Why is it so hard to listen?

Various management or coaching books I come by mention the importance of listening. It is a power when you can understand what people are saying and give them the feeling they are being heard. Yet listening is not too easy to do. I’m sure most of us feel like we are listening, but all in all, wouldn’t be able to repeat back exactly what another person said. In a conversation, we listen out for what we are going to reply, rather than listening to what the people are exactly saying. On average a person spends 17seconds before interrupting or commenting on what another person has said. Just count next time you are talking to someone how long it takes before they or you say something. Often when I observe conversations, or am in one myself I notice people seem to be focusing on conversations just to find a word or a topic where they can jump in. The listening is more focused on “Where can I bring in what I want to say” rather than what is actually being said. The active practice of listening seems to be a skill that many need to actively learn.


Why is that? We spend most of our time listening to our own thoughts, are we so egocentric we only want to listen to ourselves? Perhaps, but perhaps there are some logical reasons why listening can be hard that may help us understand the root cause of why we don’t spend time listening to other people:


1)      We are too preoccupied – With the increased flow of information (heard of this thing called the internet and a smart phone?) and the speed of it alone tends to take overwhelm us in a way that making room for more information seems to trigger an overload. Ever just felt drained at the end of the day and you weren’t able to focus even on a simple TV show? Or watched the news and then not being able to repeat back what you just read? It’s called information fatigue– and psychologists have been trying to tackle it for a while.


2)      Not being in the moment  – Heard of Mindfulness? Having a hard time being in the present can extend to also being aware of what someone else is saying, says my friend Pietro. He has a hard time quieting his mind, his mind wonders to chores he must do for the day or things that are worrying him. First he has to quiet his own mind, before he can hear what others are saying. “I need to get out of my head” he adds. We all have an inner voice that at times can be much louder than any other sound. Which brings me also to the next point:


3)      We listen with Bias – We bring our own voice or experiences to the table that we often change the message of what is being said. We interpret the message to what we want to hear rather than what is actually being said. It’s fairly normal, everyone sees the world differently and had different perceptions of the world. For example if someone says its cold, we might think they are wrong because we do not feel ourselves that it is cold. We judge them and instead of considering how they feel, think they are crazy and just spend the rest of the time focusing on how we perceive the temperature. And the reason for that is:


4)      Evolutionary – Yes you heard right. Cave men stuff. My friend Julie explains: “The brain is trained to make assumptions as quick as possible and decisions based on what’s being communicated and what’s not. This is known as heuristics – mental shortcuts that allow people to solve problems and make judgements quickly – which also lead to bias. (..) The Brain is optimized for 1. Quick judgement 2. Complete Self-belief (…) Combo of these two means there is no immediate need for “I should listen” and rather “I already know and I already know I’m right”.” Life is easier if you never have to question what you hear or think. I think we can all agree to that


5)      We never learn to listen. We learn to talk, we learn to hear sounds – but we are not taught how to listen. I’ve never seen a parent teach a child how to listen to another person. Humans have such an urge to be heard, to be validated – we focus on our needs and not other peoples. Your own needs drive your wellbeing. Listening to other people is not a human need, and it will most likely not affect your wellbeing. Yet listening has so many positives, you can learn from people, you build trust, you can find out things about them they perhaps don’t know how to share, you make them feel important and this makes them invest in the relationship. Being blunt what’s the point of even being around another person if you are not going to listen to them?



You might be in a situation where one of these things apply. But you also might be in one were multiple of them apply at the same time. Listing them out really seems like it’s such a hassle to listen to people – is it worth just building a better relationship? I guess you can decide that for yourself – I on the other hand will probably write my next blog entry on it. But for now, Here is a simple strategy that you could employ:


Just try. Actively decide you want to focus on listening.


You are a human – you can hold your pee, walk-breathe-talk-text at the same time,  watch star wars for 3 hours, you can for sure decide to focus on listening to someone. You can do this. I believe in you. And feel free to share your tips.

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