By Susan Caso, MA, LPC

As a therapist, I see a TON of miscommunication in my office, primarily due to a need for higher-level listening skills. Much of my job is helping people hear one another better. 

Sometimes I feel like an interpreter in my sessions with families, couples, and parent-child relationships. As you’ve probably noticed when dealing with non-listeners, poor listening leads to misunderstandings, frustrations, conflict, and disconnection.

When people reach out to me saying, “We don’t communicate well,” they often don’t realize that effective communication requires – above all else – listening to understand the other person’s perspective first. We often focus on getting our message across, but I believe 70% of your time communicating could be spent listening. 

It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but listening well will be the secret to success in communication between parents and teens. In any relationship throughout life, listening is a core competency you will use.

6½ signs you’re not actually listening:

Have you ever heard that you’re not listening well? Let’s take a look at what might be going on. 

1. Simply pausing, only waiting to give advice.

When we hear a snippet of what someone is saying, it activates our brain. We’re eager to jump in to tell someone who’s talking what we think they should do. The result of giving instruction, fixing, and problem-solving that comes too quickly and without solicitation from the person sharing is that it cuts them off emotionally. 

They may think, “I was just in the middle of telling you how I was feeling, and you slammed on the brakes.” It can feel jarring to the other person, and they surely won’t feel heard. 

This does not mean that parents and significant others don’t have good intentions when they attempt problem-solving. Parents commonly say,” It’s hard for me to see my child’s sadness. I just want to make it all better.” I hear from men especially, “I like to fix it for them.” 

But, attempting to “make it better” involves the other person feeling you understand their emotional experience. That understanding only comes when you listen to their whole story. 

Only then can you gain perspective of their position, validate their feelings, and empathize with what they’re going through. There is no “problem solving” to be done, only listening to fully understand.

2. Listening to defend yourself.

If you are letting the person talk but merely waiting to make your point(s), you are not listening. This can even happen when the conversation isn’t a contentious one.  

When I see teens explain to their parents how they are feeling, often their parents jump to, “But I told you or I was doing the best I could…” We head quickly to an agenda of defending why it isn’t our fault. We want them to know we aren’t to blame for the other person’s feelings. Couples do the same thing.

When a conflict occurs, criticalness is often flying. We move into defensive mode quickly in an effort not to hear something negative about ourselves and avoid our bad feelings. We may even feel a threat of being in trouble, like when we were younger. In close relationships, the threat can intensify due to worry the relationship may be in jeopardy.

3. Mainly interested in being right.

When you are preoccupied with being right, you aim to prove your point and win. Your ears are turned off. You likely need to be more curious about what the other person is thinking and feeling. You aren’t looking to understand their experience, only for them to understand yours. Meaning that your way is the only way, and no one should challenge you.

Being preoccupied with being right is a sign your ego has taken over as the most important presence. It can be challenging to hear the other person with this closed mindset.

4. Caught up in judging the other person.

Little hearing happens when we are preoccupied with judging the other person. Processing what they are saying through your judgment filter leaves no room for understanding the other person’s point of view.

Our judgment filter can contain assumptions, biases, prejudices, and criticalness about the other person’s experience. Again we fall into, “I am right, and you are wrong,” which is closed-minded.

5. Interrupting often.

If you are more interested in being right, proving your point, and defending, I’d guess you are also interrupting. You actually aren’t interested in hearing what the other person is saying. 

If you find yourself interrupting others, stop talking and let the other person proceed. Hear them out and acknowledge what you heard. Then speak. 

This can be challenging at first, but with practice, it takes less time overall as you can cover more ground. Rather than talking in circles, you’ll actually make progress communicating.

6. Subconsciously running the “Who am I?” pattern as a conversation unfolds.

A kind of “second conversation” is happening inside our heads regarding our view of self. While we may not consciously ask ourselves, “Who am I?” we may have doubts that interfere with our listening ability. While you are listening, a simultaneous, often subconscious, narrative happens within.  

We all hold beliefs about who we are from messages we have received throughout life. These beliefs are a part of our interactions with others. Sometimes we are aware of it, and sometimes we aren’t. 

For example, if I am communicating with my husband and believe that I’ve always been portrayed as “the bad guy,” I filter what the other person is saying through the lens of me being the one at fault. So when I am listening to him, I am on the hunt for messaging that leads to this belief. 

Our view of self taints the conversation and leads to hearing things that aren’t being said. Our behavior reflects this belief of self.

6½. Subconsciously running the “What do they think about me?” pattern as a conversation unfolds.

As with the situation I’ve just described, in our “second conversation,” another question we tend to ask is, “What do they think of me?” We carry assumptions about how the other person who is communicating with us views us. Again, this contributes to what we hear them say… and can taint the verbalized conversation. 

Most of the time, any assumptions we’re making about what someone thinks of us go unverified. This causes a lot of confusion and can lead to misunderstandings. We can take one comment or look, create meaning, then wrap our thoughts and feelings around our hypothesis and run with it. 

The frequency of these other conversations happening in your head is high. This is where my role as therapist-as-interpreter adds value. I will ask questions such as, “What did you hear your partner say?” or “What did you hear your mom or dad say?” The responses are filled with a mixture of what the person has said, beliefs the listener carries of themselves, and assumptions of how they perceive the speaker views them.  

It is hard to hear the other person amid these second conversations. Recognizing all the narratives – conscious and subconscious – that may be going on during a conversation is essential. Knowing your current state of mind, you can ask yourself, “Am I in a place to be able to listen right now?”

Quick tips to improve listening at home:

To better hear your loved ones, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be patient. No one wants to be rushed when trying to tell you how they’re feeling.
  • Stay curious. Ask questions to gain an understanding. Ask, “Can you explain more so I can understand what you are going through?”
  • Remain fully present. The other person feels you are giving them your full attention because you seem interested through eye contact and engaged body language.
  • Notice filtering. How might you be filtering what you hear? Ask yourself, “What other conversations are happening in my head?”
  • Respond with validation. Engage in active listening; paraphrase what you hear to check your understanding. For example, you might state, “I hear you saying…” or ask, “My understanding is that you feel… Is that right?”
  • Show empathy. Imagine what it might be like for the other person. Say something like, “That makes sense.” Even if you don’t agree, you can empathize with their feelings.
  • Offer gratitude. Someone values you so much that they want to share something with you! Tell them you value that.

As you can see, the tips can start working immediately, but it may take time to change your habits. 

Think of listening to your parent or teenager as something done “from one heart to another.” If you’re listening well, the other person feels genuinely heard. They feel valued, respected, validated, and understood. Putting yourself in your loved one’s position can create all the “good feels.”

Listening requires having only an agenda of hearing the other person’s experience. To be a good listener, you must become a detective who seeks a clear understanding of another person’s world – before communicating from your own point of view.

What is the outcome of making an effort to listen well?

When we truly hear each other, we fare better in all life settings (work, school, home, sports, etc.). Listening affects everyone’s happiness – including yours – because life is relational.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text Crisis Text Line by texting “LIV” to 741-741.