How to Get Someone to Not Listen to You

Barnes & Noble Author Banner Cafe

A few Sundays back, I was at Barnes & Noble for afternoon coffee and magazine reading. I was standing under the B&N painted banner of canonical authors lounging in a Parisian café (almost exclusively mythological white males), figuring out what kind of drink to order.

Nothing sounded great, so I decided I’d order something new, hoping that creating a super frou frou drink might result in something delicious.

So I waited until we made it to the counter and ordered, combining as many adjectives as seemed prudent (Tall Skinny Vanilla Bean Latte Skim etc.) and feeling pretty great about forging boldly into the great unknown territory of caffeinated beverages.

The barista asked me something about whether I wanted sugar-free and I confidently said, “yes?” Beside me, my companion (with, I imagine, a scowl and head-shake) loud-whispered, “ASPARTAME” with the voice you’d use to point out a woman in her third-trimester chain-smoking Marlboros in the parking lot.

Well, shoot.

Suddenly, what was a decision based on devil-may-care don’t know what I’m doing apathy had been repositioned as a steely determination to purposely annihilate my body. I’d simply been trying to order a coffee drink and all of a sudden I was waving a flag for all that is callous and destructive in the world.

Well shoot. Already committed to it, and if I’d back down now, I’d look morally weak AND foolish. No choice but to stand my ground and love aspartame, whatever the heck the stuff does.

I think my reaction to this unsolicited reprimand was really interesting. Instead of being drawn to reconsider my haphazard choice of aspartame-laden syrup, the reprimand actually made me (irrationally) more committed to my random, disinterested pick of a Skinny Latte.

What’s going on here? Why is it that when we want to change someone’s behavior, we usually end up pushing them further down the opposite road, strengthening their resolve?Here are some hypotheses:

Step 1: We Make Others Feel Bad About Themselves

When’s the last time feeling embarrassed or ashamed made you change for the better? I can’t remember very many times where being chastised or denigrated lead me to grow or make a decision to strive toward my best self.

Making others feel bad about themselves, often for something they’d have no reason for knowing due to their culture or background, is an easy way to get people to not listen to you. Correcting someone by assaulting their character first gives them every reason to be defensive and not respond to the actual argument.

Whether someone should feel bad about themselves is beside the point. They might warrant guilt, or shame–but if we’re in the business of getting listened to and producing change, we might be best completely shelving our desire to make people feel bad about themselves.

Ironically, trying to make someone feel bad about themselves usually just results in them putting up emotional armor long term. Genuine remorse usually comes down the line, after a genuine change in perspective, not just after a casual slapping-around of a person’s ego.

Step 2: We Head Off Real Conversations Before They Happen

Real conversations are dangerous. If you sit down and talk to someone, you might get them to listen to you.

Worse still: they might respond to you. They might have questions or objections. Then you’d have to listen to them.

Better to nip real conversations in the bud. When feeling vulnerable, say a joke instead. Make a face that implies what the other person is saying is so off-base that it’s not even worth you correcting. Tell your friends how dumb the thing they said was, later, when it’s safe.

Don’t risk being exposed or vulnerable when you could feel safe and correct.

Step 3: We Give People Free Passes Not to Listen

For example: Your tone of voice is one really great tool to help someone avoid seriously encountering your beliefs and changing theirs.

With the proper tone of voice, you can tell someone they’re patently wrong about something without having to engage them in the icky, uncomfortable practice of back-and-forth conversation. If you can blast them with invective, you’ll successfully build a barrier between your words and the other person’s brain and–SUCCESS! Neither of you will be forced to be uncomfortable.

You’ve given the person you’re challenging the perfect excuse to disregard you. You’ve let them off easy. Now they don’t have to face the harsh reality that maybe:

  • They need to learn to take care of their bodies, or
  • The way they talk is hurting the people around them, or
  • They aren’t perfect cooks and are about to ruin something on the stove top.

All because we had to bluntly relate these important truths. If the truth is worth conveying, shutting yourself out of influencing someone else is a crime. Worse than giving them an excuse not to listen is the fact that you’ve given yourself the perfect excuses for failing to connect:

  • “They just never listen!”
  • “Some people just aren’t willing to see the world as it is.”
  • “I told her not to date him. Not that it mattered.”

…when it’s really just your fault for not putting in the hard word of really connecting well.

Step 4: We Correct People for Our Benefit, Not Theirs

See Step 1, in reverse. We want to make us feel good about ourselves. People have a very good radar for when someone’s just trying to tell someone else they are right.

If we are trying to correct someone else–not to change them for the better, make their lives richer/fuller/more vivid, make the world a better place–but because we get a thrill out of being a little more sophisticated or having read more books, we probably deserve not being listened to.

The tragedy is that by shutting ourselves off from others (by not being listened to), we probably aren’t listening to anyone, either. Which means we don’t have a chance of being changed for the better, making our lives richer/fuller/more vivid, or making the world a better place. Instead, we’re forced to accept the default setting.

