Common Blocks to Communication by John Powell and Loretta Brady

Common Blocks to Communication by John Powell and Loretta Brady

All the passages below are taken from John Powell and Loretta Brady’s book “Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?” published in 1985.

All of us, at times, use blocks of one kind or another to prevent ourselves from really listening to another person. We throw up barriers between ourselves and others. Obviously, once these blocks are erected, others can’t receive any support or understanding from us. At the same time we also prevent ourselves from receiving the valuable gift of another’s sharing. These blocks sabotage any real communication. Consequently, everyone involved is denied the chance to share and to grow.

The reasons we do this are various. I may be too preoccupied with my own agenda. I fear that if I concentrate on you, I will lose track of me. Or perhaps I fear that if the river of your pain runs into my world, I will be deluged. Open and true listening can prove costly. To open myself to receive another is always risky. Another common, if unconscious, motive for erecting blocks is our fear of intimacy. Although our hearts yearn for it, we also fear the possible consequences of human closeness. If I let someone get close to me, the other person may get a glimpse of the real me. It might blow my cover. I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.

At other times I don’t really want to listen because I’m too impatient. I want to see problems get solved. I don’t want to listen to an organ recital of feelings. That never seems to solve problems. Or it may be that I block the listening process because “I want to be stimulated or entertained and I find you boring.” Then there’s the familiar excuse: “I can’t listen to you. I’ve got too many other more important things on my mind right now.” I’m sure you can think of other motives for “blocking” communication. Some of our reasons are conscious; others may well be subconscious. But I feel sure that we all block out real listening on various occasions and for various reasons.

In order to eliminate these blocks it helps me to recall that every human being is a gift to be given. Communication is an act of gift giving. Picture it this way if you will. When I erect a block to the sharing process, I am refusing a gift graciously offered by another. It is as if someone is handing me a beautifully wrapped present. When I see it coming, I thrust my arms out stiffly in front of me to block the gift. Then I turn and walk away. It’s a heavy truth to face, but this is what we do when we block another’s communication. We equivalently say, “Don’t bother me with your gift. I really don’t want it.” Obviously we should be saying, “Thank you for trusting me enough to share yourself with me.”

 We would like to make a partial list here of the most common blocks. A brief explanation of each is included along with a description of the usual result of each block. Some may seem foreign to you. Others you will recognize right away. Most have probably been used on us as well as by us. Our hope is that this review will make us all more aware of the times we may be throwing up these blocks. In this way we will learn more about our limitations as listeners. We will also be able gradually to eradicate our bad habits and become better listeners. Obviously, if we’re unaware of a habit, we can’t change it. So awareness must come first. If we are committed to communication, we certainly want to develop into listeners who do not block the process of communication. Awareness of our strengths and weaknesses will help.

The following is a partial listing of some common communication blocks.

1. ADVISING. “What you ought to do is. ..”

When we use this block of “advising,” we probably think of listening as merely getting the facts about a problem. Once we have the facts, then we can solve the problem. We think people tell us things because they know we are inexhaustible mines of good advice. Advisers can’t be bothered, of course, with feelings. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” If this block to real listening is consistently used, two possible results are most likely. Some more independent people will just stop sharing with a person whose consistent response is advice. Instead they will seek out another who will hear their feelings and respond empathically. Others who continue to share with the “adviser” will become more and more dependent and immature as the relationship progresses. Eventually they will forfeit all personal responsibility for thinking and deciding.

2. COMPETING: “I’m sure I look better than . . . “

If I’m competing while I’m listening, then I am assessing others in comparison to myself. I’m estimating their competence or mental health or kindness. Is it more or less than mine? Actually, I try to assess only those qualities about which I would come off looking better. While all this mental measuring is going on, I have very little time really to hear the other person. Does the other person feel heard? I may have become clever enough to fake some facial reactions and verbal responses. However, over time the speaker will catch on to me. So I can do my comparing only with acquaintances. People who have known me for a longer time have learned that I’m not a good listener. I don’t really want to know them.

3. COMPUTING: “They say that studies have shown . . . “

If I am a computer type, I give only superresponsible, thoroughly accredited feedback. I always stay calm and provide very clear analyses of all my communications. I give liberal explanations with or without being asked. The person who is sharing with me may come to look upon me as a therapist. However, unlike therapists, I never deal with feelings. I rarely even hear them. In a dark room I have often been mistaken for a computer. This type of computing response blocks true communication by creating two problems. One is that you never get to know me. The other is that we will never be equals in our relationship. The growth that could occur from an honest sharing is stifled. People who spend a long time in my presence tend to feel very lonely.

