Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 Someone Who
 Doesn't Hear You

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

  The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/listen.htm

Updated  04-11-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone who often can't hear what you're expressing ("doesn't listen"). It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • assertion and empathic listening skills.


      How do you tell if someone is hearing you? Can you describe the difference between listening and hearing to an average pre-teen? Do you think it's possible to hear someone without empathizing (vs. agreeing) with them?

      Premise - communication occurs when two or more people decode information from each others' existence or behaviors. From infancy, we learn to decode up to four concurrent "messages" about each other in important situations - "What are you thinking + feeling + needing + valuing right now?" Valuing means "Who's needs and feelings are most important to you now - yours, mine, ours, or someone else's?"

      Does this match your experience?

      From this, feeling heard well enough means "I perceive that (a) you understand what I think, feel, and need right now, and (b) you respect both of us equally." Anything less than this is listening. Does this help to explain why people frustrate each other by saying "You're not listening to (hearing) me!" "Yes I AM!" How many average adults and kids do you think are aware of what you just read?

      Since most of us are only vaguely aware of what we're thinking, feeling, needing, and valuing in conversations, we unconsciously guess at these four variables all the time. We use our perceptions of each other's words + voice dynamics + face and body language to do this. If we guess wrong (or don't guess), our partner is apt to feel unheard - even if we can repeat the words we just heard.

      Implication - core reasons you may feel someone isn't listening to (hearing) you are that...

  • you're not aware of - or aren't clearly saying - what you think + feel + need + value now; or...

  • the receiver is unaware of or wrongly decoding these things; and...

  • the two of you aren't able to problem-solve this effectively because you're (a) unaware of your process, and/or you're (b) confusing hearing with listening. 

      Popular secondary reasons for you feeling unheard include your partner...

  • being distracted by something emotional (like fear) or environmental;

  • being bored with the your topic; and/or...

  • needing to vent or cause action, not listen to you; and/or...

  • feeling you're monologing, repetitious, or saying the obvious; and/or...

  • either of you are wounded, self-centered, and have a 1-person ''awareness bubble''; and/or your partner...

  • dislikes, disrespects, and/or distrusts you.

Can you add any other reasons? Reality-check these against recent times you've been unable to listen to an adult or child.

      Regardless of the reason, feeling unheard (ignored and disrespected) by someone is frustrating - specially if it's chronic. How can you respond effectively when this happens?

Response Options

       Recall - "respond effectively" means (a) both of us feel respected, and (b) get our current primary needs met well enough. To achieve this with an adult or child, consider these choices:

  • Review these basics until they become automatic;

  • Get clear on your communication need/s, and estimate or ask what your partner needs now. If your needs clash, compromise or invite your partner to problem-solve;

  • Ask your partner to wait for 30 seconds while you do this exercise;

  • Identify how not feeling heard affects you - what do you feel, specifically? Common reactions are disrespected, resentful, hurt, irritated or angry, frustrated, and distracted.

  • Identify clearly what you need from your response - e.g. to vent, inform, learn, cause action, set or enforce a limit, problem-solve, or something else. If you need to argue, blame, complain, whine, hint, bring up the past, get mad, generalize, or avoid eye contact, you're probably dominated by a false self. Each of these is a lose-lose exchange.

  • With steady eye contact, ask your partner if s/he is open to some personal feedback now. Option - If s/he isn't, you have a different need to fill. If s/he agrees, calmly respond depending on what you need...

To vent, learn, or inform

"(Name), I'm not feeling heard by you now (and I feel _______)." Compare this ''I''-message to "You're not listening to me!," which is a blameful (lose-lose) "you" message.

As appropriate, brief your partner on hearing checks, awareness bubbles, and/or E(motion)-levels.  

"(Name), I don't know if you're hearing me. Please give me a hearing check."  If s/he does and it's incorrect, restate what you want your partner to hear.

"(Name), you seem to have a one-person awareness bubble now, and I feel ignored, unheard, and disrespected."

"(Name), when you talk non-stop and don't ask my reaction, I lose interest in listening to you."

"I need you to want to hear me, not agree with me!"

"(Name), when you don't react to what I'm saying, I feel ignored and frustrated."

"(Name), you seem distracted now. Are you?"

"You seem to hear my words, but not what I feel or need."

To Cause Change or Set a Limit

"(Name), if you're not interested in what I'm saying, please say so directly. Will you do that?"

