The communication skill of LISTENING with cognitive awareness (CBT Dublin Ireland)

In these unprecedented times, it’s never been more important to network and communicate effectively. Not just in our personal lives (feeding our social needs by improving our social skills and our experience in a smart way that will enhance our lives), but also for networking, with past and present colleagues/peers and new contacts… which will feed into our professional and life needs.

So far in this blog we have addressed how we communicate with ourselves through self talk, and how to change it if it is negative and distorted, and causing us inappropriate upset and/or self sabotaging behaviour. We have also touched on understanding other peoples behaviour in a healthy way. This new post is about ‘listening with awareness‘ – because  listening and our consequential responses to people is very important in communicating effectively.

(The following list is adapted – with kind permission by Patrick Fanning – from the Basic Skills / Listening chapter of :  ‘Messages, the Communication Skills Bookby Fanning, McKay and Davis.)

It is dangerous not to ‘listen effectively’ – you miss important information and don’t
see problems coming. When you try to understand why people do things you have to resort to ‘mind-reading’ and ‘fortune telling’ to fill in the gaps in your skills. People who don’t listen rarely figure out why things ‘go wrong’ or why they don’t really ‘connect’.  Listening is a commitment and a compliment – it helps you to understand people – understand how they view their world through their lens – and consequentially makes for better communication overall, and fosters and nurtures relationships old and new. It helps you ‘look at life through the other persons eyes’.

People respond to great listeners by liking and appreciating them. It demonstrates emotional intelligence – have you ever wondered why a person you don’t figure is ‘as smart as you, as attractive as you, as interesting as you’ has better relationships with people than you? Well, perhaps it’s because they’re smart in the ways that matter – they can ‘communicate’ and most likely actually like and appreciate people in a way that is ‘outside of themselves’. They can ‘listen’ and respond effectively. You can learn that skill.


Let’s take a look at the psychology of listening:

Real vs Pseudo-listening: pseudo listening  is when your intention is not really to ‘listen’ but to meet some other need, such as:-

  • Making people think you’re interested in them so they’ll like you
  • Being alert to see danger signs of impending rejection
  • Listening for one specific piece of information and tuning out to everything else.
  • Buying time until it’s your turn to talk
  • Listening to find vulnerabilities so you can take advantage of the other person
  • Looking for weak points in an argument so you can always be right (only taking in ammunition for attack)
  • Checking to see how people react to you, making sure you get your ‘desired effect’
  • Half listening to show you’re ‘good and kind’
  • Half listening because you don’t want to offend.

Task: review and examine the following ‘12 Blocks to Listening’

There are 12 blocks – you will find that some are particularly relevant to you and that you use them over and over. Others you hold in reserve especially for certain people or situations. Everybody uses listening blocks, so don’t worry if a lot of these are familiar – just decide instead that this is your opportunity to gain awareness of your blocks at the time you’re actually using them, so that you can work on changing those listening behaviours that are unhelpful to you.  Read through the following descriptions and then do the listening task…

