Monday, January 14, 2013

Bad Listener Wants To Be Better Conversationalist

Dear Tazi:

Am I a terrible person? I have an inability to express interest in the lives and doings of others if they do not somehow concern me. For example, right now, my best friend is going through a prolonged illness that will require her to have extensive surgery. When we got together for coffee last week all she talked about was how terrible she has been feeling and how she is hoping the surgery will correct her problems; all I heard was “blah blah blah, me me me…”. I realize that other people’s medical problems are not something most people want to hear about, but I feel like I could have been a more supportive friend. Instead, I just zoned out on her.

I wish I could say that the only time I zone out on people is during discussions about other people’s medical issues, but I don’t. I zone out all the time – in church while the preacher is preaching, at dinner while my husband and kids are talking about their day, with my Mom when I am on the phone with her. I am starting to feel very self-absorbed. I have tried to be a better listener, but all the while I am thinking about what I want to say and wondering when it will be my turn to talk. Is there any help for me? Can you suggest some ideas on how I can become a better listener, and thus a better part of the conversation?

Feeling Self-Absorbed

Dear Feeling Self-Absorbed:

Recognizing your problem is half the battle. There are many people like you who do not realize that their behavior is a problem (I will have a letter detailing the other side of the story tomorrow). Once you recognize that your behavior is an issue, you can work on solving the problem.

You say that when your best friend was talking about her very real concerns all you heard was “blah blah blah, me me me”. This is a very self-centered thing to say! Admittedly, few people want to hear the gory details of someone else’s health issues, but you could have focused less on the details and more on your friend’s emotional state. One good thing about listening is that it allows the listener to steer the conversation towards a topic that they would prefer to hear. When your friend commented that she was hoping her surgery would cure her ills, you could have asked her what she is looking forward to doing once she is cured. This would have directed the conversation to happier topics that might have been of mutual interest (travel, sports, hobbies, etc). A conversation is a two-way process that requires all to take both an active and resting (not restive) part in it.

Cats aren't the only ones who are bad listeners!

You mention that while others are talking all you can do is think about what you want to say. I suggest that you practice being a good conversationalist by having a conversation with yourself. Record yourself speaking, and then play it back to listen to how you sound. Are you bored with yourself? Do you find what you are saying detailed and interesting? Do you pause to allow someone else to add their thoughts? In short, are you the type of person to who others want to listen? Once you discover how you sound to others, you might be more willing to keep your mouth closed and your ears open.

Play back your recording a second time, this time pausing the recording to add comments or questions, as if you are merely an interested listener and not the person speaking. Does your recorded conversation allow for that? Good speakers can create good listeners. If what you have to say is interesting to them, people will want to listen to you and ask further questions of you; they may also start to mimic you, following your cues and allowing for comments and questions and asking questions of you when they speak to keep the conversation going back and forth.

If you find that your problem is that you lack empathy for others rather than good listening skills and a reasonable attention span, professional counseling may help you get to the root of your issues. I can understand not wanting to hear all the boring details (as my Mommie’s Grandpa Eddie used to say, “I asked you for the time, not how to build a clock”), but you should at least have an interest in the goings-on of your family members.


 Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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