Managing the habit of non-consensual listening

Managing the habit of non-consensual listening

So the holidays are here, and so this is a good time to post about one of my favorite topics and areas of "practice" - non-consensual listening! Most of us have at least one Uncle Jim or Aunt Betty who seems to talk just to fill up space at family gatherings.

Non-consensual listening is something that many of us struggle with - I think particularly those of us who have been socialized as women. Non-consensual listening is when we pretend that we are still listening to someone even though we have tuned out, disassociated, or are no longer interested in the conversation. This is a subtle form of fawning - which is one of the most common varieties of trauma response - we are trying to keep the peace, or stay in some kind of connection with the person.

Non-consensual listening is coping strategy for relationships and conversations that are not nourishing, boring, or even abusive. If you realize that you do this a lot, you are not alone!

Pruning non-consensual listening from our lives makes room for more meaningful and genuinely connected conversations.

I have been working on this for YEARS now... aspiring to end (or minimize) the practice of non-consensual listening. I decided I wanted to stop doing this because I really value my listening capacity - I am a gifted listener. So when I listen non-consensually, I'm really disrespecting the part of myself that is such a good listener, because she can't or won't show up fully.

My capacity for listening is not as big as sometimes I wish it was. But I have found that the more I track and respect my capacity for genuine listening, the more it settles my nervous system, and the quality of my relationships has continued to grow richer and more attuned.

Here's a few tips and ideas for working with this in your life.

  1. Start with just tracking non-consensual listening. How often are you part of a conversation that actually doesn't interest or serve you? What is motivating you to continue pretending to listen, even after you'd really rather be somewhere else? After you observe for a while, consider journaling about this.
  2. When you find yourself talking to someone, especially if you are venting or complaining about something - check in with the person - do they consent to listening to you for the next (however many) minutes?
  3. When you notice yourself non-consensually listening, ask yourself - what you would like to be talking about instead? Would you like the other person to take a turn listening to you? This one is hard to ask for, but it's often actually what we want. Usually what I notice is that I want a more heart-centered conversation, rather than just an informational exchange. Guiding the conversation to that heart level takes skill, leadership and vulnerability. (see #5 below)
  4. Begin practicing ways to exit conversations. "My listening muscle is tired," is one of my favorites. Or another one - "I'm noticing that I'm feeling fully satisfied with this conversation. Thank you."
  5. Here's the advanced practice - begin practicing ways to redirect the conversation to a more meaningful or connected place. Asking questions - "Why is this meaningful for you? How does that make you feel?" Or "I would love it if you would ask me about my new hobby." All of these possibilities can make for more connected conversations. Or sharing information about what you are experiencing in the moment "I'm noticing that I'm feeling unfocused and tired right now, and I'm not really fully listening anymore."
  6. If this happens habitually in one of your intimate relationships, consider having a conversation about how to manage it together. With one of my beloved partners, we have developed ways that I can let him know when I'm starting to tune out, and he really appreciates these cues from me. Every time he thanks me for letting him know, I feel safer with him, and our relationship deepens.

This is just one of the things I love to work on with couples and with folks who want to have more intimacy and fulfillment in relationships, so please reach out to me if you'd like to work on this together.

And good luck with relating to Uncle Jim and Aunt Betty this year, my friends. I hope this post leads you to getting more of what you want out of the holidays this year, and less of what you don't want.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash