How 'Selective Hearing' Sabotages Even The Best Relationships

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man and woman talking but selectively hearing each other

After counseling couples for over 20 years, I can confidently say that 'selective hearing' is a common communication pattern.

In this case, selective hearing refers to the way people only hear a part of what someone is saying — often, it's what they want or expect to hear — and miss out on the rest.

This phenomenon can make a couple feel like they're having the same conversation over and over. It can cause problems to fester because they're never actually being addressed. Even the best relationships can suffer from selective hearing when it comes to painful and triggering issues. 

RELATED: 5 Easy Ways To Improve Your Active Listening Skills ( & Build Better Relationships)

Here are 5 causes of selective hearing:

1. Your insecurities.

Personal Insecurities reduce your ability to hear as you're passing information through your belief window. 

People have a strong tendency to discard everything that does not agree with their beliefs. Everyone has secret fears that they're not smart enough, attractive enough, lovable, or important enough. 

You form beliefs about yourself and you see the world through the window of your beliefs. You become an expert at disregarding anything that does not confirm your doubts about yourself.

Thus, you actually don't seem to register your partner's kind comments that are not in agreement with your negative self-evaluation, because your auditory system listens to your psychological programming and filters it out. 

2. Your inattention.

You're focused on something else, either in your environment or in your head. As a human being, you have the ability to choose the sounds that you tune into.

In a room full of conversations or other noisy environs, you will tend to tune into one particular thing. Research demonstrates that your brains are built to hone in on some auditory cues and ignore other background noise. This type of selective attention is often refered to as the cocktail party effect. 

Some people tend to tune out others when they see the other person or what they are saying as unimportant. Unfortunately, people are easily distracted and are actually not good at multitasking.

You cannot watch a video, text, or e-mail and listen to your partner at the same time.

3. Your triggers.

Memories of past struggles, negative experiences, or trauma are stored in our nervous system, creating triggers. A certain tone of voice or certain words or phrases can switch on a trigger.

Unfortunately, once you're triggered, you enter an emotionally flooded vortex that shuts off your ears and all other input is lost. No hearing test is going to fix that. 

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4. You're cherry picking.

When you have a predetermined agenda for a conversation, it makes it difficult to actually hear what your partner is saying.

At times, one partner will repeatedly ask the same thing until their partner gives the reply they want to hear.

Some clients have told me that they know exactly what their partner will say in a given circumstance. This is because they have already had that conversation in their head.

Unfortunately, their partner has not been able to participate in that conversation, and so the selective hearing simply waits to take in what it was looking for in the first place. 

5. You're listening to reply.

Stephen Covey discussed the problem of listening to reply rather than listening to understand.

Listening to respond means that in your head you're only focused on the way you see things, rather than being curious to know how your partner sees things.

This internal focus interferes with your ability to hear your partner and results in you interrupting each other to get those critical points out before you forget them.

RELATED: 5 Easy Ways To Improve Your Active Listening Skills ( & Build Better Relationships)

The fallout from selective hearing

Whatever the cause of selective hearing , the result is the same. You sabotage your relationships because the connection is broken.

You feel unseen and unheard. This lack of connection to your partner leaves you to wonder if you're really important to them or if they really love or care for you.

You start feeling alone in your relationship.

Selective hearing also massively increases the conflict in the relationship, with each partner vying to prove that they are right at the expense of the other.

Tensions grow as the wedge between partners pushes them to their separate corners. As a result, selective hearing contributes to relationship breakdown.

Take steps to fix your selective hearing

Selective hearing is a common relationship pattern. You can benefit from an increased awareness about when and how you tend to listen selectively.

The cost to your relationships is too high and awareness is the first step to avoiding this pitfall. A vital part of good listening comes down to clarifying for yourself what is most important.

Is it your job, the game, or the online community? Or is it cultivating a relationship in which your partner feels heard, respected, and valued?

Prioritizing your partner may mean that you are better able to focus on what they are sharing with you or the requests that they make.

To counter this, I may have my clients practice an active listening technique called "The Mirroring Discussion" technique.

How mirroring works to address selective hearing

Clients take turns being the speaker and the listener. As the listener, they pay careful attention to what their partner is saying and paraphrase or reflect back what they've heard.

Often, one partner states several positive or complementary observations about the other and then mentions one concern or negative comment.

What can be fascinating to note are the cases where the listener focuses only on the complaint.

I ask if they heard their partner say the positive comments. Too often, the listener is surprised by my recollection of the other comments, because they only registered the criticism.

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Susan Derry is a Registered Therapeutic Counselor who’s been working with couples and individuals for 22 years. For more information, visit her website.