Why won’t they understand? Why don’t they get it? Why can’t they just listen to me?
When was the last time you were seeking helpful advice, affirmation, empathy, or help but received anything except that? I know people who are afflicted with physical but not obvious ailments who have encountered unsolicited advice, condemnation, or no tangible help at all. Take my friend who is hearing impaired. Like many others with “handicaps,” she has been treated poorly and accused of faking it just to “manipulate the system.” I know others suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or Lyme disease who have been advised to try some magic potion, told they are lazy, or that those diseases do not exist. Which reminds me of the times in the military when I had to go to the emergency room because of serious asthma attacks. The physicians would tell me asthma was all in my head but would then administer an injection to open up my airways.
The problem of not being heard or believed almost always happens with those who have been abused. The abused woman seeks help from church leaders but they won't accept her story. Why? Because the husband is such a nice guy, or she doesn't look like she's hurt, or her husband says she tends to be on the dramatic side. The abused man goes to his family because his wife screams, belittles and even hits him with things. They don't believe his story because women just don't do that or he is supposed to be in control like a strong man.
Over the past several years, my family and I encountered several parents of adopted children with significantly negative behaviors. Acting out, extreme defiance, abusing animals or other children, caught up in uncontrollable rage, or captured by wide mood swings are a few of the things these parents face. Many are confused by these beyond-normal thoughts and actions. Frustration and even desperation about what is going on with their child are common. Like our experience, they have been ill-advised by therapists, come under suspicion by physicians, received countless and worthless advice from family or friends, threatened by school officials, or condemned by church members. Observers seem to be unwilling to listen or unable to believe the stories these parents have. So, they tend to accuse, condemn, give impractical advice, or distance themselves thus leaving the afflicted to drown.
Until we received gracious, wise, and viable counsel, the challenges my spouse and I faced with our child led us to doubt our sanity. Those who had absolutely no clue what was going on with us had almost convinced us we were living in the Twilight Zone. We began to believe the lie that we were the worst parents on earth. After all, several people, including church leaders told us as much. Now, after extensive counsel, help, and study, I say to those who pose as arm-chair advisors, judges, or barriers to viable support: stop it, shut up, or go away. To those who really want to help but do not know how, I say thank you, thank you, thank you! And then I add - be patient, listen carefully, and find tangible ways to support the family.
Back to the questions: Why won’t they understand? Why don’t they get it? Why can’t they just listen to me? After nearly twenty years of asking those questions and seeking out the answers, here are a few of the possible reasons. Take note, none of these reasons are the singular cause for why others respond the way they do. As you will see, the areas overlap. Also, take note that you and I can be afflicted with one or more of these reasons when dealing with others so it is best to investigate our own souls first before we fall into the same faults. Here are ten reasons:
The first thing to consider why someone won't understand or listen to you is your own life. Is there anything about what you do or say that turns off others? Do you have an offensive manner? Are you a super needy, attention-seeker? Is life all about you? Are you known for bad listening skills or for a lack of empathy? Would those who know you consider you toxic?
You see, before we get frustrated with how others receive or don’t receive us, we need to do some serious soul-searching and correct our own deficits and faults before expecting others to hear or help us out.
It might seem rather obvious but people can be ignorant of your challenge. They don’t know the disease exists, do not understand the handicap, or are unaware of the serious effects of early childhood abuse or neglect.
Years ago, my allergies and asthma kept getting worse. The various medications and steroid treatments were not working. I was desperate for help. Through providential circumstances, I found a clinic that used traditional modern medicine with alternative, natural treatments. Turns out that yeast was the major culprit exacerbating my illness. Admittedly, I was very skeptical but once a strict diet was observed and the prescribed regimen was followed, my allergies and asthma subsided to where medication was not needed on a regular basis. My ignorance of other causes for the illnesses was a factor in not getting better.