4. DISTRACTING: “Say, this is a great place . . . “

When I use the distracting block of communication, I let you talk only for so long. As soon as I feel uncomfortable I switch the focus of the conversation. This unexpected shift will puzzle and distract you. Suddenly we are talking about something radically different. If I repeat this switching often enough, you will soon feel confused, angry, or possibly a little helpless. You may also get the impression that our conversation is really five conversations. You most likely will feel a bit rattled and rejected.

5. DREAMING “What? … Oh sure … I understand “

Dreamers usually think of themselves as having good intentions. It is just that they often leave the hub of conversation and wander out onto one of the spokes of the wheel. The first thing mentioned connects with something else in the dreamer’s mind. Then the free-association carousel begins to turn. One topic whisks the dreamer briskly to the next. If I am a dreamer, I’m having a wonderful time in my head. Sorry, though, it’s a private party. Suddenly I tune in to you again and realize I’ve completely wandered away from and then rejoined the conversation. I hope you didn’t notice. If you were talking just to hear your own voice, you may not have noticed that I was on a mental vacation. If, however, you were really counting on my understanding, you probably felt a little hurt that I was fading in and out on you. Subconsciously, I suppose I was looking for distractions. The personal involvement of a real conversation leaves me a little uneasy.

6. FILTERING “Another good day at work, eh?”

When I use this block, I have to filter what I hear you say because I want to deal only with certain parts of you and your life. Before our conversation begins I have already decided what I will listen to and what I will tune out. If you start out on one of your personal weather reports, I become deaf. If we get to a subject that somehow threatens me, I pull out my hearing aid. Especially if you move into talking about intimacy or commitment, you may not know it but no one is listening. That blank look on my face reflects my thoughts perfectly. If you are a compulsive underdog in relationships and conversations, you’ll probably accent even my crumbs of attention. Of course, this will reinforce your low opinion of yourself. If, however, you have a strong and positive sense of self, you won’t settle for this shabby treatment. Either I will have to change or you will start looking for someone who really listens.

7. GUNNYSACKING. “Yes, but you…”

I have this huge gunnysack that I carry over my shoulder. I keep it with me at all times. For a long time I have been collecting grievances in it. All during our relationship I have made careful files of all my negative thoughts and feelings. Often I have made notes about the details that go with them too—date, time, day, place, and event. The compilation of this material has been my chief listening activity. When my nerves get frazzled or you have slighted me somehow, the gunnysack feels very full and heavy. My “poor me” attitude is in full bloom. And then I let go. I dump all my carefully collected garbage all over you. When this happens, you do whatever you can to put some distance between us. You may get angry, start an argument, pout, or just walk away in disgust. It really doesn’t matter. I will continue filing and storing my hurts. And you’ll hear about this one, too: you didn’t accept my sharing. And so the cycle repeats itself. It might even be classified as comedy except that it always results in our growing apart.

8. IDENTIFYING “Yes, that’s like the time when I. . . “

With this block in place I politely excuse myself from careful listening. Maybe I can get away with no real listening at all. I pay attention to your words only until I find within them a jumping-off place for my own stories. It seems that my only real listening effort is temporary. I’d much rather be talking about me. So at my first opportunity I shift the focus to myself. I become the center of every conversation. Gradually you will realize your role is to be the listener. You won’t get a chance to be the speaker. If you continue to relate to me, it will probably be out of pity. If you want “equal time,” you will move on to someone who listens. In any case this block precludes a relationship of equality.

9. IGNORING: ” . . . “

Even when I am “ignoring,” I listen. You can never fault me for not listening. I just never deal with anything you say. I just let it hang in the air. Or, I let it go in one ear and out the other. You will never really know if I’ve heard you or not. Sometimes you will want to say, “Knock, knock, anyone home? I guess not.” You won’t know if I’m happy or hurting, interested or bored, in agreement or disagreement. I will give away no clues at all about my inner reactions to what you say. My nonresponse gives the suggestion that you and your sharing are totally irrelevant. Only a person with a desperately poor self-image will bother to talk to me. People looking for an honest exchange will feel frustrated by my blank face and silent voice. Certainly no one will ever feel understood by me. Likewise, no one ever gets to know me. I forever keep my own secrets. I live in a world that has a population of one.

