Whenever we talk at the same time as someone else, we interrupt each other and it is almost impossible for effective communication to occur between us.
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Voltaire (1694 - 1778), (Attributed); originated in "The Friends of Voltaire", 1906, by S. G. Tallentyre (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)
Interruptions can take other forms than just speaking over each other. For instance, mobile phones going off, starting to listen to music or watching the TV while conversing with someone, are all ways in which we can lessen the ‘integrity’ of our listening to someone.
Other ways of interrupting one another include:
• "I know, that’s exactly what happened to me!"
• "My situation was even worse than that."
• "I’ve got an even better story, listen to this….."
• "I found exactly the same, the Council/ school/my kids/ my parents/my partner …… are hopeless"
• Assuming that we know what the other is saying before they’ve finished and coming in with our own ideas and suggestions
• Telling the speaker what to do before fully hearing them
• Finishing the speaker’s sentences for them in the belief we are ‘helping’ them to express themselves
Many of these are often considered good listening in the sense that they provide tea and sympathy and sharing of a problem that can occur.
However, the problem is that the listener over identifies with what the speaker is saying and basically ‘shuts down’ from genuinely hearing what is being said as they assume that they know already.
Active and Passive Non-listening
These practices can be described as ‘Active non-listening’, distinguishing them from ‘Passive non-listening’ which is where the ’listener' is constantly looking at their watch, yawning, seemingly thinking about something else and basically not interested. Although to interpret this non-verbal behaviour as 'proof' of their not listening is a mistake as discussed in Principle 5, That we speak only for ourselves.
The main feature of passive non-listening is non-engagement with the speaker, for example by not responding verbally at all to things said or by not responding verbally with content that relates to what the speaker has said.
Active non-listening prevents any real communication from occurring as the 'listener' comes back at the speaker with their own experience before they've fully heard what the speaker has said, assuming that they 'know exactly' what is being said and they 'understand completely', because they've 'been there'.
In ‘Active non-listening’ the ‘listener’ is so interested they merge themselves with what is said and take over from the speaker, preventing any Effective Communication.
However, because the 'listening' and the response from the 'listener' is so reinforcing of what the speaker is saying.... "I know exactly what you mean and my situation was even worse!", the effect on the speaker is to entrench them in their despair and 'victimhood':
"It seems like Fred really is a racist/ the council really are awful/ this job really does stink/ husbands really are horrible/ wives really do nag.......and there's nothing you can do about it! It's just the way of the world, they're all the same!"
Here's a Handbook to help you practise more effective communication and to review and improve how you are responding to unresolved conflict:
Many discussions are hindered by interruptions and often at the end those involved go away with very different views about what has been said.
The only way to really know if someone has listened to us is if they have given us a summary of what we've said and allowed us to correct it if they have missed something or misinterpreted something. Someone may have yawned and scratched and looked at their watch the whole time we are talking and still have been able to hear what we said and be able to give us a summary that shows we have been listened to.
To promote effective communication in mediation, mediators allow disputants ‘uninterrupted time’ during which they can say all that they want to about a dispute. At the end, all the mediator might say is "Is there any more you want to add?" and give them time to consider this.
A mediator would then give a summary back to the person of what they think they said so that the person can clarify any misunderstandings. There are a lot of different views about summaries and how they should be done and how effective they are and this practice is considered in more detail on the Conflict Resolution page. There are important things to consider based on the Underlying Philosophies of Mediation that inform how a summary is done in order to maximise effective communication and support conflict resolution.
The skill of Summarising is one of the essential skills for communication success.
Few people are given the chance to speak uninterrupted, and they will rarely hear a summary back of what they have said from the listener.
Going round in circles and going off at tangents
Sometimes there can be a worry that if someone is given a chance to speak uninterrupted, they will go on forever, but often they will take up much less time than if they are interrupted.