A third possible reason why someone will not understand or listen to you is arrogance. Arrogance or conceit is the overestimation or exaggerated opinion of oneself. It often gets in the way of understanding, listening, or helping. This is not the kind of pride that comes from a self-satisfaction over positive accomplishments. Instead, this is what Dr. Guy Winch calls hubristic pride. As he explains in his article, “Hubristic pride tends to involve egotism and arrogance.” In the book, Understanding Leadership, Tom Marshall wrote, “...the evil of pride is that it gives us the exaggerated sense of our own importance or significance compared with other people.” A more extreme type of conceit is narcissism or worse, the narcissistic personality disorder.
Arrogance lacks humility. This, in turn, fosters the inability to receive anything from others whom the arrogant considers inferior. Arrogance often believes other people lack value and so it follows what you think, say, or do also lack value in their estimation or of no importance. It's not that they do not understand but that the arrogant will not understand.
Further, those who lack humility tend to lack an open mind. By this I mean they are unwilling to consider other ideas or things. Such individuals are commonly plagued by the unwillingness or inability to even think about their own thinking! They do not evaluate their own assumptions or perspectives much less seriously consider other positions. While they find it easy to criticize your ideas, they just cannot seem to critique their own.
This is one cause why some people can hear you but do not listen. In order to hear and listen, it takes an open mind and the ability to show an interest in another person.
Confidence is a healthy thing. However, overconfidence is not. Overconfidence is the sense of (almost) always being right. For decades, psychologists have studied this phenomenon and recent brain studies have demonstrated how humans naturally tend to be overconfident in personal beliefs and decisions. This is called the overconfidence bias. As David Brooks tells us in The Social Animal, “The human mind is an overconfidence machine. The conscious level gives itself credit for things it really didn’t do and confabulates tales to create the illusion it controls things it really doesn’t determine” (Kindle loc. 3648).
This overconfidence is the feeling of being right. The authors of The Brain Advantage write, “…the feeling of knowing can be so strong that it trumps logic and leads us to accept beliefs that we ought to be questioning" (Kindle loc. 1500). This often makes us “more confident than our expertise justifies, maybe because the ‘feeling of knowing’ assures us that we are right” (Kindle loc. 1522).
There was a brilliant man in a church our family attended. He was a scientist; a stereotypical Brainiac. He made sure everyone else understood how very intelligent he was. At one of our group lunches, someone brought up how important it is for an adult to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. The scientist scoffed and declared no one drinks that much. He knew this because he was rarely ever wrong and because he never drank that much. When I said on most days I drink eight full glasses, he told me I was wrong. I snapped back, “How do you know how much or little I drink each day?” He said he just knew and that was all that mattered.
One consequence of feeling right is it becomes easy for us to question another perspective but rarely willing to question our own. A more intense consequence is what psychologists call cognitive immunization. This is when we have a hard time (impossible for some) to dismiss personally held beliefs in spite of obvious and tremendous evidence to the contrary. The problem of overconfidence is that it is nearly impossible to listen to what others are saying or to understand their situation.
Fear could be another reason why some people won’t listen or understand you. Fear is a primary emotion. In its positive use, fear acts as a safety valve to protect us from harm. On the negative side, fear can be the underlying basis for caustic beliefs and behaviors such as anger, bitterness, denial, envy, hate, and hostility.
Those infected with chronic shame tend to fear other ideas. Why? One reason is that a shame-infected life provokes an abnormal degree of fear. Merely considering something like, “What if I was wrong all these years?” sets off a cascade of negative emotions. Or as Brene Brown points out in her extensive work on shame, some believe that if you are right, that must mean “I am wrong, so I must be fundamentally flawed and inadequate!” (see Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and other materials.) The deeper one’s shame the greater the potential fear of other people’s perspectives.
When people are gripped with chronic fear, anything new or different could be intimidating. For these frightened individuals, what you are, have, or say can feel very threatening. In those situations, their level of sensitivity and fear can provoke the natural response of fight or flight. Some of these folks are the ones who respond with yelling, screaming, or physically attacking you, or they simply run away. And it could be about something you consider innocent and harmless.