10. NAME CALLING (labeling): “Oh c’mon, you’re really paranoid.”

To be really proficient at labeling, first I have to prepare the way by some generalizing and judging. But I’m well practiced at this. No matter what you have to say I can reduce you to a category. You see, I’ve already sorted humanity into certain types. It’s very helpful. It makes people transparent, and it really simplifies relationships. As soon as you say enough for me to categorize you, that’s it. I’m all set. You see, I have a whole set of judgments that go with each category. I’ve got these judgments in readiness too. After learning a few facts I can tell you who you are. My added implication is this: If you will only change your label, life and its problems will smooth out for you.

This marvelous labeling ability relieves me from the responsibility of listening. I don’t have to wonder, “What is it like to be you?” You see, I know your type. I don’t have to walk a mile in your moccasins. Moccasins come in certain sizes and styles. I’ve seen your kind before and they don’t wear well. Once I’ve told you who you are, my involvement with you ends. I don’t have to struggle with understanding. No pain, no gain. I never grow up. There is one strange thing. People avoid me. Only the most dependent people ever bother with listening to me.

11. PLACATING: “Oh yes. That’s true. Uh huh, you’re right.”

If placating is my listening block of choice, it’s because I know what is most important in a relationship. It’s being liked and having peace at any price. You see, I want to be liked. So I’m always nice and consistently pleasant. I’m supportive and encouraging to everyone. All good qualities, eh? I can’t stand conflict. Negative emotions make me nervous. I get quite tense with even mild disagreement. I insist that I don’t have negative thoughts or feelings. Actually, I don’t allow myself to hear them, either in me or in anyone else. For me, listening means to focus superficially on the words and give my immediate agreement. I never really listen deeply to learn who you are. If you’re someone who wants only validation and agreement, you’ll love me. However, if you’re looking for a person you can bump into, a person who will be real with you, I’m not for you. You won’t find such a person in me.

12. REHEARSING MY RESPONSE: “As soon as he’s finished talking, I’m just going to tell him . . . “

In “rehearsing,” I look as though I’m listening but I’m not really tuned in to you. All sharing for me is actually a win-lose contest. I am semper fidelis, always prepared to defend my image or my point. In fact, I have a knack for turning communications into debates. Whenever you’re talking, I’m preparing my “equal-time” rebuttal. Of course, my statement has to make yours sound trivial. I have to come out on top. Consequently, I spend all my “listening” time rehearsing for my moment in the spotlight. Whatever you’re saying is only a point of departure for my comments. If you also block listening by rehearsing, you might just enjoy the competition I will provide. We’ll probably talk often with each other. However, we will never communicate our real selves. Only those puppets who like to hear me pontificate will stay with me. If you don’t enjoy the game my way, you will get out of the sport completely. You will go looking for a real listener.

13. SARCASM (to cut flesh): “Don’t hurry, Honey. You just might lose your image as Miss Holly Come Lately. “

Sarcasm prevents me from dealing with real emotions and enjoying true intimacy. Now, if you are uneasy with emotions and afraid of intimacy, sarcasm will provide an effective barrier. But you’ll have to be on guard. So many people want to be real. It can be very unsettling. If you let your guard down, these people might get close to you. You just can’t let that happen, right? Better to push others away. But be prepared: you will even have to push away the real you.

The most effective way I know to create distance between us is to hurt you. However, I don’t really want to come off as a mean person. Deep down I want people to like me … from a safe distance. So I combine my sharp tongue and sharp mind. If you get too close to the real me, I will “zap” you with a sarcastic remark. You may even laugh and find me entertaining. But you will learn to be careful with me. Sarcasm always works! You may stay in my vicinity for the entertainment. But you’ll often feel angry, hurt, or sad when you’re with me. Sarcasm stings. There may be times when you will feel sorry that I can’t be real or allow intimacy. If sarcasm is my main listening response to others, I will never allow anyone to get close enough to know me. Most likely I will never know myself either.

You can probably think of other blocking strategies. Any behavior that sets up a barrier between speaker and listener is a block. It will prevent me from hearing what you have to share. You will never feel heard. I will never know that it’s like to be you. There will be little real sharing between us. Our relationship can be only superficial. To avoid this sadness we must examine our own listening. Which blocks do I use the most? With whom? When? Why? How can I exchange my habit of building barriers for a new habit of open listening?

Honest answers to these questions can make a great difference in our lives. Such answers could mean the difference between stagnation and growth. A block is a block is a block is a… [136-147]

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