If I were to be completely honest with you, one of my biggest bugbears in life is people who are poor listeners. People who don’t listen to understand, but instead listen to respond, defend, or blame. These conversations can be frustrating, repetitive, upsetting, and sometimes just plain depressing – especially when they are with a loved one.
Nobody is perfect, and this certainly extends to communication skills. I personally have consciously focussed on fine-tuning my communication skills and non-defensive listening skills over time (and I continue to work on them with each conversation). I’ve sure had my fair share of difficult conversations to practice them on in life – in both professional and personal contexts.
In this article, I’d like to share nine ways that you can improve your non-defensive and active listening skills – in the hope that it will help you with future communications too.
Non-defensive listening tip #1: Don’t interrupt
“Adults often listen to young children much more carefully than to other adults. We expect children to have trouble expressing themselves, so we give them the time they need; we hear them out. What’s more, we really try to understand how they are feeling, not just what they’re thinking. When we interrupt, it’s usually to help the youngster express himself, not to change the subject or control the direction of the conversation.” – Dr Jo-Ellan Dimitrius (Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behaviour – Anytime, Anyplace)
The first and most obvious tip for being a good listener is to resist the temptation to interrupt the person when they are speaking. Even if you perceive what they are saying as absurd, completely untrue, or way off track – let them finish. You can respond when they are finished, and when you have understood their point (regardless of whether you agree with it or not).
When you interrupt a person in conversation (particularly if you do so frequently), you might not only make them feel frustrated and unheard, but you will likely hijack the flow of the conversation, not always understand their complete central point, and may be reacting from a place of defensiveness rather than facilitating a constructive and forward moving conversation.
Non-defensive listening tip #2: Be empathetic
“Teresa Wiseman is a nursing scholar who studied very diverse professions where empathy is relevant and came up with four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognise their perspective as their truth; staying out of judgement, not easy when you enjoy it as much as we do; recognising emotion in other people, and then communicating that. Empathy is feeling with people.” – Brene Browne (The Power of Vulnerability).
When you are communicating with people, try to remember that they are human beings with feelings, and treat them as such. Rather than criticise or insult them, put yourself ‘in their shoes’, let them express themselves, and truly try to understand how they are feeling and what they are expressing. Just because you’re being empathetic doesn’t mean you agree with them necessarily – but it does show that you care about them, feel for them, want to understand them, and want to help them feel better.
Not sure what the difference between empathy and sympathy is? See below for Brene Brown’s perspective:
Non-defensive listening tip #3: Watch your body language
“Where body language conflicts with the words that are being said, the body language will usually be more ‘truthful’ in the sense of revealing true feelings.” – Glen Wilson
Being aware of your body language can be a huge asset in communicating. If you are apologising to a loved one for hurting them, but in doing so, are shaking your head angrily and not looking at them, the misalignment of body language will likely aggravate the conversation further.
When communicating, give the person your full attention, show them through your body that you are listening, open, and interested in what they have to say. Face them, look at them when they are speaking, and make sure your body language matches your words (e.g., if you are telling them that you agree, ensure you’re not shaking your head indicating disagreement!).
Non-defensive listening tip #4: Don’t play ‘word games’
“Debate is the death of conversation.” – Kitty O’Neill Collins
Many people, especially when they are upset or stressed, struggle to articulate how they are feeling. Try to keep this in mind when you are communicating with them. Make a conscious effort to listen to understand what they are saying – rather than to criticise or prove false their word choices. This isn’t a school debate – it isn’t about having the last say or ‘chopping them up’ – it’s about an adult conversation where you are working together as a team to be heard and understood. Help them get across what they are trying to get across (e.g., “So I think you’re trying to say that you feel x because of y and that… etc) – show them that you really want to understand, even if you do suspect you disagree.
Non-defensive listening tip #5: Be aware of biases and perception filters
“I know how it is when someone disappoints you. It’s tempting to see things the way you wish they were instead of how they are.” – Enchanted
When we are having a conversation with someone who we have previously experienced conflict or difficulty with, our bias or perception of them can override our ability to actively listen. We search for things in what they are saying to ‘prove’ our perception of them, rather than openly listening without preconceived bias or judgement. For example, if they have been dishonest in the past, before they even open their mouths, we expect that they will be dishonest again, and do not truly listen to what they have to say, but instead search for lies.
In order to listen non-defensively, one needs to be self-aware of their biases or judgements and ensure that they do not allow them to hijack the conversation, and be open-minded to the content and feeling that the person is trying to articulate.
Non-defensive listening tip #6: Be self aware and watch your emotions
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech that you will ever regret.” – Ambrose Bierce.
It is a good thing to feel emotion and to express emotion – but sometimes in difficult conversations, our emotions speak for us and we can say things that we don’t actually mean. It is also difficult to actively listen to another, if a powerful emotion like anger is overwhelming us.
In order to listen to understand, you need to be aware of your emotions. If you are listening and responding from a place of anger and defensiveness (without being aware of this), you are much less likely to hear or respond constructively in the conversation.
Non-defensive listening tip #7: Listen to understand, rather than to respond
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey.
The underlying point of this article is to listen to understand, rather than to listen to determine your response. Start to consciously focus on truly listening to others – not to find a counter-argument or to prove who is right or wrong, not to immediately jump in and share your own story – but to actually understand and go from there. Listening to understand is critical in effective communication, conflict resolution, and healthy relationships.
Non-defensive listening tip #8: Watch your expectations
“He said, ‘it was going to be different this time’. She said, ‘show me’.” – Sylvester McNutt
When someone has grown up communicating in a certain way, is not self aware, emotionally intelligent, or skilled at active listening – it is unlikely that they will become willing and empathetic listeners overnight. It takes practice – and it takes that person being willing to practice. If you find yourself going into a conversation with someone who is repeatably a defensive listener with the expectation that they will listen empathetically, you will no doubt leave feeling disappointed and hurt. So please, please, please, be aware of your expectations, introduce and manage boundaries, and be gentle and kind with yourself in the process.
Non-defensive listening tip #9: Practice
“I am determined to practice deep listening. I am determined to practice loving speech.” – Thich Nhat Hanh.
Finally, non defensive listening takes practice. Lot’s of practice. Especially if you have grown up in a household where no such thing exists, where it’s full on verbal combat, and every man for himself. Commit to yourself that you will keep practicing, and with self awareness and practice, I am sure you will get better and / or feel better during difficult conversations. To help with this, we have created a quick 6 day active listening challenge that you can download for free via one of the images on this page.
Let’s soar together,
PS. The tips offered in this blog post mostly assume that the person you are having a conversation with is someone that is worthy of your time, is not emotionally or physically abusive or narcissistic, and respects and cares for you (even if they are poor communicators). Sometimes, no matter how excellent of a communicator you are, or how skilled at non defensive listening you are, a conversation will not be a constructive one. Please keep this in mind as you practice elements of the tips provided here.