiz in an earlier post I've written on listening patterns.)
If someone who is important in your life continues not to listen, just remember: Diagnosis is the first step to treatment. Understanding how you may be contributing to the listening blockages is especially helpful because you can change your own behavior quite easily. As the saying goes, where there's a will, there's a way.
To get yourself heard more effectively, remember the rule of sameness: More of the same will get you more of the same. Think of the challenge of getting heard as a fun opportunity for creative thinking—and let those creative juices flow.