Even though we all know a person who doesn’t seem to have ears, most people would argue that they’re a good listener. But what makes a poor listener a poor listener? Poor listeners often make 4 mistakes when listening: they evaluate, probe, advise and interpret everything they hear and never fully understand what is being said. I like to think I’m a good listener, but I’m guilty of all 4 at times.
I work with a fellow who can’t help but provide his wisdom and advice in every situation. When I describe how my wife and I are struggling with getting our 2 children to sleep through the night, he has a tip for how to make it work. When we talk about how the economy is so fragile, he knows exactly what needs to be done to fix it. When we discuss the problems we face at work, he knows exactly how to fix them (if only he was in charge).
While offering tips and advice has its place, sometimes people just want to relate. They don’t want an answer, a solution or even to hear about something similar that happened to you. People need room to open up emotionally and just let things out.
The 4 “Autobiographical Response” Mistakes
In Covey’s 7 Habits book he calls these mistakes “autobiographical responses” because it’s how we script our own life and experience into everything we hear. He says,
“We evaluate – we either agree or disagree; we probe – we ask questions from our own frame of reference; we advise – we give counsel based on our own experience; or we interpret – we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behaviors, based on our own motives and behaviors.”
Evaluate: When we’re evaluating what someone is saying, we’re too busy trying to figure out whether we agree or disagree with them and thinking about what we’re going to say in response to really understand them. We might hear them, but we surely don’t feel what they’re feeling and understand what they’re thinking.
Probe: When we probe with questions people tend to feel like they’re being interrogated. It’s okay to ask questions, but not just so you can figure someone out. No one wants to be picked apart while they’re trying to be open with someone.
Advise: Offering tips and advice is usually a nice gesture, but sometimes people aren’t looking for your help – they’re looking for someone to listen to them. When someone has all the answers to my problems I feel like saying “just listen to me already!”
Interpret: When we interpret what other people are saying we’re actually analyzing their words based on our own experience. While interpreting another person it’s almost like we’re working on putting them in a nice little box, categorizing them with other people; he must be a republican, he’s probably against vaccinating, she’s one of those materialistic housewives, she’s an introvert, etc. etc.
We All Need Psychological Air
People need “psychological air,” as Covey puts it, to open up and share their emotions. It’s not always wrong to evaluate, interpret, probe or offer advice, but we have to be careful about how and how often we do it. I often do it without even knowing it, and usually at a time when a person just needed some air to breathe emotionally.
When we give people psychological air, we’re making deposits in an emotional bank account. We can consider that account our level of trust in a relationship and those deposits are what we rely on when we’re in a rough patch. If you haven’t been investing in the emotional bank account of your spouse, the next time you do something that hurts them it’s going to be harder for them to let it go. It’s like getting an overdraft fee for every purchase that goes below your account balance!
Next Time You’re Listening to Someone, Try This.
Open yourself up emotionally to what the other person is saying. Make yourself open to their influence by letting your guard down and being emotionally vulnerable; let them “air out”. Affirm what you hear without parroting – don’t repeat back what you hear, really try to understand them and repeat back what you understand, not what you hear.
The coworker I described above is an incredibly nice guy and good at what he does. While I’m sure he intends well with this advice, I think he doesn’t realize people just want to be heard. Do you?