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8 key reasons for why we struggle to listen

Good listening skills are often in short supply these days. Learn about the deeper social, psychological and emotional reasons for why this is…

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
                                                                  Ernest Hemingway

Listening is a gift. When someone takes the time to truly hear us, it can provide genuine healing and relief.

Yet if being listened to is so powerful, why is it a rare experience for many of us? It seems that in our busy, noisy, distracted world, deeper interactions can be hard to come by. Collectively, many of us struggle with both hearing others and being heard. 

For instance, have you ever opened up to a friend only to have them turn the conversation around to themselves? Or glance at their phone when you’re in the middle of spilling the beans about that awful thing your boss did? Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us have probably done the same to others without meaning to.

Sadly, we seem to live in a society with a chronic shortage of good listeners. But if we can learn to become better at it then we can make a real difference. In the words of psychologist Carl Rogers, co-author of Active Listening: ‘To my mind, empathy is in itself a healing agent’.

But why do some of us find listening so difficult? Here are eight key reasons…

Why do we sometimes struggle to listen?

Many of us want to be better listeners and the good news is that it’s a skill that can improve with practice. It is also well worth the effort because when it comes to being a better leader, partner or friend, being able to hear people really matters. 

As a first step, it can be useful to identify what your own personal listening pitfalls are. Here are some of the most common ones:

  1. You’re distracted — smartphones, social media and a culture of constant interruption mean that many of us can struggle with deep listening. In fact, it can be a huge conversation killer to have your phone nearby during a chat.

After all, when your device buzzes it’s hard to resist the reflex to look. Yet the trouble is this can make the person you are speaking to feel slighted or ignored. Plus it can be very hard to return to fully focusing on them after you’ve broken off your attention. In fact, according to a University of California Irvine study, once our attention has been broken it can take on average over 23 minutes to get it back. That’s why it can be useful to decide how much priority we want to give to our devices when we’re spending time with loved ones. You might also find our blog post on beating information overload useful.

  1. You’re preoccupied — beyond the moment-to-moment distractions of smartphones, many of us are juggling busy and complicated lives. From long working hours to parenting to socialising, and from mental health struggles to money worries, it seems as if we have more on our plates than ever. So it’s completely understandable if we sometimes struggle to be fully present in conversations.

In other words, you might really want to hear about your best friend’s argument with their mother. But you might also find your thoughts drifting off to your next energy bill or your upcoming work deadline. The chances are that you really do want to be a good listener but with a million other things on your mind, it’s not always easy.

  1. You feel defensive — when you’re being criticised or confronted, it can be especially hard to listen. For instance, if your partner is complaining about you leaving your socks strewn all over the house, it can be hard to focus calmly on what they’re saying. Instead, you might find yourself preparing a razor-sharp legal defence in your head. 

‘O-ho, they think my socks are the issue, do they? Well, just wait until they hear what I have to say about their treatment of the toothpaste cap.’

  1. You’re socially anxious — it’s thought that around eight million people in the UK have some form of anxiety disorder. Social anxiety can be one aspect of this and it’s an issue that makes it difficult to be in the moment. For instance, if you are worrying about the impression you’re making on a friend then it can be hard to process the story they’re sharing. 

Likewise, worrying about what you are going to say when they finish speaking can also be stress-provoking. Social anxiety can place us so much inside our own heads that it’s hard to listen, as we’re too busy listening to our inner critic instead.

  1. You’re being judgemental — we all make judgments and form opinions about other people and the world. Sometimes we aren’t aware we’re doing it, particularly if we’ve got a very strong inner critic that sometimes gets directed towards others as well as ourselves. But if you’re judging a person then you’re not truly listening to what they’re saying.

  1. You have a psychological or neurological issue — for instance, people with ADHD can  struggle to listen for long periods due and might also find themselves interrupting others. People who have experienced something traumatic might have a flashback or dissociate during conversations and lose connection with the present (especially if the topic is triggering to them). And individuals who are on the autism spectrum can sometimes feel overwhelmed at having to navigate social interactions. 

In other words, there can be deeper reasons for why we might struggle to listen and we have to forgive ourselves for this. 

  1. You find it hard to deal with people being upset — some of us are empaths, others have had past experiences of being around people whose strong emotions affected us and our sense of safety. For these reasons, you might automatically jump to trying to problem-solve or cheer a person up, instead of staying alongside them and their feelings. Or if you find emotions difficult then you might instinctively try to steer the conversation away from difficult topics.

  1. You’re out of your window of tolerance — if you’re feeling strong emotions during a conversation (related or unrelated to what someone is saying to you), you might be heading out of your window of tolerance. This is the zone in which we’re most able to take in, process and respond to information rationally, while also connecting to how we feel. This might make it difficult to concentrate and respond empathically to what you’re hearing.

As we’ve seen, there can be lots of valid reasons why we might struggle to listen. That said, we can all still aim to improve our skills where possible, as long as it’s done in a self-compassionate way. In part 2, we’re going to explore how to do this.

Need a good listener in your life? Connect with a world-class MTA psychotherapist or psychologist today for in-person, video and live chat appointments. 

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