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9 Habits Holding You Back From Being a Better Communicator


Communication problems are often at the heart of the issues that lead people to enter my therapy office. Whether it’s a parent struggling to “get through” to a teenager or a couple who feels like they’re falling out of love, the inability to communicate effectively causes tension, anger, and serious relationship problems.

But of course it’s not just families that suffer when communication problems arise. The key to keeping business relationships healthy and productive also involves healthy communication.

In my 14 years as a therapist, no one has ever entered my office claiming to be a bad listener. But the truth is, most people’s listening skills could use a little sharpening.

Messages: The Communication Skills Book by Matthew McKay is often used as a therapy tool to aid clients in having more meaningful conversations. The book identifies a variety of communication skills and tools, including the importance of being a good listener.

Here’s a summary of some of the bad habits McKay says will cause you to be a bad listener:

1. Mind Reading

Mind reading involves making assumptions about what the other person thinks or feels. Instead of asking questions, you draw conclusions about why someone behaves in a certain manner.

2. Rehearsing

Rather than listen to the other person’s point of view, you might be tempted to start forming your argument. Rehearsing what you’re going to say—and how you’re going to say it—makes it impossible to hear the other person’s message.

3. Filtering

Filtering may involve zoning in on the points that reinforce your argument, or discounting anything you don’t want to hear. Filtering out the rest of the message can lead to unnecessary disagreements and hurt feelings.

4. Daydreaming

It’s easy for your mind to drift—especially when you’re involved in a lengthy conversation. Daydreaming, however, will cause you to miss out on the conversation.

5. Judging

Passing judgment—such as when you label someone a jerk—keeps you from listening with an open mind. You won’t be able to understand how the other person sees the world when you’ve already drawn your own conclusions.

6. Advising

Jumping in to offer a solution prevents you from gathering more information. Showing that you understand what is being said is often more important than the advice you have to offer.

7. Debating

You can’t listen when you’re invested in debating. Interrupting, arguing, and disputing everything doesn’t add value to the conversation.

8. Placating

Saying things like, “Yes, you’re right,” without putting in an effort to understand, comes across as uncaring. Minimizing the seriousness of the situation will likely cause the other person to feel dismissed, rather than appreciated.

9. Derailing

Changing the subject—whether it’s to bring to the focus back to the things you want to discuss or because you don’t want to tackle a tough topic—won’t do you any favors. While it sometimes works in the short-term, deflection creates bigger problems over time.

Sharpen Your Skills

Just because you’re silent doesn’t mean you’re listening. Listening shouldn’t be a passive activity—it requires active participation.

So before you decide someone else is a bad communicator, consider the steps you could take to improve your listening skills. Reflect what you hear, ask questions, and strive to gain clarification and your conversations will become much more meaningful and productive.

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