Have You Heard a Word I’ve Said?

“I don’t think you’ve heard a word I said.”

Sound familiar?

Here is another familiar refrain you hear when you are not listening: “You just don’t understand.”

Most of us consider listening a fundamental tool in healthy relationships, meaningful communication and civil discourse. And not listening leads to much of the misunderstanding and conflict we have in our lives and in our world.

At its finest, listening is about understanding in a way that the other person feels heard. We listen to understand.

Given that listening is such a universal and basic communication tool, why do so many of us blow it, either by our own admission or by the way others respond to us?

For starters, listening is a learned skill, and effective listening is sometimes counterintuitive. For example, it is normal and healthy to be assertive about getting our own needs met, but it is a death knell for effective listening when we chronically interrupt others in order to focus on ourselves and our own needs.

Sometimes interrupting others is nothing more than misplaced enthusiasm, but other times, it represents a power grab, competitiveness, and a need to exert control. Either way, the message is that you are more interested in listening to yourself than to the other person.

Do you want to master the art of listening? Begin by making an active decision to make listening your goal. Make a conscious effort to listen with no other intention than listening.

Create an environment that is conducive to listening. Sit down. Eliminate distractions by turning off your phone, your computer, your TV. Ensure privacy. Find a space where you’ll not be interrupted by others.

Stop talking. Learn to embrace silence, your own and the speaker’s. Do not rush to fill a silence. Catch yourself when you interrupt; apologize.

Stay focused, avoiding the temptation to prepare mentally for your immediate reply, such as a brilliant pearl of wisdom, a fix, or advice.

Notice body language and tone of voice, yours and the speaker’s. Nonverbal communication, both ways, is just as important as words.

Do give visual and oral encouragement that show you are listening. Lean in slightly; make some eye contact (not constant eye contact, which is uncomfortable for all); nod your head. Periodically, use words such as “yes,” “mmm,” “uh-huh.”

Check for understanding when it feels appropriate, by repeating back to the person what you hear him saying. You want to be sure that what you hear matches what he means to say.

When listening evolves into two-way communication, be careful about making judgments or giving advice. There is no need to rush to agree or disagree. Use open-ended questions rather than drawing conclusions.

Helping the speaker achieve a higher level of clarity for himself is the goal of questions.

Not every verbal exchange requires the same level of listening concentration. But every act of listening deserves the expression of your best self.

Susan McAninch is a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist.

Each month we are highlighting one of the nine principles of the Door County Civility Project. This month Door County Civility Project team member Susan McAninch writes about Principle No. 2: Listen. For more on the project or to sign the Civility Pledge, visit

Have you witnessed a Random Act of Civility? Let us know about it at [email protected].