“You’re such a good listener” is something we usually take as a compliment.
Listening is an important communication skill, even an asset. But there are times when listening can be more detrimental than insightful.
For example, you go to see a parent. Before long, a familiar conversation begins. “As your parent I should tell you that new haircut makes you look scruffy. You make me so angry when you don’t seem to care about how you look. It’s like the time… ” Mom or dad then launches into a critique of your life choices, personal style and personality quirks. You may try to half-heartedly stand up for yourself with a muttered “Well, I don’t think that’s totally true,” but your mom or dad confidently overrules you. You leave deflated wondering if what they said it true.
What just happened? They crossed what’s called the listening boundary.
In my private practice as a hypnotherapist and coach I often help clients with their personal boundaries. Boundaries help us to know what is ours and what is someone else’s. When boundaries are violated, it’s usually because we are not taking responsibility for our own stuff or we’re taking too much responsibility for other people’s stuff.
The listening boundary can help us to know when listening has crossed the line from helpful to hurtful.
Think about why we listen. We listen to understand more about the person speaking, their feelings, thoughts and experiences. What we are not listening for is the other person’s thoughts, opinions and judgments about us.
Here are some classic listening boundary violations some of which are illustrated in the example above:
“As your mother (insert: friend, sister, wife, husband) I feel I should tell you…” Just because we are someone’s loved one doesn’t give us special permission to assert our experience on them even if we think we are doing them a favor. Unless it is something factual like “you have a piece of spinach in your teeth” or “your fly is down” then it is a matter of opinion.
“You make me so angry” is using “you” statements instead of “I” statements. Rule #1 in communication is to use “I” statements, which allow us to express what we are experiencing without blaming. Other examples would be “you always make us late” or “you never listen.”
“You don’t seem to care.” The person is telling you how you feel. Other examples are, “You don’t love me,” or “Don’t be mad.” No one has the right to tell you how you feel and in turn we need to express only what we feel.
“You’re not wearing that are you?” is a type of non-question which is an indirect way of expressing a clearly negative opinion about someone else, and also an effort to control another person’s behavior. A good way to counter this is to answer strongly in the positive and cut to the heart of the issue; “Yes I am wearing this. Is there a problem?”
“I think you look better with your hair down” or “those glasses look like your grandmother’s” are the speaker’s opinions and we need to be careful to keep our opinions to ourselves unless asked. Like wise we need to be very careful about asking “What do you think?” or “Do you like this?” unless we really want to hear what the other person has to say.
There are many ways the listening boundary can be violated. We have all been on the receiving end of someone else’s opinion that has left us feeling deflated, judged, insulted or hurt. And how many times have we ourselves been the ones who gave our opinion about someone else and their experience without a second thought? Either way without a clear sense of boundaries, we may take other people’s experience and confuse it for our own.
Boundaries are also important because they are an outer reflection of our inner relationship with ourselves and our own self-worth. When we have unhealthy boundaries, we can find ourselves in unhealthy relationships, where we can tend to play the victim or feel used. So ask yourself:
How often do you allow other people’s opinions to define how you feel about yourself?
Do you need other people’s opinions to validate your own?
What would it look like if you had a very clear sense of who you are and what you like, and you didn’t need nor want anybody else’s opinion?
Once we are aware of the listening boundary, we are in a much better position to begin separating what is us from what is other, and that’s how we know when to listen—and when not to.
What do you say when it’s time to not listen?
Here are some options:
1. You mentally reject their input since it was unasked for and basically turn off your listening. When they are done politely say something like “I will keep that in mind,” excuse yourself, and promptly forget the encounter. If this is a pattern with this particular person you may also decide to avoid this person in future if they are not someone who is important to you.
2. Listen but with the understanding that what they are saying, even though it is aimed at you, is actually telling you a lot about them, not you.
3. If they are someone you care about and with whom you want to have a more open relationship, address the violation in a respectful and responsible manner. Perhaps you need to gently remind them to please tell you what they are feeling instead of assuming they know what you are feeling. Or let them know that their unasked for statements or opinions about you are often more hurtful then helpful. This leads to further conversation in which you can both explore the boundaries of your relationship.
Knowing when to listen and when not to listen is a valuable tool in creating healthier relationships, not only with other people but with yourself.
Author: Alexcis Spencer Lopez
Editor: Catherine Monkman