"If I talk too long / give you too much detail / am too emotional / over-focus on me / ramble / please tell me."

"(Name), when you won't look at me when I'm speaking, I'm not sure you're hearing me."

"(Name), when you keep interrupting me, I feel  like you don't care about my fee-lings or opinions and I feel disrespected, hurt, and frustrated. Please let me finish"

      Notice the theme of these responses: They...

  • May include your partner's name as an affirmation and courtesy.

  • are factual statements, questions, or observations, not labels or judgments like "You're being rude / insensitive / self-centered / disrespectful...etc."

  • are brief and to the point, without apologies or explanations.

  • don't use always or never (generalize); and these responses...

  • don't ask the person to want to hear to you. That avoids a Be Spontaneous! paradox; and they...

  • don't blame or criticize the person for not hearing, demand that s/he hear, or say "You need to listen to me!" (that's your need!). and they..

  • are said calmly, without sarcasm or scorn, with steady eye contact; and...

  • stem from the normal need for genuine respect. Opinion - enduring someone's not hearing you in important conversations is self-neglect.

  • If your partner is wounded, s/he may "resist" responses like those above by...

denying / arguing ("I am listening to you!")

defending and excusing ("It's not my fault, because..."),

blaming ("You're just hypersensitive. Get over it!"),

whining ("I just can't help it"),

getting angry ("Why are you always criticizing me?"), or...

over-apologizing ["I'm SO sorry - I'm so insensitive (and inferior)."]

  • Use respectful empathic listening with any resistances like these, and then reassert your need calmly, without lengthy explanations. That can sound like...

"You feel you do hear me well enough."

"You tune me out because I talk too much."

"You feel you can't control your no listening."

"You feel I criticize you too much."

"You feel guilty and apologetic for not listening to me."

Empathic statements like these do not mean you agree with the other person - they affirm that you hear them.

  • Notice the outcome of your assertion, and thank the other person if they hear better. If they continue to monolog or ignore you, enforce a behavioral limit with them, like...

Keep good eye contact, and hold up a finger (count) each time you feel unheard, and/or..

Say something calmly like...

"I feel unheard and disrespected by you now;" or...

"The next time you ignore or talk over me, I'm going to walk away / hang up / stop talking with you."  etc.

  • Avoid taking responsibility for the person's not hearing - e.g. if s/he says something like "You have to remind me," say "No, I won't do that."  

      Pause and reflect on these response options. Do they seem realistic? Do-able? Is there anything in the way of you're using them with people who don't (want to) hear you? Experiment with them to experience their effectiveness. Then teach them to other people you care about - specially kids.

      Let's look briefly at the other case...

What if I Don't Hear Others?

      Do others complain that you "don't listen to them" at times? If so, how have you reacted? Any-thing like the resistances above?

      This brief YouTube video introduces "empathic listening" skill. It mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      Learn the reasons for not hearing (above), and keep your true Self in charge. Then use process awareness to notice if and when they apply to you, When they do, own your responsibility to fill (assert) your own need/s respectfully. That can sound like...

"(Name), I'm sorry. I'm just not interested in (their topic/s)."

"(Name), I can't listen to you very well now. I'm distracted by ____________." 

"(Name), when you repeat yourself so often, I stop listening to you."

"(Name), when you talk on and on without giving me a chance to respond, I stop listening to you."

"(Name), when you need to keep [ focusing on the past / complaining / gossiping / criticizing others / preaching / lecturing / analyzing / catastrophizing / talking about yourself / etc. ] I don 't feel like listening to you."

"(Name), when you need to change the subject before I'm finished, I feel frustrated and I can't hear you well."

"(Name), I'd rather ___________ than talk, right now."

      Sense the theme behind statements like these - honest disclosure of what you feel and need. Recall - your needs and feelings are just as legitimate and important as your partner's, so no apologies, explanations, or justifications are needed! If your needs conflict, consider win-win problem-solving.


       This article is one of a series of effective responses to common problem behaviors in adults and kids, based on Lesson 2 in this nonprofit Web site. The article suggests a difference between listening and hearing, and illustrates response options to a person who doesn't want to - or isn't able to - hear you. It also proposes effective ways to respond when you can't hear someone for various reasons.

      The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful   

Share/Bookmark  Prior page  /  Lesson 2  Print page 


site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat