In response to my short series The Listening Post, multiple readers wanted to know why they should bother to listen to someone who demonstrates poor listening techniques themselves.
Why should I listen to someone who doesn’t listen to me?
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how much of life doesn’t seem to be reciprocal or balanced, the way we might like it to be. You help, but you don’t get help back. You respect and attend to someone else’s needs, yet you don’t seem to get either respect or attention in return.
When your efforts appear to fall on stony, inhospitable ground, should you withdraw them? Should you try to be wonderful to someone else instead? Or should you work to analyze the unfeeling monster’s behavior?
Environment isn’t the issue. Whether in the workplace, at home, or in some third space — if we think we’ve been neglected in some way, we tend to defend and protect ourselves according to our natural fight-or-flight reactions. Some people exhibit extreme attention-seeking behaviors, either verbal or physical, trying to grab the floor at a meeting or family dinner or asking third parties to intervene on our behalf. Others might withdraw, or even implode while waiting resentfully until the object of their attention finally notices and responds.
Let me suggest four basic reasons — and four motivations — to listen to someone who doesn’t listen to you, with countless variations, depending on your particular relationship and immediate circumstance.
- Structural: The imperatives for listening may be explicit organizational rules, as in the military, or unwritten, tribal customs, but they’re always based on power, obligation, and the requirements of hierarchy. Your personal obligations may be contingent on your position and level of authority.
- Moral: You’re sure that listening is the right thing to do even when it’s unpleasant or aggravating — or you would if you were in the speaker’s position! I can’t expect Xerxes to listen to me if I’m not willing to listen to him. For example: I’ll listen to Xerxes, and maybe down the road someone will listen to me when I need attention. Xerxes really needs me to listen — even if he can’t return the favor. If you believe in anything like Karma, you’re working in this category.
- Pragmatic: You believe there’s a value to listening that goes beyond your immediate relationship — like modeling good behavior so others will learn your techniques and use them. (Hope for eventual reciprocity falls under this category even if hope is not necessarily pragmatic.) Another pragmatic reason is that you may not be able to get Xerxes’s attention at all if you haven’t learned enough about him to understand how to appeal to him. Give to get. Behaving pragmatically can be hard work, but it demonstrates faith in the perfectibility of humankind.
- Curiosity: In some ways, this is the best motivation of all. That’s because even if the power structure falls away, or you realize you may never get anything back for your efforts; and even if you’ve got absolutely nothing to prove or demonstrate to anyone else; you can still explore what’s going on, finding out what makes Xerxes tick or whether there’s anything you can learn from this situation that will help you succeed anywhere else. All you have to do is start your thoughts with “I wonder why/how/what…” and stay open to the answers. You can always feel curious, even when you’ve run out of reasons to feel respectful, loving, or kind.
Onward and upward,