Reactance is a psychological theory which states, “[W]henever someone tells us what to do and how to do it, we respond with a defensive defiance because we want to maximize our personal freedom and decision-making.” Nearly all of us tend to react with defensive defiance to certain things that we are told we can or cannot believe or do.
Often times, the harder you try to convince someone else of your situation or knowledge of a given matter, that person will dig in her heels.
As you may know, a worldview is what you believe about the world in which you live. We all have a view of life filled with what we’ve learned and experienced. At the core of a worldview are presuppositions. A worldview becomes our paradigm for life, what makes sense of life, and our philosophy of being.
Perhaps what you have experienced runs counter to another’s worldview? For example, there are people who believe rape never happens to a good person. Good things happen to good people and evil things happen to bad people. If you’ve been raped or sexually abused in any way and you tell a person with such a rigid worldview, he may find your story cannot fit his paradigm. If he believes that such bad thing like rape only happens to bad people, he may have to conclude you are a bad person. He might reason that the evil perpetrated on you could not happen to a good person like you, it must not have happened at all.
Psychologists tell us we all have a propensity for confirmation bias. Michael Roberto says this is “the tendency to gather and rely upon information that confirms our existing views while avoiding or discounting information that might disconfirm our existing hypothesis and opinions” (Roberto, p. 102). So, consider the possibility those who reject your perspective or experience have a strong confirmation bias.
In my first year at college, a talented musician and artist who had retinitis pigmentosa became a good friend. We attended the same college and enjoyed many of the same things. His sight was very limited but he had learned to navigate in a way that made you wonder if he was really blind (you should see his paintings!) Since he could not drive and I could, I would swing by his house and pick him up for school. It was a privilege and a pleasure to do so. We were friends, after all.
One day, an older relative of mine met my legally-blind friend. My relative became very angry that I was giving him rides to school. He thought my friend was a liar. How could it be possible a Mexican was an artist? Prejudiced much? The relative also believed my friend wasn’t blind given how well he got around. Mr. Prejudiced said I was being used as a taxi driver. He insisted I give up this so-called friendship and never have anything to do with the young man again. My relative had badly judged my friend through his own sad worldview.
For some of us who are firmly planted in a social group such as a club, church, or family, it can become unacceptable to have an idea, information, condition, or anything else that runs counter to what the group believes. This “cultural mind” is called groupthink. “According to social psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is when a cohesive team experiences tremendous pressures for conformity, such that people strive for unanimity at the expense of critical thinking” (Roberto. p.38).
Many families who have adopted children diagnosed with developmental trauma, those who have been severely impacted by abuse, severe neglect, or trauma (such as Reactive Attachment Disorder) have encountered rejection from their group(s). Why? Because the child does not conform to acceptable patterns of behavior, which is often assumed to be the parents’ fault. The parents are not conforming to the ways of the group, so various techniques are implemented to force conformity. My wife and I have experienced them: name-calling, ridicule, threats of rejection, demands to make the child behave or turn her into a “good kid,” insistence on doing what the group requires, and so forth.
Our worldview also influences our expectations. In their article, Baer and Lubin discuss the observer-expectancy effect. This is where “our expectations influence how we perceive an outcome.” Certain people have very strong expectations about how things should be. If your abuse, disease, perspective, child’s behaviors, or situation does not fit what they expect then you can probably expect negative responses.
Then there is our innate dislike for inconsistency. Humans tend to loathe, even reject things that are inconsistent with their worldview. We have a natural aversion to patterns that make no sense to us or that are hard for us to interpret. The irony is that every one of us lives in our own little worlds of inconsistency but we become comfortable with that. We become used to our little inconsistent world so it often becomes a challenge for many of us to handle anything outside of our sphere that doesn't square with our personal world.
It takes energy to make things fit. It requires work to make sense of inexplicable patterns. For some individuals, the effort is not worth it. For them, it is easier to reject what is different or inconsistent than to deal with it.
