Tired of being on repeat? 5 things to do when they won't listen to you (and not lose your mind)

Did you know that horses are very, very good at not doing what you want them to do? Yep. That’s because, as prey animals, they are hardwired, as a result of millions of years of evolution, to do everything possible to make predators (us!) fail. Simply put, the ones that failed to make predators fail didn’t make it into today’s gene pool.

In this way, horses are masters at ‘not listening,’ something which can be infuriating, especially when you’re trying to get them to do things for their own good!

But horses are not the only ones.

Chances are that you too, have, at some point or other, been in an infuriating cycle of “He/she/they won’t listen to me.”

You may have been on the “giving” end, feeling sometimes extreme frustration with the fact that the other person just won’t listen to you. But you may also have been on the receiving end, feeling equally annoyed at repeatedly being asked: “Why don’t you just listen to me?”

Thing to do #1 - Reframe the issue

The question of “How can I get them to listen to me?” is usually the wrong question.

When we complain that someone isn’t listening, what we are complaining about, really, is that the person is not DOING what we said. The real question being asked, therefore, is: “How can I get them to do what I am telling them to do?”

The second thing is that, this complaint usually carries an underlying notion of hierarchy whereby the complainant (the one saying “They won’t listen to me”) feels that the other OUGHT to listen (or rather DO, as we just saw) what they are saying.

Reframing the question around like this may not seem like much, but it changes everything.

It implies that the person has indeed LISTENED but has chosen to do something other than what they were told to do. It also implies that you, as the complainant, don’t want to accept that choice of theirs. (I get you, I really do)

The question of “How can I get them to listen to me?” is usually the wrong question.

Thing to do #2 - Evaluate your spheres of influence

While the “They won’t listen” issue occurs in many situations, how to deal with each case (and your success rate) will depend on your sphere of influence in each given situation.

Let’s say that you are trying to help your spouse/friend/relative in a situation that they’re in, maybe a problem with money, or at work. You make a suggestion, give an idea, and they don’t follow through on it.

Now let’s take another scenario. You’re trying to get someone to do something which has a direct impact on your life. You may need them to help more at home, be less messy, or send out these job applications so they can find work to contribute financially. You may also be trying to get someone close to change their lifestyle (be healthier, change habits etc). It could also be a work situation in which your colleague or someone who reports to you is negatively affecting your or the team’s performance.

In some cases, while it can feel frustrating to waste time and energy giving advice that is not heeded, we accept the situation because it does not have any direct bearing on our life (other than the person complaining to us or us having to see them in a negative emotional state).

In other situations, however, when we feel like this has a much more direct impact on our life, we tend to feel that it is our right - and perhaps even their duty - to LISTEN to us and DO what we ask.

Each our side of the street

Confused? I’m not surprised.

To try and break these situations down and understand better what is at stake, I find it helpful to think of these situations in terms of: Is this issue on my side of the street or is it on theirs?

The rule of thumb is that we are each responsible for our side of the street. We may (will) have opinions on other people’s sides of the streets but it is not our responsibility, nor our right to interfere.

The rule of thumb is that we are each responsible for our side of the street.

When you are trying to get someone to do something, you need to ask yourself: Does this affect my side of the street or someone else’s?

If what you ask affects their side of the street, while you have a RIGHT to ask, they have a RIGHT to refuse. And if we cannot accept their refusal, then this is our problem, not theirs.

For example, if your coworker has a very messy desk which is affecting your ability to concentrate, you can ask them to tidy up. But as long as it is their desk, they also have a right to refuse. Each your own side of the street.

Thing to do #3 - Figuring out which is your side of the street

This is probably the trickiest part of the issue. Because we tend to feel that everything that goes on in our life, simply by virtue of being in our life, is on our side of the street. But everyone else thinks the same.

The truth is, this can - and will - be up for debate. But generally speaking, the simple act of asking yourself “Is this on my side of the street or not?” will give you a good indication.

Thing to do #4 - Establishing law and order on your side of the street

Now, if you’ve established that this is a situation in which someone else is affecting your side of the street, your sphere of influence is much stronger. In this case, it all lies in establishing FAIR and, more importantly, FIRM consequences.

By fair, I mean pre-agreed consequences. It may sound like a strange concept, but agreeing beforehand on consequences to actions is just about the most efficient system ever. It’s just like a contract and therefore very straightforward. If you’re trying to get someone to do X, you sit them down and agree together on some consequences if X isn’t done.

Let’s say you’re trying to get your child/employee to come on time. You agree on consequences for when this doesn’t happen and implement when necessary. Similarly, if your spouse commits to helping in some way or another but falls short, have pre-agreed consequences and IMPLEMENT them. If you’re not FIRM, then all of this is just useless. Also, you have to accept when the other chooses the consequences over doing what you ask. This is their right, and you need to live with it. (Tough to digest, I know)

Monty Roberts, in his book The Man who Listened to Horses, gives some brilliant examples which combine positive consequences (rewards) for when something is done and negative consequences (let’s stay away from the word punishment) for when it’s not. For instance, a child who does what he is told gets to go to the cinema (and he knows that beforehand so he’s much more motivated to do it). If he doesn’t, he may miss out on watching TV, or have to clean something etc. Similarly, the child knows this beforehand. If he chooses not to do what he is told, he is indirectly choosing to miss out on TV and we have to respect that.

Sometimes you can’t get the other to pre-agree on consequences, but you can still be fair and firm by telling them in advance how you will react. These consequences could include all sorts of things, and culminate in leaving a situation or even a relationship. Here again, it will only work if you implement the consequences. And here again, you must learn to accept if the other chooses a negative consequence over doing what you want them to do. (It gets easier to accept with time, I promise)

The grey areas

There are many situations in which you will feel that something is on your side of the street, and the other will feel it is theirs. A common one is when a loved one is making unhealthy (or so you think) lifestyle choices. You are trying to get them to eat better, quit drinking, stop seeing someone who is toxic for them. You feel like this is your side of the street because you also have to live with the after-effects of these choices, such as someone who is sick, depressed, addict etc.

Here again, the only thing you can do is to be fair and firm about consequences and accept their choice. (There is a whole range of situations when the other person’s life is at stake - please exclude those from this conversation).

Thing to do #5 - Can you take a no?

Michael Bungay Stanier famously said, “Being an adult is being able to ask for something knowing that the answer may be no.”

Simply accepting that others have the right not to do what you say might not sound like a very satisfying way of dealing with the situation. However, it is the ONLY way to deal with it simply because it is (almost) IMPOSSIBLE to force someone to do or say something. And in any case, you shouldn’t try.

Accepting a no is not a sign of weakness or defeat, it is a choice that you are making about where to put your energy. It is also a sign of respect for the other person’s choices, regardless of what your opinion is. In the same way, you don’t do what everyone else says (if you do, you may want to reassess this strategy) and people should respect your choice.

Michael Bungay Stanier famously said, “Being an adult is being able to ask for something knowing that the answer may be no.”

Ah but wait….

Having said all that, there are efficient ways of influencing what happens on someone else’s side of the street. But shhh don’t tell anyone. I’ll reveal the secrets in an upcoming post.

What do you think? Do you agree with this? Or do you think there should be another way?

Are you able to figure out every time which is your side of the street and which isn’t? Let me know if you have any questions or complaints (!) I’d love to hear from you.

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