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An Uncomfortable Listening Level

An uncomfortable listening level can guide a difficult conversation.

Are there topics or deep conversations that feel uncomfortable to you? Maybe you want to stick a finger in each ear and say, “la la la, I can’t hear you!”

 Can you hear me now?

Recently, I went for a hearing test in preparation for getting new hearing aids. The technician did a number of different tests on my hearing, including how well I hear different sound ranges and  different consonants in each ear. He called one of the tests uncomfortable listening level, which made me laugh out loud. The test was actually about what a comfortable decibel level is for each of my ears, but his name for it started me musing about conflict and discomfort in listening.

Listening well is powerful.

I spend a fair amount of time teaching and coaching about what is variously called active listening, compassionate listening, deep listening, listening to understand. The ability to truly listen to someone, with curiosity and compassion, not with the intent to counter their arguments or dismiss them, is one of the most powerful tools we can engage to improve communication and heal conflict.

Setting boundaries around listening.

But listening to people’s grief or anger or long winded stories can also be tiring or triggering. It occurs to me that we need to have boundaries around listening, even if a person isn’t yelling or criticizing us.  I don’t think there is a standard uncomfortable listening level. I believe our capacity varies with the topic, the person you are listening to, and how your day has been going! But it is important to tune in to yourself and your limits, because distracted listening makes things worse instead of better. Listening is a wonderful gift to give another person, but it can be too much of a good thing and become counterproductive if you don’t pay attention to your own limits.

Stop listening when your brain is full.

I remember an old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson in which a student in class asks, “Teacher, May I be excused? My brain is full.” When we have reached our listening capacity, and crossed the threshold into the uncomfortable listening level, we need to stop, and pick up the conversation, if needed, at another time.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE

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