There are many great books on the subject of change. Two books I found very insightful are the Heath brothers’ Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard and Martin Seligman’s What You Can Change and What You Can’t. So, I won’t take the time to discuss the many aspects of change and how the distaste for change affects our willingness to listen and understand other perspectives and situations. Still, there are a few points to make:
CHANGE IS HARD
Change is hard for us. As Kennon L. Callahan says in his Effective Church Leadership,
Old ways die hard—and the second reason is that they are familiar and habitual. Behavior patterns of any kind that have been ingrained and repeated for years upon years are not easily extinguished. It is not simply that these behavior patterns have been consistently rewarded over and over during the past nearly forty years. The rewards may have been diminishing over a long period of time. But as long as the familiar and habitual behavior receives even occasional rewards or intermittent reinforcement, it will persist (p. 15).
As Chip and Dan Heath point out in Switch, change is hard because people wear themselves out with all the constant change in life (Kindle loc. 166). People only have so much mental and emotional reserves to handle change. If taking the effort to understand your health challenge or to try another way to discipline a child requires more energy than one has, then it likely won’t happen.
Further, to consider your trial or point-of-view can be a risk that would require change on their part. People are disinclined to modify ideas and habits that have served them so well in the past. You know, if the way my mama and daddy raised me was good enough for me then it’s good enough for anyone. So, there’s no changing the way I parent. Or if your physical disability has the potential to change your relationship with another person then it is possible that person will not pay the proverbial price for change. Sadly, we see this happen time and again when a spouse develops a chronic, debilitating disease and the partner leaves or a child becomes seriously handicapped and the parent runs away.
CHANGE DISRUPTS THE STATUS QUO
Change disrupts the status quo and the status quo gives a sense of security. Who wants to feel insecure?
THE SUNK-COST EFFECT
Then there is the sunk-cost effect. In The Art of Critical Decision Making, Michael Roberto says, “The sunk-cost effect refers to the tendency for people to escalate commitment to a course of action in which they have made substantial prior investments of time, money, or other resources.” For those who have invested energy, time, and resources to something, even if it has not been effective or helpful, they are much less likely to switch to something else. It usually takes a major crisis to give up what they've invested so much in.
Admittedly, this was a struggle for me. I had invested time (many years) and quite a bit of money in Christian child-training books, conferences, and cassette tapes (what we used in ancient times to listen to subject matter experts). Since our older child was becoming a wholesome and wonderful person, my wife and I became convinced we knew exactly how to be great parents. Then our second child came along. Each year became a greater challenge to the parenting paradigm we had embraced. Child #2 forced us to rethink everything about parents, family, and child-rearing. It was extremely difficult to surrender our old sources but we had to change for our child’s and family’s sake.
The tenth thing to consider why people won’t listen or understand you is because of a lack of trust. Perhaps they have a hard time trusting anyone, so they cannot receive you and what you bring to the relationship.
It takes time to prove yourself as a trustworthy person. Folks tend to be more receptive and understanding where there is a decent level of trust in the relationship. At the same time, if you have done something to betray that trust or developed a reputation for being unreliable or untruthful, then it’s unreasonable to expect others to hear you out or understand what you’re going through.
It might even be a case where you remind them of someone else, so they prejudge you? This happened to me while serving in the military. A coworker came right out and said he did not like me or trust me. We barely knew each other. His comment floored me. I asked why. He said I reminded him of someone who had become his enemy. Well, can’t help that. We never did develop a decent relationship.
Why won’t they understand? Why don’t they get it? Why can’t they just listen to me? I've given you ten possible reasons. Of course, there are more. When you are seeking helpful advice, affirmation, empathy, or help but receive anything except that, it might be for the reasons above. It helps to know that it's not always your fault. Often, it's some other cause.
What can you do to address these obstacles to listening and understanding? Probably not much. We will address that question another time. In the interim, resolve to not beat yourself up or exert time and energy in making other people understand or empathize with you. In all likelihood, that person or those people can't or don't want to listen, understand, or empathize. Let them go and seek out caring, gracious, and empathetic folks who will.
Let me know what you think. And if you have time, tell me your story.