  1. Comparing – this makes it hard to listen because you’re constantly ‘rating’ yourself against the other person/people – Who’s smarter? More attractive? Funniest? You or them? Some people focus on who has suffered more (‘God, listen to your man, he thinks he has problems, what about mine?’).  You can’t actually listen and take information in and communicate because you’re too busy seeing if you measure up to them, or if they measure up to your requirements (list). Leads to labeling.
  1. Mind-reading – this is when you’re so busy deciding what the other person is thinking and feeling (and often telling them!) that you don’t pay attention to what they’re actually saying. You pay less attention to the persons words than to intonations and ‘clues’ in an effort to see what you expect or want to see (mental filtering). You may also make assumptions about peoples reactions to you. These notions are born of intuition, hunches and vague misgivings and have little to do with what the person is actually saying and intending.
  1. Rehearsing – you’re not actually listening because you’re busy rehearsing what you’re going to say – your focus is on your preparation and crafting of your own conversation. You might ‘look interested’ and nod and hum, but your mind is racing because you’ve got your story or point or script. Some people rehearse whole dialogues before an encounter, ‘I’ll say this, then he’ll say that, then I’ll say…’ and so on.
  1. Filtering – When you’re filtering (refer back to our earlier exercise on cognitive distortions and ‘fitting’ and processing information so that it fits your view and beliefs) you listen to some things and not others. Or you ‘hear what you expect to hear’ when it may not actually be what was said or intended.  It can also mean that you only pay enough attention to see if the person is angry/unhappy etc., to see if you are in emotional danger – once assured the communication doesn’t contain those things you let your mind wander off and half listen. Yet another way can mean that you mentally filter ‘out’ certain things – anything threatening, negative, critical – mentally blocking them and not taking them in.
  1. Judging / Labelling – when you pre-judge and label people according to your beliefs and ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ (‘he’s stupid’, ‘she’s nuts’, ‘he’s unqualified’ etc), you don’t pay attention to what they say. You’ve ‘written them off’ and zoned out. Hastily judging is a knee-jerk reaction. It is always more rewarding to be open minded, and considerate and respectful – to make judgements only after you have listened and evaluated the information.
  1. Dreaming – when you’re half-listening, and then something the person says suddenly triggers a chain of private associations (somebody tells you they’ve been made redundant and suddenly you’re back in your own centre of the universe thinking of your own situation for instance) and you’re ‘gone’. People are more prone to ‘dreaming’ when they are bored or anxious, and it may take major effort to stay tuned in. Try to approach conversations with a mission to value what the other person is saying – it will bring rewards.
  1. Identifying / Personalising –  this is when you take everything a person is saying to you and automatically refer it back to your own experience. E.g. they’re telling you about a disastrous date they’ve been on and you’re immediately butting in with your own experience, launching into your own story about you before they finish theirs. Everything you hear reminds you of something that you have felt/ done/ suffered/ celebrated/ achieved… You’re so busy with these exciting tales of your life that there’s no time to really hear or get to know the other person.
  1. Advising – you are the great problem solver, ready with help and suggestions before the other person has even finished their sentence – you don’t need to hear more, you ‘get it’, you’re ‘on’, you’re ‘there’. However while you’re telling them your views and giving them instructions on what to do you may be missing important information. You may miss what’s most important – you didn’t hear the ‘feelings’, and you didn’t acknowledge the persons predicament/pain. The person still feels alone with their issue as you couldn’t listen and  just be there in an unconditional and comforting way. Sometimes people just want to vent and receive sympathy and TLC. And sometimes you really won’t be giving the right advice (as of course you’re not ‘listening’).
  1. Sparring / Debating – This is when you argue and debate with people and are very quick to disagree. This kind of style actually leads to you focusing on finding things to disagree with and jumping on them. You have strong views and ‘take stands’ and are very clear about your beliefs and preferences.  The way to avoid this is to repeat back and acknowledge what you’ve heard (listen!), and evaluate and consider before disagreeing.
    A sub-type of Sparring is ‘The Put-down’ – using sarcastic remarks to dismiss the other persons point of view. This is a typical block that develops in many marraiges and in long relationships with colleagues. It pushes the communication to stereotypes which are familiar and regular.
    Another sub-type is ‘Discounting’ – discounting is for people who can’t take compliments – this where you are discounting the positive and you interrupt to run yourself down and cut other people off when they are complimenting you. The other person doesn’t feel you’ve heard or accepted their appreciation (and you haven’t), so may not stay in the habit of complimenting you.
  1. Being Right – this is when you’ll go to any lengths (twisting the facts, start shouting, make excuses or accusations, throw up past sins) to avoid being ‘wrong’. You are always right. You cannot take any criticism, you cannot be ‘corrected’, and you can’t take suggestions to change. Your convictions and beliefs are rigid and unshakable – you won’t acknowledge your mistakes are mistakes, so you just keep making them. And of course this means that you don’t hear information that may be useful to you, and it alienates the other person/people, preventing actual communication. Quick aggression and anger are classic partners of ‘being right’ – not nice for the target OR you!
  1. Derailing – this is when you constantly change the subject. You derail when you get bored or uncomfortable with a conversational topic. A sub-type of derailing is ‘laughing it off’, when you constantly respond to such situations with jokes in order to avoid the discomfort or anxiety of seriously listening to the other person.
  1. Placating – this is the ‘Yes… right… I know… you are… really?… Yes, yes…’ response to people – you want to be nice/pleasant/liked/supportive. You want people to like you, so you agree with everything, half listening but with no real involvement or communication. You’re not tuned in to what’s actually being said – it’s not a real conversation.

‘Effective Listening’ tips and techniques:
you can gain awareness of blocking by keeping a journal and noting what type of blocks you use and with what people in what situation. You can then apply awareness deliberately – be objective, treat it as an intellectual exercise. Observe what happens when you block, and when you don’t. Does it feel better when you don’t? Does it improve relationships and communications? Intially you may feel anxious or bored or irritated – but remember, everybody has a story and deserves respect – and the rewards will be major. Listening with empathy accepts that everybody is just trying to live and survive in this crazy world – you don’t have to like everybody, to agree with everybody – but it helps to acknowledge that you all share the same struggle. Compose a mantra, something like ‘This is a pain, but it’s another human being just trying to live, I’m going to respect them’. Aim to gradually form the habit of checking how well you are listening. Make a decision to ‘give yourself’ to the other person for the duration of a conversation. Maintain good eye contact, lean slightly forward, reinforce the speaker by nodding or paraphrasing what they’ve just said, clarify by asking questions, ignore distractions, be committed to understanding what they are actually saying.  And most importantly – learn to enjoy other people! Listening effectively can change communication in a way that rewards you mentally and socially and even financially (networking / working). It will improve your confidence when people respond to your new skills and behaviours – reinforcing them and encouraging you to continue with the new effective listening automatically, because you want to, not because you have to.


Task/handout:  try identifying some of your own habitual ‘listening blocks’, and how to address them…

(recreate this chart on paper)

Listening block: Who I use it with: How to keep it in check:
 E.g. – Derailing  My mother – when she tries to talk about my personal life (particularly my romantic life) – I don’t give her any information – I don’t engage with her on a personal level – I just divert her to light chit-chat, doing my ‘duty’ and getting off the phone as soon as I can.  I will make serious efforts to listen to her, and take in the question, and actually answer it – or at least acknowledge it and humourously remind her I don’t talk about that etc – I’ll show her respect and ‘engage’ with her on the level she really wants. I’ll find it a bit irritating but it will make her happy, and she deserves my time.


Your mantra:....


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