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Archive for May, 2018

Listen Up: Why Listening is So Hard and What We Can Do to Make it Easier

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Epictetus

Wise words from the Greek philosopher.

So why is it so many of us go through the day behaving as if we had five mouths and no ears?

Why it is so hard to be a good listener?

What are some steps we can take to become better?

Listen up.


The Origin of the Problem

Relationship experts Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have made some fascinating observations.

The problem with listening starts very early in childhood.

Parents are typically asked two important questions when their toddlers are in the early stages of development.

“Is Johnny walking yet?”


“Is Johnny talking yet?”

In school, we have classes in Public Speaking

We take oral exams.

If you want to pay someone a compliment, you might refer to them as “well spoken.”

Debating teams are rewarded for their ability to present strong oral arguments.

But what about listening??

How often is a parent asked, “How is Johnny’s listening coming along?”

Where are the classes in “Public Listening”?

No wonder so many of are so bad at listening.

No one shows us how.

In addition, if you’re having a hard time effectively communicating with another person, you might be told, “You just need to listen better.”

“How?” you might inquire.

“You know, just listen better…”

“Oh, ok…”


The Other Big Problem

 What’s going on?

The short answer is—a lot.

We are all walking around during the day with a movie in our heads that plays nonstop.

It’s sort of like a voiceover or a documentary.

We are making internal observations and comments throughout the day of what others are doing or saying and how we feel about what is going on around us.

When someone is speaking, these thoughts as well as any number of external distractions make it difficult to accurately track what that person is saying.

Research indicates when we’re not distracted and really try to pay attention, our accuracy rate is only 13-18%.

That means our distortion rate is 82-87%.

Add a distraction, and the distortion rate quickly climbs to 100%!

In addition, all human beings are symbiotic.

We tend to unconsciously fuse with other people throughout the day assuming they, on some level, think our thoughts, want our wants and/or believe our beliefs.

When that happens, it prevents us from seeing individuals as “other” (as in “other than us”) and makes it difficult to really hear what they are actually saying.

Symbiosis occurs when we are stuck in our head (the “cave”) having “conversations” with people who aren’t there.

Those conversations take us to a fantasy world which is not real.

The goal is to stay “in the world” of other people so that we can hear what they are really saying rather than making up stuff about them in our heads.


Solving the Problem

 Let’s examine how we communicate and how that affects what we hear.

I can:

  1. Talk at you in which case I’m simply interested in what I said.
  2. Talk to you and focus not just on what I said but also on what you heard.
  3. Talk with you and shift my focus from what I’m saying to not only what you heard but also how it affected you.

Talking with you moves me from not just communicating but also connecting with you.

For this to happen, however, I must first get out of that symbiotic “cave.”

Here are four ways to get out of the cave:

Let Go (Of assumptions, of winning, of competing, of being right, of controlling and dominating, etc.).

Be Curious/Have Empathy (Ask questions rather than make assumptions. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes).

Don’t Judge (Doing so says the other person is “less than”).

Allow for Differences (Different points of view, different beliefs, different ways of defining what is important, etc.).

Once I have done these things, I’m now able to begin the process of meaningful communication and really listening.

In order for this to occur consistently, I need one more set of tools.

For those tools, we turn once again to Drs. Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt.

Over 30 years ago, they developed a communication process called the Imago Dialogue (also called Safe Conversations.)

This approach was first introduced in Harville Hendrix’s best-selling book Getting the Love You Want

Most people, they observed, communicate through a series of monologues – two people talking and no one listening.

During a monologue, the listener is often more interested in what he/she is getting ready to say than in what the speaker

is attempting to communicate.

This lack of attentiveness often leads to misunderstandings.

One way to improve communication, they reasoned, might be to take turns talking and listening engaging in a dialogue.

They created three steps:  mirroring, validating and empathizing.

Mirroring consists of actively listening to the other person in order to accurately reflect what they said.

This is often done by paraphrasing.

The purpose of mirroring is to make sure the message delivered is the message received.

Mirroring also gives the speaker a chance to finish their thought without fear of interruption, argument or analysis.

By mirroring, the listener is agreeing to temporarily put their opinions aside so the speaker can be heard.

Typical mirroring phrases are a variation of “So if I’m hearing you correctly, what you’re saying is…”


“What I heard you say was…”  etc.

After mirroring the person, it is important to check for accuracy and make sure you truly heard what was being communicated.

This is best done by asking “Is that what you said?”

If the person says “No,” ask them to resend the message.

If the person says “Yes,” ask “Is there more?” and repeat the process until they are finished.

Validating follows mirroring and communicates to the speaker that you have heard the information from their point of view, and that you accept what they said as valid for them.

Validation doesn’t mean you agree with the speaker.

Reasonable people can and do disagree all the time.

Validation simply acknowledges that no two people see a situation exactly the same way.  Validation allows the speaker to see that what they said “makes sense.”

(Everybody’s “sense” makes sense to them!)

Some examples of how to validate the speaker include “That makes sense because…,” or “I can see how you could think that…,” etc.

Empathizing follows mirroring and validating and lets the speaker know that you are attempting to “put yourself in their shoes.”

This is done with phrases such as “If that happened to me, I would be feeling…”


“I can imagine you must have felt….”


A sample dialogue might sound like this: “So if I’m hearing you correctly, what you’re saying is that you don’t feel people

really listen to each other in this office.  I can see how you could think that and if that happened to me

I would feel frustrated, isolated and would really want to be heard.”

When the speaker is finished, it is their turn to ask the listener if they would like to say something.

This is best done using phrases such as “After hearing what I said, is there anything you would like to say?”


“How did you feel hearing what I just said?”

The roles are reversed and the mirroring, validation and empathy begin again.


The great thing about the dialogue is that the person talking feels listened to, and

the listener feels like they better understand what is being said.


When people feeling really listened to they feel safe.

Safe people are more open and engaged.

People who are open and engaged are happier and more productive.


And who wouldn’t like to feel safe, happy and productive?!?


Try some of these suggestions.

Who knows, used properly, those two ears may be all you really need to be a great listener.








CTS Consulting, Inc

3126 Berkshire Road

Baltimore, Maryland 21214

phone 410-444-5857

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