Several years ago, a mischievous little boy became an internet sensation as he was caught in the act of sneaking a pre-dinner cupcake. The attempted bakery-item-theft was never captured on camera, but his interaction with the adult who caught him was, and his response was hilarious. Over and over again, he single-mindedly pleaded to be heard, repeating, “Listen to me! Linda, listen to me! Listen to me!” Much to his chagrin, Linda did not listen but instead pushed forward with her own agenda (rightfully) calling him out for his behavior. I clearly remember giggling to myself as I watched his performance, and I secretly wondered which of his parents he was mimicking. ICYMI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFYsJYPye94
I also recall sympathizing with his frustration. “Why won’t Linda just be quiet and let me speak? I have something important to say and she is not interested in hearing it!” Countless times I have found myself in a similar situation where I desperately wanted someone to listen to me, only to realize they were not willing. How disheartening to have some meaningful advice to give, a solid defense to offer, or some life-changing wisdom to impart and not have an audience to receive it!
And I know I am not alone.
I have heard exhausted parents say, “We’ve told our daughter a million times to study more, but she just ignores us.”
Siblings will confess, “We keep telling our sister to leave her abusive husband, but she won’t listen to us.”
A spouse will share, “I tell my wife how much I hate her drinking, but she keeps doing it, anyway.”
Like the boy in the video, we assume that if we keep using our words–or different combinations of them - the other person will eventually “get it.” But in truth, this technique is really just a more sophisticated form of nagging. And although nagging is not necessarily hurtful (it is sometimes received as a sign of affection), it can be irritating and counter-productive when the stakes are high.
Consider that along with nagging, we sometimes employ a few not-so benign tactics:
- Raising our voice. We talk louder than usual or become overly animated (or even shout), hoping we might get the other person’s attention long enough to shock them into hearing our words.
- Threatening. We use aggressive words or positions of power to intimidate someone so that they might “listen up” and take us seriously.
- Shaming. We might accuse someone of being mean, stubborn or ungrateful or we may turn a cold-shoulder to them out of frustration, in order to get the results we want.
Most of the time, these kinds of strategies still don’t prove successful. Someone who is manipulated into listening to our words will not suddenly be aligned with what we are saying. In fact, these kinds of behaviors can actually be hurtful to the other person and the relationship instead.
So, why do we do this? Why do we keep talking when no one is listening?
I would suggest that what we really want is control. It’s not so much that we care so much about being heard. What we really want is for people to do what we think they should. And while our motivation might be one of caring and concern, trying to “get” someone to listen to us when they are not interested is an exercise in futility and frustration.
Here is the truth:
We are powerless over other people. Powerless over their decisions, their thoughts, their motivations, theirs hopes and dreams. Even when we are certain of our truth, we cannot “make” anyone see things our way. But this does not mean we stop communicating with others and sharing our experiences and wisdom! It does mean that we have to have a receptive audience before we can try. Here are a few better techniques for getting someone to listen:
1. Ask them for permission. Let them know you have a concern and ask if they will allow you to share it.
2. Demonstrate your trustworthiness. Refrain from gossip, volatile outbursts, and other verbal assaults that can destroy trust. Keep confidences and speak fairly and kindly of others.
3. Use phrases like, “you might consider” or “have you ever thought of” instead of saying “you should” or “you have to.” Think about how you would respond to the kind of language you choose.
4. Share your own vulnerability. Perhaps you feel compelled to speak to someone because you are afraid or because you have gone down a path that caused you pain and you would like to protect them from the same. Lead with your heart.
5. Don’t repeat what you have already told them. They heard you the first time. If they need clarification, they will ask for it.
6. Use tone and body language that communicate safety. Make gentle eye-contact, get rid of distractions, lean in if they are speaking quietly.
7. Avoid talking when you (or they) are hungry, angry, lonely or tired (Think: HALT) Also, avoid conversations with someone who has been drinking.
Finally, remember that getting someone to listen to us and consider our perspective is a privilege, not a right.