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How Can I Listen to Someone I’d Rather Not Hear

Here’s the other popular reader response to the series The Listening Post:

What if you don’t think the other person is worth listening to? Or you don’t like or trust them?

Harsh questions, these.

The first part of the answer is contextual: Why are you in relationship with someone who’s not worth listening to, or not trustworthy? What an awful set-up!

First, let’s look at the possibility of the easy out — what you can do when you have the option of getting out of the situation altogether.

Making a Graceful Exit

Say, you don’t want to be stuck at the water cooler with an annoying co-worker, or you don’t care for the friend-of-a-friend you just met at a holiday party. Basically, you need a respectful way of excusing yourself.

If you can vacate the scene altogether, try:

Will you excuse me, please, Xerxes*? I have to… [meet a difficult deadline, refresh my drink, call my mother, etc.] Just make sure the “I have to” part is relevant to the time and circumstances — and that the person you’d like to avoid won’t try to accompany you as you depart.

If you’re with someone you’re going to have to see with some regularity and you don’t want to offend them, but you don’t have the mental energy to listen attentively, consider a more candid approach that gives them a slightly greater sense of their importance:

I’m sorry, Xerxes, but I have too much on my mind right now, what with the Snodgrass account review coming up… Or: I’m just a little distracted today and I know I won’t be able to focus enough to give you the attention you should have while you’re telling me about [fill in the blank]. Maybe [give a time and place] I’ll have an easier time of it!

If possible, choose a date and circumstance (even if it’s five minutes from now) when there will be other people present to take up the conversational slack or to act as a sound-and-fury absorber and lessen the load on you.

When You Really Need to Escape

And if Xerxes is the kind of person who won’t let you go but just keeps talking, or who says, “Oh, that’s OK, it’ll just take a minute,” well, couldn’t that lack of awareness on his part be one of the reasons you’re trying to get away from him? Once you’ve excused yourself, if he persists, it’s legitimate for you to kindly, gently, say again, “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “Oh, please excuse me, “ and shake your head a little, and start turning or backing away.

That’s difficult to do, but not unreasonable, if you’ve been explicitly courteous, including looking at him while you were speaking.

In Part III we’ll look at the possibility of investing the relationship itself with more meaning and more value, whether it has potential and you want to work on it, or because you’re obligated or otherwise required to stay in relationship for reasons that are just too practical, both logistically and financially. Maybe you haven’t found another job yet; or you need to keep your lease, even though your roommate is horrible; or you can’t just ditch your relatives when they’re annoying.

If you have additional questions, please comment or email me.

*Poor Xerxes, having to serve as the butt of all the listening practice! With gratitude for his good nature and lack of offense.

Onward and upward,


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