5 Times You Don’t Have to Listen
I’m a huge proponent of good listening skills. Listening is vital for building rapport and creating connection, not to mention understanding people, gaining perspective, and learning new things. All wonderful, right?
Giving another person your time and full attention speaks volumes, especially in a society where distractions and the relentless pursuit of “more” keep us feeling a scarcity of both. We are losing basic conversation skills, including how to listen, especially this year when in-person interactions are few and far between. Not that we’re good at listening at home—in fact, an article in the New York Times from earlier this year states that we are least likely to truly listen to those we are closest to, because we assume we know what they’re going to say. (Wow, bleak.)
So, listening is good. As with everything else in life, however, balance is key. Sometimes it is not possible—or it may not be advisable—to patiently listen. Here are five occasions to stop listening and interrupt:
1. You’ve been listening. A lot. For a long time.
A good relationship, or a good conversation, is not all about you. (Duh.) But it’s not all about the other person either. A healthy relationship requires both speaking and listening, both giving and receiving. That’s what makes it a relationship! If you find yourself never able to get a word in edgewise with a coworker, family member, or friend, it’s time to rebalance.
Definitely listen and be there for others. Yet if you find yourself in the presence of a sponge who soaks up all your attention without ever giving back, you don’t have to listen. Or if you’re dealing with someone who is constantly talking AT you—preaching, advising, criticizing—you don’t have to listen.
Speak up! You have thoughts, feelings, experiences, and know-how. Give others a chance to say their piece, but be sure you give yourself the chance, too. You are equally as valuable.
2. The speaker is getting spun up.
Calmly listening and staying present when a person is having a meltdown can really help them and you. But sometimes upset people get tunnel vision and your calming presence doesn’t influence them. Sometimes, the more people talk, the more agitated they become. They work themselves into a state.
This often happens when emotional resources are low. At home, this happens with my kids when they’re tired. You know how it goes: They were fine a minute ago. Then someone says something. They get angry or worried, and the more they talk about it, the worse they feel! No matter how much I listen and empathize, they get increasingly irrational and upset.
When this happens, interrupt. (Avoid saying, “Calm down,” however. You might as well throw gasoline on a fire. Seriously, has that ever worked?) As Joe Navarro says in his book Louder Than Words, when emotions are high, the limbic system hijacks the brain; address the emotion—label it, say that you see it and hear it and understand it—and offer support, yet maintain boundaries. You don’t have to listen if someone is getting out of control.
Sometimes giving a time limit can help. I had a piano teacher who asked me once (with curiosity and honesty), “How much time do you need to be upset about this? Two minutes? An hour? The rest of the week? A year?” She gave me permission to feel, yet also suggested boundaries. Another useful tool is to postpone the expression of the feeling. For example: “I can see that you’re really upset about this, yet we need to focus on the task at hand. Let’s set up a time to talk later. I will listen to you vent.” Distraction alone can work wonders. Give people something else to spend their mental and emotional energy on.
3. You truly don’t have time.
If you never have time to listen to people, you need to rearrange your life. What you spend your time on says a lot about your values. You won’t have many relationships in your life if you aren’t willing to invest time in them.
The opposite is also true, though: Your time is your resource, and if you let others squander it needlessly, that says a lot about how little you value your health, your work, or yourself. If you arrange your life so that you have time to listen when needed, it’s perfectly reasonable to sometimes say, “I need this time for myself.” It’s easier to say that if you’re up against an appointment or deadline, yet since your time is yours, you don’t need any “excuse” to put boundaries around it.
My recent article on how to end a conversation can help when you don’t have time. In short, be gracious and firm.
4. The speaker is beating themselves up.
Never stand by and let someone hurt themselves.
Granted, some people make self-deprecating remarks purposefully to be contradicted. You don’t have to play that game. You can say, “You know that isn’t true” or even call them out on the ploy, if appropriate. One type of narcissism seeks attention by constantly berating and belittling the self. You don’t have to listen to it.
Of course, sometimes people beat themselves up not for attention but because they truly feel bad—they’re experiencing guilt or regret or shame. Those feelings are real and can be (in the case of guilt) helpful, but shaming people, including yourself, never creates positive results.
Any time someone is running themselves down, interrupt. You don’t have to listen to it, and they don’t have to, either.
5. The speaker is being abusive.
Once, many years ago, I made a decision that incensed a person I was close to. Over the phone, he yelled and swore and berated me for 45 minutes. I knew he’d be upset, so I calmly took it. When I shared what had happened with others, I heard the same reaction repeatedly: my counselor, my best friend, and my husband all said, “You know you didn’t have to listen to that, right? You could have hung up the phone!” It frankly never even occurred to me. But I’ve learned!
You never have to listen to abuse, whether you or someone else is the target.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where there may be negative repercussions for saying, “You may not speak like that.” Depending on the power differential and expectations, you could lose your job or your family or your rights or your influence. You could be punched in the face. Frankly, that’s how bullies get away with their crap. They use power to hurt and intimidate others. So… choose and behave wisely. Weigh the risks. Stay calm. Don’t attack. Simply state your boundaries.
You may choose not to interrupt the person if the stakes are too high. Yet it is empowering to remind yourself that you have control over your own tongue, and you always can say, “Stop,” even if you choose not to exercise the option.
Good listening skills include knowing when to stop listening. If you’re fully present, you’ll find it easier to know when and how to interrupt, change the subject, or end a conversation. You are in control of your life. Take charge of what you spend your time on.