Conversations where people seem to go round in circles and keep repeating themselves, or go off at tangents to the main topic will usually be because they have been interrupted with an opinion or advice which suggests to them that they haven’t been fully understood. As a result, they feel they have to either repeat themselves or go off at a tangent to explain more detail about what they are saying because the listener seems not to be 'getting it'.
The shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line and in the same way, an uninterrupted stream of talking will flow more quickly to its end point, than one that is continuously caused to deviate from its path by advice and opinions and other comments. The repetitions and 'wider explanations' such as going off at apparent tangents are the speaker's response to these interruptions, leading to a longer period of speaking.
Consider this example taken from Andrew G. Marshall's book:
....where he talks about some research into listening:
"Everybody thinks they are good at listening – after all, it just involves a bit of concentration and not saying anything. Simple. Or is it? In 1984 Howard Beckman and Richard Frankel recorded how long doctors let patients talk for without interruption. The average time was just eighteen seconds. Remember, these doctors knew they were being studied so one would imagine they were trying to show off their listening skills. When the doctors were presented with the research two things happened: firstly, they insisted they had let their patients talk for much more than eighteen seconds; secondly, they claimed that if they listened without interruption they would never get anything done, as patients talk endlessly. So Beckman and Frankel did some follow-up research. This time the patients were allowed to talk for as long as they wished without interruption. Most talked for only thirty seconds and no patient talked for more than ninety seconds."
When people are used to being interrupted there is a much greater likelihood that they will not be listening either when people speak to them, because they will have developed the strategy of thinking of their next answer or comment to squeeze in whenever they can - because it has become a competition to be heard - rather than concentrate on what is being said to them.
In this way, ineffective listening is mutually induced in both people having the conversation. So basically, it only takes one person (me) to break the circle of decline in the quality of the listening.
With the practice of uninterrupted time, a listener can just listen and the speaker can speak without anxiety that they will have to fend off interruptions. The effectiveness and the quality of the communication increases enormously as a result.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood - Habit 5 in Steven R. Covey's book:The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Return from Do not interrupt one another to Communication Page
Are you UK based and wanting mediation, conflict coaching or training in communication and/or conflict resolution related issues?
Mediation skills, Conflict Coaching skills, bespoke training in holding effective meetings, dealing with difficult behaviour, or other related areas?
If so, contact Alan via his business website at CAOS Conflict Management
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There's also a FREE COPY of the e-booklet Listening, Summarising and Questioning - The Simple, Effective Skills of Conflict Resolution with every purchase of The Guide.
Some recent feedback on The Guide:
Dear Alan - I recently purchased The Guide which I think is excellent and highly useful in a personal and professional context. I am a teacher with the Skills Institute in Tasmania and I'm about to roll out communication training in Tasmania's only youth detention facility. I have an enormous amount of material regarding communication but none as succinct or as user-friendly as what you have developed.
Teacher-Human Services Skills Institute - Tasmania
I work at a homeless shelter/rehab and I teach a class on community living. This is a new field of employment for me. I can use this site for ideas for the class I teach.
This is going to be very interesting and educational for myself as well as others.
This site is a big help. Thank you!
TM, Kentucky, USA
Working with 'Bullying'? - This may interest you….
Hello Alan Sharland
Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?
Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz
You have put together an awesome web site with lots of fantastic materials.
John Ford - Managing Editor Mediate.com
Hi Alan, ..... your site is great. I've been reading all the material and have to say its already made a difference in how I sort out/manage some of life's little problems. JH - West London, UK
This article is the BEST article on questioning I have ever read and I'd like, with your permission, to pass it along to our mediators.Your examples of both genuinely open and 'not-so-open' with explanations are very insightful.
ML - Canadian Govt. Agency
I have just spent hours on your site as I truly love the eclectic mix of reference material that you kindly share. From Gibran to Byron Katie and the fab youtube clips! I am making my free hugs poster as of now :-)
Anni with joyful smile :-)