Listening Deflectively: How Not to Listen

Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

February 25, 2024

Have you noticed that, in conversation, it’s the listener who controls the communication? Listening poorly or listening well makes all the difference on whether the discussion hums along or goes off the rails. The good news is, listening well is a skill you can learn and practice.

Magic Bullet Nonsense

When we talk, we’d like to imagine our thoughts fly straight from our mouths into the minds of others, perfectly and magically, as if they were idea bullets that hit their targets with no effort.

But in truth, there are many, many points of possible failure in communicating. The speaker may not be as articulate as he imagines, speaking with sloppy word choices, incomplete sentences, or disjointed ideas. The room might be full of noise or distractions, like a blaring TV or screaming kids. The listener might not be paying full attention, scrolling on a phone, or busy with other thoughts. And even when the speaker is articulate and the room is quiet, the listener might have their own filters and ways of understanding that differ from the speaker. The listener may have big emotions or strong opinions on the speaker’s topic, body language, or word choices, and they may be quick to react rather than perceive.

In truth, a message has to be constructed well, travel through a minefield of noise, and be heard and reconstructed by the listener carefully before it becomes a received idea. You can’t listen well without being fully present.

And then, the listener still regulates the conversation by responding. If the response is “What?” then the speaker starts over. If the response is “Over my dead body!” then conflict follows. If the response is “Tell me more,” the conversation continues.

Deflective Responses

When we make small talk with a stranger at the checkout lane or bus stop, we have common ways of responding that keep inconsequential conversations moving along while we pass the time. But these same types of responses are not that helpful when trying to have a valued conversation with someone you care about. These responses tend to deflect the importance of what the speaker is saying, even if the listener means well enough.


One common deflective response is to simply reassure the speaker with a “it’ll be fine” response. If someone says “My client was mad at me,” and you respond “It'll be fine. Don’t worry about it,” it deflects the anxiety the speaker just expressed as unimportant. Your desire to soothe may be admirable, but it can come across as dismissive. If someone says “I won an award!” and you respond with “That’s nice” you’re not exactly celebrating. Reassurance can be a well-meaning response, but it trivializes the impact the speaker is sharing.


Another deflective response is to ask many questions. It may help to clarify the message you’re receiving, but it can also devolve into an interrogation. If someone says “the electrician didn’t show” and you respond “What time did he promise? Did you call? Were you home the whole time? Did you reschedule?” the conversation can begin to feel like you’re blaming the victim. Your curiosity may be genuine, but you don’t necessarily need all the facts to understand the importance of what the speakers' experience meant to them.


We all long to be competent problem solvers, but If your first response is to start giving instructions, it feels more like you’re lecturing than listening. If the speaker says, “The plumber didn’t show,” and you respond with advice like, “You should call and yell at his boss. You shouldn’t use them anyway. A trip to the hardware store is all it takes,” you’re probably not telling the speaker anything they don’t already know, or you're speaking to them as if they're dumber than you. They don’t necessarily need help fixing their problem. You’re also implying that the speaker is the problem because they’re doing it wrong. Unless they ask specifically for advice, they probably don’t need you to explain it to them.


In our desire to relate to the speaker, sometimes we respond with “that happened to me too!” You might mean it to say “I understand your experience,” but now you’re talking about you. If someone says, “My client missed our appointment today,” and you respond “I was stood up for a date once. I waited for hours. Let me tell you all about it,” you’ve stolen the conversation away from focusing on the speaker to focus on you. We swap stories in small talk all the time, but if you steal the attention away, you’re no longer listening.


In making small talk, one topic might well remind us of another, and the chit-chat can drift from one idea to another. But when the speaker is trying to share something significant, diverting the topic deflects their expression. If someone says, “My client was unhappy today” and you respond with “Is that the client with the boat? I always liked that boat. Should we get a boat?”, you’ve bypassed the emotions the speaker was sharing. A variation of diverting to a tangent is getting overly philosophical or spiritual. If someone says, “the mechanic still hasn’t fixed my car” and you respond with “You just can’t get good service nowadays. Lousy corporations. God is the only one you can rely on. I’ll pray on it!” you’ve ended the conversation by making it about big ideas without acknowledging the speaker’s painful situation.

Deflective Listening

These examples are all common ways we respond in small talk, but poor ways to respond to someone important sharing their lives. It’s much better to reflect what the speaker is feeling rather than deflect the impact. We’ll discuss reflective listening in the next article.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

Steven Koster is a writer, speaker, and producer with Family Fire. Formerly the Director of ReFrame Media, Family Fire's parent organization, Steven currently serves at Grace Church and consults on ministry through The Joshua Lab. He also leads a hospitality ministry at The Parsonage Inn and enjoys family tree research as time allows. Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading marriage retreats and family seminars to encourage people in their most intimate relationships. The Kosters are the parents of three awesome young adults and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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