In December I published my latest book, 52 Lessons for a Better Relationship, and I’m now just telling people about it (I’m a bit of a procrastinator). The book is currently available on Amazon (click on Amazon or type in “Happy Squire” in the Amazon search) and will soon be on my website, www.ChadDavid.ca, as a free download. The book is a collection of 52 relationship lessons I’ve written over the last three years cleaned up and organized into a book that offers a great lesson every week for a year. It’s meant to be read as a couple or individually as a way to offer practical help to grow. I find most books waste my time to give a simple point, so this is meant to be straightforward and something that even guys who hate books can handle since it’s just one lesson a week that the couple can discuss and put into practice in some way.
The following is a lesson I included in the book. I’m really proud of this one, but like all my writing, I get angry that every time I read over it, I can find something to fix. Thus, if you find any mistakes, I apologize. If you want to read the book and let me know of any mistakes you find, I’ll be very grateful because I can still fix them for future readers. I may be able to come up with lessons, by my brain sucks at seeing the little mistakes in one shot. This is a great reminder that we should use our strengths as best we can while letting our weaknesses remind us not to be arrogant.
May this lesson inspire you in some way.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)
The 10 Most Common Mistakes People Make When Listening
Side Note: I originally wrote this with just seven mistakes that weren’t as well defined as the following, but as I’ve used it in therapy sessions with couples who want direction for how they can grow, it’s developed into what it is now. This likely means it’ll still change as I work with people in the future, but it’s still valuable for where it is now. Ideally, you’ll go through this and share how you can each improve at listening. From my experience, this is the most important overall lesson I will share in this book. You may connect better with other lessons, but this is a great foundation for seeing we all have areas to improve even in something as “simple” as listening. It also points out that we need to be patient with our partner because we need them to be patient with us as we all have areas to improve.
While working with couples, I’ve recently heard a number of guys claim they are very good listeners, which makes the wives burst out into laughter. It’s really great these husbands can make their partners laugh, but unfortunately, that wasn’t their goal. As the wife’s laughter suggests, these confident guys actually suck at listening. Whenever I hear someone claim to be a good listener, I have a Disney’s Aladdin cartoon moment in my head. After the Sultan says, “The one thing I pride myself on Jafar is I’m an excellent judge of character,” which leads to Iago saying, “An excellent judge; yeah, sure… not!” Of course, instead of “judge of character,” what I hear is “An excellent listener; yeah, sure… not!” I especially like this because it’s a ‘90s movie with an ‘80s reference by saying “not,” which means I get to be out of date with two different decades being represented. That’s pretty impressive (yea, me). The reality is if you’re a couple in marriage therapy, there’s a 99% chance you both struggle at listening to each other. I know I’m not perfect at listening to my wife (I blame her for that… because that’s mature), but it’s amazing how we are all guilty of doing some (or many) of these 10 key mistakes when listening to our partner. As in most cases, this is a list that’s better for self reflection and not accusation (unless you’re “mature” like I can be).
- We make assumptions: Asking good questions helps the other person feel cared about and helps prevent wrong assumptions. Unfortunately, most people seem to have lost the art of asking engaging questions (i.e. questions that push the conversation further), which leaves the other side feeling unimportant and/or unable to fully process their thoughts. This causes people to feel unsettled and/or have some bottled up feelings, which lead to further issues down the road, especially if the person finds someone else who is better at engaging them in conversation. One of the most damaging assumptions is assuming the worst of someone else. For instance, people are often too quick to assume someone is trying to hurt them. Assuming the worst hurts the assumer, “I can’t trust you to love me properly,” while also hurting the other person if they weren’t trying to be hurtful, “Why would you think I was so mean?” The odds are, however, if the other person isn’t hurt or you’re not in a fight, they’re not trying to hurt you, so if something feels hurtful, you should double check (we’ll discuss how later).
- We are listening for words to throw back into the other person’s face: This is a technique people are taught to use on debating teams (I’m cool enough to know that). It’s like verbal dodgeball. You dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge (an early 2000s movie reference) in order to avoid the words you don’t want to hear and then grab what you can to hurl back at the person in hopes to knock them out. This works for a debate team, but not with someone you care about (especially when you sleep beside them).
- We try to fix it (an issue for problem-solvers like men and moms): Unless people ask for your advice, it’s best to keep it to yourself because the person sharing will likely feel controlled or that you’re implying they’re too dumb to see the simple answer. When people vent and share their struggles, they typically just want to complain and get stuff off their chest. They don’t want anything solved. They want to be affirmed and helped to feel like they have a right to feel that way. Venting is potentially great for bonding (a concept many guys struggle to understand), but the receiver needs to realize the emotion being shown isn’t an attack or something they need to worry about fixing. Tip: Fixing includes meddling. Unless someone asks you to, don’t go behind their backs to “fix” something, especially since being the middle person likely gets you attacked from both sides.
