Overcoming three mental blocks to listening in difficult conversations

If you listen to most conversations you’ll hear remarkably few questions. When a conversation becomes difficult then we drop all questions; we spend most of our time telling others how we see the world. Here are three mental blocks that stop us from listening and ways to overcome them.


Block #1: “If I listen and understand you, you’ll assume that I agree with you”

Difficult conversations often come down to a sense of us trying to win, or at least not lose against the other person. A common fear is that if we spend time listening and understanding the other’s point of view and not defending our view, then they may think we agree with them.

A similar fear is that if we spend our mental energy focussed on their view we may forget our own view or forget our “killer points”.

A useful reframe is to realise that listening and understanding another’s view doesn’t mean that you have to agree. If you’re worried about forgetting your points, then say something like:

“I want to spend some time listening to how you’re seeing this situation so that I can better understand your point. Even after doing this I may still see things from my point of view, but I want to start by understanding yours”

Block #2: “It’ll be quicker if I just tell you what’s so obviously true (to me)”

When we’re convinced of our own view, or feeling under time pressure, it can seem easier just to tell others our view of the situation, because we think that it will take less time. Just telling others how we see things it actually increases the chances of the conversation taking longer.

When our focus is on telling it’s more likely we’ll start to cut other people off or use strong language to push our points.  This increases the chances that the other people will feel pressured, misunderstood or insulted. Others will often respond defensively, either by expressing their point of view back at us, or by going quiet and pretending to agree. These defensive actions mean that conversations take longer as sources or disagreement are not uncovered or discussed.

You can’t demand that someone else listens and understands you. Our ability to stay in conversations with others depends on them perceiving that we are willing to meet their needs. Listening and understanding others means that they’re more likely to listen to us.

Block #3: “It’s critical that we overcome this major disagreement”

When we feel threatened in a difficult conversation we amplify small differences in views or approach into big problems. We often miss that the “major disagreement” is actually a minor disagreement.

Being able to step back and get curious about how another person sees the world means that we get a chance to more accurately understand the situation and avoid ‘making a mountain out of a mole hill’.

My earlier post “Good question: how one good question can unblock a stuck conversation” shows an example.


Learning to ask questions about other’s views and listen is important in having more effective conversations. Hopefully understanding and challenging the mental blocks that stop us from listening in difficult conversations will help you stay in a more productive frame of mind when practising these skills.

Can you relate to these mental blocks? I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

Image Credit: Image Credit: Pasma, on Flickr






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