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Breaking the Sound Barrier: How Interrupting Impedes Effective Listening and the Four Commitments to Make Others Truly Feel Heard

Hello, my name is Kat, and I am a chronic interrupter. I like to think I come by it naturally – growing up with a large family with lots to say, interrupting someone was the only way to ensure my voice was heard. If I could fill in that word you’re looking for, predict what’s coming next in your story, or offer my opinion about what you’re sharing, I just had to blurt it out! It helped keep the story moving and met my need to be seen as intelligent and correct.  

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became aware of the impact I made every time I did this. I wish I could say I was mindful that I was failing to uphold one of the four commitments of listening – giving my ear – much earlier, but it took me a long time to become aware of this habit. By interrupting, I could completely hijack the conversation and fill it in with my details or questions. You can imagine that was a hard realization if you’re like me. As someone who always wants to make others feel valued and heard, I needed to reconsider how well I showed up for others when I decided to listen to them. I needed to check myself and how I demonstrate care to those who most matter to me. 

The Four Commitments of Listening 

When someone comes to us with a problem, we have a split-second to make the following choice. Do we listen with half our attention, carrying on with what we were doing before, or do we choose to make others fully heard by giving them our full attention? If we choose the latter, we have some commitments to uphold.

1. Are you giving them your time?

This commitment always makes me think about children. How do they always come to us with a big problem at the most inconvenient time? Our response to them in this moment sends a message – either we have the time to listen to them, or we don’t. Depending on the child (person), this might be interpreted as either we care about them or we don’t. Sometimes, we don’t have the time and must find a later time to connect with them. That’s okay. However, I would challenge you to consider how often you say you don’t have time when there might be an opportunity to pause, readjust, and listen to your child. Showing them that you care and prioritize listening to them when they come to you can go a long way.  

2. Are you giving them your heart?

Does anyone else immediately stop sharing when the person listening to you says something like, “You’re worrying over nothing; it’s really not a big deal”? Just me? Statements like these are “empathy blockers” and can quickly reduce someone’s willingness to share. You may recall from Our Community Listens class that there are 3 main categories of empathy blockers – a dominating response, an avoidant response, and a judgmental response. When we use statements like these, we risk hurting the other by demonstrating that we aren’t truly listening to what they are telling us. Reflect on some recent conversations you’ve had. Have you noticed the other person grow quieter as the conversation continued? Maybe they got defensive? It’s possible that you used an empathy blocker (they are sneaky – you might not have even noticed!). Moving forward, pay attention to how you respond when someone shares a problem with you and if it moves them to a place where they continue openly sharing or if they hold their thoughts a little closer.  

3. Are you giving them your ear?

Not only are we giving them our ears, but are we genuinely tapping into everything they tell us? When deeply listening and noticing, we pick up on more than just the words the other person shares. We notice what their silence is telling us. We recognize what their body language is conveying. The tone in which they are speaking reveals a deeper meaning to us.

I am currently binge-watching the hit Hulu show The Bear. While I don’t say the characters in the show do a great job demonstrating listening, one thing I appreciate about the main character, Carmy, is his ability to pick up on a deeper meaning behind others’ silence. There are multiple instances throughout the show when Carmy notices a tone shift, followed by silence. Because he is paying attention and truly cares, he can encourage the other characters to share more. They can discuss the issue immediately rather than letting it fester. This goes a long way for their relationships and builds deeper trust and connection.  

4. Do you have the right motive?

Throughout the Our Community Listens class, we boldly claim that listening is the most helpful thing we can do for another person. While I agree, this statement should come with a warning. It’s a slippery slope if that evolves into the mindset of “Tell me what your problem is, and I’ll listen so that I can solve it for you!”. While that might be helpful and appreciated at the moment, we run the risk of creating a sense of learned helplessness.  

Growing up, I was always the “mom” friend – someone my friends could come to when they needed to be listened to, and I was always quick with advice. I loved this title – I felt vital, like I was needed. However, as I’ve matured, I often hold my tongue when advice is requested. The listening continued, but instead of trying to provide solutions and offering up what I thought they should do, I let my friend come to the solution on their own. Friends get frustrated by this – sometimes looking at me with exasperation and saying “Tell me what to do, Kat!”. However, they can often figure out what to do without needing me to tell them. When I released my need to have a solution for everyone, it enabled them to find it on their own, be more confident in the next step, and fully embrace it (and often, their solution is better than the advice I would have given them!).  

I’m Committed… Now What? 

Remembering to uphold all the commitments whenever someone comes to us to share a problem feels impossible. Start with one rather than expecting yourself to get it perfect every time. Which commitment feels the most manageable to really embed in your listening practice? What’s a tangible way to make sure you are living it out? You may focus your eyes on the person talking so you can intentionally pick up on body language or take the time to close your laptop and turn your body to show them that they have your time. You can guess that now I am much more aware of when I feel an urge to interrupt someone, and intentionally hold my tongue and commit to listening. Whatever you choose, you have the fantastic opportunity and ability to move toward closer relationships based on connection and empathy. That sounds pretty good to me 😊 

If you’re interested in continuing this conversation with other Our Community Listen alumni, you’re invited to register for this (free!) virtual Roundtable: Engage & Empower: The Four Commitments of Listening, taking place on January 16th.