- We boss the other person around (a problem for protectors): Bossing people around includes saying things like “Calm down,” “Relax,” “You’re overreacting,” and “This isn’t a big deal.” Even if the person saying these things is trying to be helpful, these comments usually cause the other person to feel worse. If the person being told this is angry, they’re likely going to lash out (e.g. “Don’t tell me to relax! This is a big deal. I’m not stupid!”) or if they’re scared, being told something like “It’s not a big deal,” will make them feel crazy for feeling scared and make them panic even more. It’s better to affirm the person: (listener) “This is scary,” (scared person) “So I’m not crazy for being scared?” (listener) “Not at all, but fortunately, you’re so strong you can handle it.”
- We make the speaker feel stupid: Top options in this category include eye rolling, talking down, correcting, demanding an example (e.g. “When have I done that!”), or disagreeing with the other person (e.g. “But…”). All of these make the other person feel stupid, which is going to cause them to shut down or lash out. Even a calm voice asking, “What do you mean?” at the wrong time can cause the other person to get angry and want to scream. Even worse is asking, “Why would you think that?” No matter how innocently it’s asked, it can make the other person feel they’re being told, “You’re crazy for thinking that.” When people share something, they want to be understood and validated. They don’t want to feel interrogated, be asked a question they can’t answer in the heat of the moment, or made to feel they’re weak or stupid for feeling what they feel no matter how silly it might seem to the listener.
- We look distant or not engaged: When people share something, they want to feel like they’re a priority and what they have to say matters. This means if you want to anger the person talking to you, go on your phone, look away, pretend to fall asleep, roll your eyes, or act like you’re too good to listen (e.g. think of an obnoxious teenager).
- We need to get our point across: A lot of people try to talk their way out of a problem, but that almost never works. If we want to reduce the fight, we want to help the other person feel understood, which means we need to give space for the other person to talk. I was told in normal conversation we need to give three seconds of silence in order to let someone formulate their thought and answer a question. That being said, if someone takes three seconds to answer me, I assume I’ve asked a bad question and need to rephrase it. This also means we need to listen to the other person and not just plan ahead for what we’re going to say next, which is a problem almost everyone has when things get heated. We forget that we need to listen first and talk second because just talking amps up the conflict or shuts the other person down, which leads to resentment.
- We take every word as Gospel truth: When people are angry, we exaggerate (e.g. “You always…” and “You never…”) and say threats or other things we don’t mean (e.g. “I’m going to knock your block off!” – an ‘80s reference). When we listen, we need to filter out the garbage to figure out what the point the person is actually trying to make. Things like “I want a divorce!” or a child yelling “I hate you!” in the heat of a fight are usually just expressing, “I’m angry and want you to back off!” Thus, comments like these should be blocked from our memories to protect us and our relationship (and ideally addressed when things are calm).
- We take things personally: Yes, it’s natural to take digs and nasty words from our spouse personally, but we shouldn’t if we want to be a good listener. We should let what’s said go through one ear and out the other as we try to find a way to help them feel cared about and understood. We need to remember if we’re listening, it’s not about us. Of course, anger makes us dumb, which means at certain point we need to ask for a time out and give a time for when we return to continue talking because nothing we say will help when emotion is too high. If someone is upset, we need to protect them from hurting us. Tip: When a spouse is attacking, the real message is usually “I’m hurt and trying to express it. Please care.” Thus, the worst thing we can do is focus on defending ourselves; keep it about them.
- We defend ourselves: When people are angry, they don’t care why you did something; they want you to care they’re upset. Sure, when someone tries to punch us, we need to block it to protect ourselves, but as soon as we swing back, we are now in a fight and escalating it. The same happens when we try to explain what we did because it makes us appear uncaring. Even worse is to yell at them because then we just look like a jerk. Ultimately, the best way to block harsh words is to consider what’s underneath what’s being said: Don’t get caught on the surface of a fight. Look at the root in order to see what’s really going on. This is typically something like the person doesn’t feel loved, respected, affirmed, understood, or safe. Address this, and you can help prevent a fight; defend yourself, and you’ll escalate things.
So, what is a good listener? Simply put: A good listener is someone who helps the other person feel heard and validated. It’s about hearing more than just words; it’s about hearing what the person is actually trying to say, but struggling to express it properly. We need to go beyond the words to understand what’s behind them. Your partner isn’t crazy or stupid; they’re just trying to express their hurt.
This week may you try to actually listen.