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How I Made Mary Mad and 6 other Listening Mistakes

I made the worst of all listening mistakes!

“Am I making you mad?” I asked my neighbor Mary the other day, when I went over to interview her about her school-age years.

“Yes!” she said.


Talk about listening mistakes! I’ll elaborate about my mistake with Mary in number five. But, I guess the first one should be, Do not make people mad.

7 Listening Mistakes to Avoid

1. Giving Approval or Disapproval

Most people know what you approve of anyway, honestly. But it is best for them to take ownership of why their plan of action looks ridiculous. Most people, again, have a sense of what is best in their heads. If you can get them to say it on their own, you will be miles ahead.

Let’s say your neighbor is once again thinking of quitting their job. You probably won’t talk them out of it. And if you say, “I don’t think you should quit your job,” you for sure won’t because they’ve heard that a hundred times. The only hope might be to say something like this: “Tell me more about why you think you should quit your job.” As they try to explain it to you, they themselves will hear the flaws (if there are flaws) in their argument. They might try to defend themselves to you, but that doesn’t mean they won’t process your question more later, or that the Holy Spirit won’t knock on their door Himself.

2. Giving advice.

This one is like number one. But it is worth emphasizing because we are all so good at giving advice! Let’s say you are sitting in your neighbor’s house. Scattered magazines represent the last four decades. A fine layer of hair represents the last five house cats. They say, “I can’t find a place to sit in all this clutter.”

You could say, “You should clean your house more.” They haven’t done it for years and won’t listen.

However, if you ask them a leading question, you will get them to process it. Better: “Have you gotten used to the clutter?”

Again, they likely won’t change overnight. But the biggest chance for change will be in your listening to them and getting them to reflect on their own state.

3. Asking “why” questions

Just a few minutes ago, Janice came to my door in desperation.

“I need cat food for my cats,” she said. “They are completely out. They need it today.”

Now, there are a few things about this that irritated me.

  • First, we don’t feel that supplying cat food is a critical component of our ministry, at least not like supplying food for people.
  • Second, this happened a few weeks ago.

“I just ordered groceries this morning,” I told her. “I don’t know if I can add it on. If not, it will be next week.”

“Oh, they need them today!”

“Well, do you remember how we talked about not waiting until the last minute? What could you do next time to remind yourself when it is getting low?”

“I know,” she said.

She took it fairly well. Better, I think, than if I would have said, “Why did you wait until the day it ran out?”

Well, I ran and got my phone and sure enough, I could still add a three pound bag of cheap cat food to my Aldi order, so I did. I explained to her we don’t feel like it is necessary to supply cat food, but that I’ll get it this time yet.

4. Falsely reassuring

This is a classic mistake medical professionals might make. “I’m sure you don’t have cancer.” Better to ask, “What would it take for you to have peace of mind?”

“I’m going to die,” our neighbor Harold says frequently. There is absolutely no point in my telling him he won’t. Better for me to say things like, “Does the thought of dying make you feel afraid?”

5. Minimizing feelings

Back to Mary and the listening mistake I made.

Mary had told me when I asked to interview her originally that she “doesn’t want to be on the evening news.” I told her that the podcast we are doing is private. People have to subscribe, so it won’t go viral.

I thought maybe she was just being modest. But last week when we talked, I understood.

Mary is afraid for her life and the life of family members depending what she shares about her past and the violence done to her family. White supremacists have families too, she said, who might retaliate if she revealed too much of her story.

“Our mama told us to keep our mouths shut,” Mary said, “to save our lives.”

Well. This is just terrible. And I had missed the depth of her feeling. I reassured her that the podcast is truly a small audience. In her presence, I spoke to the audience on recording, telling them of her fears and why it is not appropriate to share the podcasts with anyone who is not subscribed.

So, I think we are off on the right track again! But I earned a valuable lesson.

6. Belittling

The other week Janice asked me for money for the pharmacy but didn’t want me to come into the pharmacy. (See “She Asked for Help, Then Exploded“.) She told me I was being nosy and said, “Why are you treating me like a child?”

My answer was an example of a listening mistake! “I’m treating you like a child because you are acting like one.”

It would have been better if I had said: “Do you know what it is that makes you afraid to be honest with me?”

7. Telling Someone you know how they feel  

We’ve all done this to others and had them do it to us. We are sharing some deeply real and painful struggle and they say, “I know, I’ve been there too.”

I think this sentiment, while a well-meaning extension of empathy, usually falls flat. When we are struggling and can’t see our way, we don’t want someone to brush off our struggle by saying they’ve “been there done that.”

Better: Keep the focus on them, not you. Such as, “That’s terrible. Have you been able to talk to anyone about all this?” Another option might be saying something like this: “Would it help you if told you the details of a similar experience I had?” But mostly, people just need to talk.

Note: Two Cautions

  • First, unique roles require unique approaches. I am writing as a neighbor, not as a pastor, teacher, or mother. People in authority often have many administrative duties that involve giving advice and expressing approval or disapproval. While some of these same listening tips could be helpful to people in those roles, there are also differences.
  • Second, there is no point in accusing other people in our lives of not listening well. Or in thinking of all the people we know who make listening mistakes! All of us know lots of people who do not listen well, and we see areas where we don’t listen well. The only benefit is to work on ourselves.

Again, thanks to Essentials of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing in giving me ideas for this post.

Happy listening and I hope you can avoid my mistakes!

Note: I also attached this list as a free matching printable to the bottom of your email. For non-email people, both printables are now available as a Good Listening Set. I listed the first one incorrectly last week, but they should be good to go now.

6 thoughts on “How I Made Mary Mad and 6 other Listening Mistakes”

  1. Wanda Pletcher

    I appreciate your writings! Thank you for the tips to become better listeners! Throughout my nursing career, I’ve learned to not say “I understand”, cuz many many times, I really can’t understand exactly how and what the patient is feeling….. Even tho I might have had experienced a similar situation. May God continue to bless you and the ministry you have there!

  2. These are the right questions to ask. Not natural, mind you, but right. I also learned these in nurses training and, while I use them frequently, I sometimes mess up and do it wrong. Great reminder!

  3. Rachel Peachey

    That is a very practical and applicable list! Thanks so much, I need to internalize those thoughts more.

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