It’s ok. I get it.

All of us do things that keep us from being listened to. And we don’t do it because we’re deluded or stupid–we do it because it’s really, really easy to do, and it feels like you’re making a difference and trying to change people, even though you aren’t.

It’s actually one of the most difficult things to get someone to change their behavior. Once a person has accepted a truth about someone or something, he doesn’t like to be forced to change his mind. It’s a well observed phenomenon that no one enjoys realizing they’re wrong.

If someone at work is making the same, simple mistake over and over, it’s WAY easier to gossip about them than to understand them. It takes a lot of effort to help someone improve themselves, and to first create enough relational capital for them to care enough to listen to you in the first place.

Connecting with someone, helping them, teaching them something new–these are all harder to do than make fun of them, or have them not listen to you.

The Secret to Getting Someone to Listen to You

… isn’t in this post, which is already too long. I don’t have the real estate to do it justice. Maybe later.

But here’s a thought: Listen to them first. People love to be listened to. And why do you expect them to listen to you if you won’t take the first step?

If your story matters–if you have something interesting or important to say–you OWE it to the person you’re talking to to tell your story in a way that won’t shut them off from you. If you make it easy for them not to listen to you, you are actually doing them a disservice.

There isn’t a map or instruction manual or For Dummies when it comes to this stuff. There is no perfect anecdote you can tell that will open all the doors and get care enough to listen to you. Because everyone’s story is different, and everyone responds to different ideas. If you don’t take the time to understand what motivates someone, the words they use, what makes them tick and scares them and brings tears to their eyes–why should they listen to you? You’re not even talking to them, just at them.

The Real Danger of Getting Someone Not to Listen

I have no affection for aspartame. I actually consider myself kind of a foodie. I’m the kind of person who actively worries about how much antibiotics farmers are giving the animals that become our cheeseburgers. But a simple whisper can turn all my good-intentioned dietary concern into full-bore apathy.

Here’s the really insidious thing: If you play your cards right, you can get someone to permanently not listen to an idea.

Whether I like it or not, I’m now predisposed to distrust any reports about aspartame-related health concerns.

I went to Wikipedia and read the following:

Aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption by more than ninety countries worldwide, with FDA officials describing aspartame as “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and its safety as “clear cut”. The weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe as a non-nutritive sweetener.

And I am happy because now I can feel good about my choice. I might not take the time to research or look into aspartame beyond the top of a single Wikipedia page, because it’s easiest to tell myself: “AHA LOOK I WAS RIGHT.”

I don’t want to be ashamed or do battle with cognitive dissonance whenever I sip a Diet Coke.

Instead, Be an Artist

If you decide to do the tough work of telling your story, creating art or doing important work, it will be tempting to get people to not listen to you.

It will be tempting to make yourself the hero of every story, instead of honestly engaging with others. You will want to paint the world in black and white. It’s easier to demonize the opposing political party than to find the parts of their arguments that aren’t stupid, but are good intentioned and true.

It’s much harder to do the difficult work of encountering someone’s worldview and understanding it rather than just attempting to use yours as a sledgehammer that will hopefully turn theirs into dust and delusions.

It’s much scarier to actually, maybe change other people’s behavior. To have a tough conversation. To stand up for something that matters, tell a story, or publish a blog post.

You might be held accountable.

You might be laughed at or feel wrong or have to face a harsh reality yourself.

I didn’t change my order at B&N. I got that stupid tall skinny no fat vanilla bean latte.

It tasted terrible, and I didn’t finish it.

But damned if I wouldn’t order it again and down it like a champ if I was put in the same situation and I heard someone judge-whisper:

ASPARTAME

[Image source: Letters Republic]

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5 comments

  1. Michael

    Well thought and well said, Marc. I think our stubbornness plays such a large role, as you said, pushes you to stand firm on your decision (whatever it may be) even if faced with a better alternative…not because the alternative is better or worse than your decision necessarily, but to prove something.

    • Marc Koenig

      Exactly. The conversation stops being about the subject and has shifted (often without either of the two people realizing it) to a me vs. you. Thanks for this comment.

  2. absolutelyspeechless

    So many great thoughts. One that particularly struck me is that we don’t want to be exposed and vulnerable; we want to feel safe and right. It’s hard work to be vulnerable, but so necessary–unless we want to carry around the emotional armor every day. Sadly, we often choose that over the freedom that vulnerability brings.
    I will be re-reading this! So good.
    (And, for the record, skinny vanilla latte is my go-to drink. Shame me if you can. :))

  3. Kalen

    I wholeheartedly agree. I’m really bad (good?) at this. I blame it on my inability to just keep my mouth shut 80% of the time. Sometimes it’s easier to guilt people into/out of things than to be an encourager! Why is that?

    Good food for thought.

    • Marc Koenig

      It’s easier to guilt, but actually works less often. Cruel how that is. Even if you guilt someone into changing for a little while, it usually doesn’t stick unless they actually want to change.

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