A host of factors, from busy schedules to geographical distance, can make it difficult for people to connect with one another in a meaningful way. Amidst continual promises to connect some time in future, people are often left feeling disconnected, isolated, and lonely in the present.
Under these conditions, the offer of time and a listening ear has tremendous value. If you have the capacity to listen attentively to others, you have a special gift to contribute. But are there some occasions when you should reconsider your willingness to listen? Absolutely.
If you find yourself in any of the following situations, you may wish to pause and reconsider whether listening is the best thing you can do
The person you're listening to is a chronic complainer.
Everyone needs to get something off their chest at one time or another. Being there to listen for those one-off occasions can help the person process the situation, either to put it behind them or to bear up under it. But when such one-off situations turn into a pattern of chronic complaining, listening often ceases to be constructive.
Chronic complaining goes hand in hand with blaming others, failing to take personal responsibility, and failing to take action. If someone is trapped in this kind of negative cycle and you find yourself listening to the same dialogue over and over again, reconsider whether listening is providing any real benefit.
The person you're listening to is constantly badmouthing others.
There are times when someone wants to talk out a situation because they are genuinely looking for the best way to deal with it. Listening to someone under these circumstances can help the person gain insight, so they're better able to sort things out. But we can usually detect when someone merely wants to attack or badmouth someone else, rather than truly seeking to find a constructive way forward. If the person you're listening to only wants to badmouth others, that's not beneficial for anyone involved.
The person you're listening to is gossiping under the guise of venting.
Just like situations where someone only wants to badmouth others, you can usually detect when someone only wants to gossip under the guise of venting. The fact that you don't contribute verbally doesn't make you an innocent party when someone else is gossiping. By agreeing to listen, you are actively enabling the conversation to take place, which makes you a willing participant. And if someone has a strong inclination towards gossip in general, it's just a matter of time before that person will feel inclined to gossip about you.
The person you're listening to doesn't contribute anything to the relationship.
On the surface, it may seem that listening requires little effort or energy. In reality, concentrating and giving someone your full attention as you listen takes skill, effort and energy. Just as you're contributing something of value by listening, the person you're listening to should be contributing something of value to the relationship as well. It could be anything: companionship that you appreciate, a sense of humour that you enjoy, support and encouragement for your endeavours, etc.
If someone expects you to be a great listener but fails to contribute anything in return, that can lead to an unbalanced, one-sided relationship. This can become unhealthy for both parties in the long term.
You consistently feel worse after listening to the person.
Supporting someone through a difficult time, by listening and simply being there, can be invaluable in helping the person to push through. These kinds of shared experiences can help to cement a strong and lasting relationship. But listening under these circumstances can also be draining, even exhausting at times.
If this is the continual tenor of the relationship, to the point where you consistently find yourself feeling drained and depleted after your time spent with the person, it's time to take a step back and re-evaluate things. Your well-being matters, too; helping someone else to feel better shouldn't mean that you consistently come away feeling worse. If someone's needs are plentiful and long-lasting, it may be time to suggest that the person access additional support (and perhaps even professional help) to get back on their feet.
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