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Have you ever talked to a person and, although you resorted to a large arsenal of arguments, you felt like talking to a wall? Even if you struggled to explain your reasons and understand theirs, in order to reach an agreement, you probably had the feeling that they do not understand you – or do not want to understand you.
It is not that your arguments have been transformed into gibberish, it is likely that the dialogue does not progress because the communication channel has been broken – or was never established – because your interlocutor did not really intend to understand but only to refute
Reactive Listening: First me, then me and then me too
Epictetus said that “just as there is an art of good speech, there is an art of good listening.” And we can all hear, but few are able to listen.
Active listening is a relatively rare skill because it not only involves listening to what the other person is saying but paying attention to the underlying feelings and emotions. For this, it is essential to get out of our egocentric position and assume an empathic posture, being able to put ourselves in the skin of the other to fully understand his message.
Active listening also implies an authentic interest in the person and his message. It does not mean that we agree with his ideas, but we are interested in understanding them. That is why it is synonymous of respect and willingness to dialogue.
Unfortunately, in an increasingly narcissistic society many people fail to develop active listening. Instead of listening to their interlocutor to understand his ideas and feelings, they just listen to his arguments to refute them, as if it were a duel.
Reactive listening, as I call this type of communication, implies entrenching behind one’s own points of view, so it ends up becoming an obstacle to dialogue. It implies reacting to the ideas of the interlocutor from an egocentric point of view, to enforce his own criteria, without the intention of reaching an advantageous agreement for both.
The person who activates a reactive listening is limited to reacting from his emotions, beliefs and ideas, without taking into account those of his interlocutor. In this way it is not possible to create the shared space necessary for understanding to occur, so it ends up installing a deaf dialogue.
How to know if a person has started a reactive listening?
1. The person does not take into account what his interlocutor says. If he listens to his arguments, it is only to refute them.
2. He does not pay due interest in the words of his interlocutor, demonstrating an almost total lack of empathy.
3. He’s only interested in transmitting his message – however it may be – by closing on any argument that goes against his ideas.
What hides reactive listening?
Many people practice reactive listening because they want to assert their arguments – no matter how or at what price. Basically, they are not interested in the ideas or motives that you can give them because their main objective is to impose their reasons, so that their vision prevails.
These people are not looking for a dialogue, but rather they start a battle in which they want to win. They do not assume dialogue as an opportunity to grow but as a duel. Therefore, they are likely to perceive your arguments as a threat, simply because they do not match theirs, so they feel they must defend themselves.
This implies that they will ignore any glimpse of truth that can enclose your message and that can help them change their minds, broaden their perspective or enrich their point of view because they are only on the lookout for possible contradictions, inaccuracies or hesitations to counterattack.
Of course, we can all practice reactive listening from time to time, especially when we feel that are attacking our ego and we become defensive, but assuming it as a communicative style implies little self-confidence.
A mature, assertive and self-confident person does not feel the need to impose his arguments, but is open to dialogue and receptive to different points of view that can enrich his worldview or help him better understand who is in front of him. Therefore, deep down, reactive listening is the expression of a fragile ego or deep personal insecurity.
Martin Luther King said that “Your truth will increase as you listen to the truth of others.” The person who closes the doors to the ideas of others ends up running the risk of being locked in an increasingly limited vision of the world, of life and of himself.
The 3 steps to deactivate reactive listening
Talking with a person who listens reactively is often exhausting. You are likely to try different paths/arguments and each stumble upon a wall of misunderstanding. That can be very frustrating. In those cases, for the dialogue to progress, you need to deactivate that listening mode.
However, you must start from the fact that all communication contains a certain degree of dispersion since between what you think and what your interlocutor understands there’s a good distance, as shown in the image below. That is why you must ensure that your message arrives as clearly as possible.
1. Establish a common starting point. Continuing to present arguments, ad infinitum, will not help. You need to go back, at the beginning, and establish a new starting point with which you both agree. In a relationship, that starting point may be that you both love each other. In an employment relationship, the starting point may be that you both need to solve the problem or finish the project.
That shared truth will allow you, on the one hand, to shorten the psychological distance that had been created and, on the other, to set a precedent of agreement that positively predisposes the dialogue, making you both look in the same direction, although each one looks differently. And that is already a great step forward.
2. Lower your guard. There is nothing worse for understanding than feeling attacked. Therefore, you must ensure that your interlocutor feels relatively comfortable. Use a soft and calm tone of voice. No need to stir. Let him know that you understand his arguments and his position, that your goal is to reach an agreement with which you both feel comfortable, not to impose your point of view.
If you manage to get your interlocutor down the walls he had built, you may not reach an agreement immediately, but at least it is likely that your arguments will sneak in and make him change his mind later. To do this, instead of “attacking” his ideas or feelings, the ideal is to talk about how you feel and how that situation affects you. Instead of accusing, talk about yourself. Showing vulnerability is usually the most powerful tool to deactivate reactive listening and activate active listening.
3. Take advantage of each agreement, however small. At first glance it seems a contradiction, but the only way to get a person understand and accept your arguments is to understand and accept his. Reactive listening is fought with active listening. If you activate a reactive listening you will only be able to immerse yourself in a dialogue of the deaf.
Listen to the arguments of your interlocutor, not with the intention of refuting them but to look for points in common, however small, and use them as bricks to create a common discourse. Embed your ideas in his, to move forward little by little. Understanding is not achieved by jumping from disagreement to agreement but by making little steps based on common ideas or feelings. Every time you highlight those points of contact you break the barriers between “me” and “you”, creating a shared communication space that facilitates understanding.
Finally, if you see that at that moment the understanding is impossible, it is best that you postpone the conversation to another time. Never argue with an idiot or with a person who, at that moment, has become too obfuscated to be able to progress in the dialogue. Remember that sometimes it is better to preserve inner peace, than to be right.