Can Listening Skills Get in the Way?

Our relationships are important to us. We want to get better at relating. We want to develop more skills in relating. But what if this approach gets in the way of relating?

Relationships and communicating with others can be a confusing business. To have good relationships with most people most of the time is fairly challenging.

We sometimes find it difficult to convey what we mean or how we feel. We probably all have memories of things that we wish we hadn’t said, which affected a relationships for the worse, at least temporarily. Even if it was a stray remark about something we had no way of knowing that the other person was sensitive to, it can still have us cringing at the memory.

Which often means that we want to get better at relating to people. I think it is bizarre that this is not part of young people’s education. There are lots of things we can do to improve our relationships. The simplest is listening.

By listening I mean that the person understands what you are saying, and they also understand the feeling behind it. At its simplest this is hearing the messages behind those casual greetings and remarks about the weather. Moments of listening can also be profound — we have the sense that the other person really understands who we are. These moments of real intimacy and communication can be some of our most treasured memories.

These moments of real communication can be the words we have exchanged with our lover. They can also be someone really understanding why we find a hobby so compelling or why we find a problem so fascinating.

To get better at listening isn’t terribly hard either. Taking the time to paraphrase and check that we understand the other person can have many benefits. If we also try to pick up their feeling and see if we get this right, then our relationships can improve greatly.

The instructions about listening can become very detailed. There are things like: making eye contact, having an open body posture, being relaxed not tense, paraphrasing the content of what the other is saying, checking for understanding, and asking about their emotions and intentions. This is a short list of what is sometimes called, “listening skills”. It is likely that doing these things will contribute to our listening more successfully and improve our relationships.

The problem I have with this list is that all these things can be done without any listening occurring. Perhaps, like me, you have had the unpleasant experience of a customer service person practising these listening skills on you. They have not the slightest interest in understanding your complaint — and certainly none in you as a person — but they go through all the motions of listening. You could tick off each item in the above list of skills. Does this mean that they have listened? Hardly.

Imagine this scenario. A customer service person is speaking.

Yes, I understand that you are angry that our product cost you $1000 and didn’t work. So, what I hear you saying is that want a refund and apology? It seems to me that you are feeling angry right now, is that correct? Am I picking up your feeling accurately? I hear you are feeling like hitting me over the head with the item. You sure are feeling angry I guess.

And so on.

All these things are helpful. I don’t want to say that we shouldn’t make eye contact, and it is certainly helpful to paraphrase what the other is saying. The list of skills is a good one. And yet something seems to have gone wrong.

I think what has gone wrong is turning a relationship into a kind of skill. When this happens, the focus subtly shifts from the relationship to my performance. Our concern shifts from the person before us and we focus on ‘doing well’ instead. This can be with the best of intentions — and yet it can impede our relationships. How much time do you want to spend with our hypothetical customer service person?

The problem seems insoluble: we want to get better at relationships and yet practising on people (and what alternative is there?) seems to get in the way. It seems to me that there are a couple of things we can do.

Firstly, focus on getting to know the other person. If this happens while we do it skillfully is of secondary importance.

Secondly, try out one thing at a time that you want to improve. Instead of a whole list of skills that you practise, choose just one. Take note of when you fold your arms, or when there is an opportunity to check that you understand what the other person is saying. This will make it easier to keep the focus on the relationships and use the skills to improve the relationship.

Thirdly, reflect on the conversations we do have. It is worth thinking about if we have trouble with particular parts of relationships. Just realising this can lead us to try out new ways of relating.

Real relationships, and genuine listening, are about people being present for each other. There are many things we can do to assist this. But when they become ‘skills’ to be practised we can lose the important quality of presence.

Please let me know your reactions to this. You are welcome to disagree completely and utterly. I’d like to know what has improved your relationships. Do you feel there are skills involved, or do you abhor the very thought? Let me know in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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