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A Shadow Side to Good Listening

A reader wrote, “I’ve been told I need to be a better listener. But when I do listen, sometimes people just go on and on. At what point do I get to be the one to talk when the other person doesn’t know when to shut up?”

That’s a fair question. Sometimes people do go on and on once they’ve got the floor.

It looks like they’re being unaware or, worse, selfish. Maybe it’s tempting to conclude they can’t self-regulate. That’s probably true occasionally, but more often, the gift of real listening just has such a deep impact on people.

I see this in my mediation work. When a person finally feels like someone is really listening, it’s akin to the sluice gates of a dam being opened after a heavy rainfall. The things they’ve been waiting to say, wanting to say, but have not been fully given the chance to say, finally get their due. They come out in a flood after being held back for so long and it can take a while for everything to return to normal levels.

I try not to fault someone for this. Conflict has a way of bottling up people. Deep listening is a gift too few of us receive and when we do get it, we want never to let it go.

I find that thinking of the behavior’s more benign roots and taking harsh diagnosis out of it make me less frustrated by it. It is so much more soothing (not to mention productive) to notice the equal human in front of me than to sit in judgment.

So I begin with the internal work of adjusting my thinking about the experience. Then, I turn to the external work — what I will say or do. I’m a big fan of transparency for situations like this.

It might sound something like this: “You’re sharing so much that I’m struggling to take it all in. I’m afraid I’m going to miss something important.”

Or maybe like this: “I’m having a tough time absorbing everything you’re saying. Can we do this in smaller chunks?”

Transparency is the open sharing of one’s experience, offered up for the other to observe. Of course, there’s helpful transparency and harmful transparency.

Harmful transparency is of the type that promises to make the argument immediately worse. It includes sarcasm, biting words, pointing out their flaws and selfishness, diagnosis of their frailties, and so on. It’s damaging for relationships.

Helpful transparency is the sharing of one’s experience minus all that crap. It’s intention is to convey, hey, here’s what’s going on for me right now, can we do something about it together?

When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a flood of words that shows no sign of abating, I like to use transparency because it communicates that I care and am interested, signals that I need help if I’m going to continue listening, and invites them to play a role in getting their own interests met.

I’ve had good success with it.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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