How to Listen Without Taking Personally


When someone complains do you take it personally? Instead of really hearing them, you feel like they are talking about how they feel about you.

For example, when my daughter complains about not wanting to do her chores, my mind makes assumptions. My heart rate quickens as I ready for battle. And I tell myself, “She makes everything hard on me. I wish she would treat me as good as she treats her teacher.”

If I stay in battle mode, I get hooked into a power struggle, debate, or argument. Then I eventually get so fed up that I withdraw. When I notice the fight of flight response take off in me, I can change my thinking and emotional response already in progress.

When we perceive others’ negativity less personally, we free ourselves and our loved ones. We are free from being held responsible for others negativity. As a bonus, we are free to connect with others, instead of protecting ourselves.

6 Steps to Listening Without Personalizing

If you walk around feeling like there are threats to your emotional well-being in each personal encounter, you will live a guarded life. In the long run, you will miss out on opportunities for personal connection.

While our emotions tell us that negativity infects us, how do we let other’s complaints get under our skin less? Here are 6 steps to letting negative emotions stay where they belong (in owners’ skin):

  • Interrupt your own emotional reaction in order to think more clearly
  • Evaluate whether negativity from other is threat to your well-being
  • Choose not to let it get under your skin and cause an “infection”
  • Find another way to think about negativity that is separate from you
  • Let other own their feelings by letting them stew in it
  • Reflect what you observe not what you feel

In my example, I can take deep breaths to help me slow down before I yell at my daughter. This gives me time to see that her complaint is not a threat to my happiness. Thus I don’t have to let it get under my skin as much as it usually does.

When I don’t feel threatened by her complaint, I am able to hear that she doesn’t feel like cleaning right now. Her negativity is less about me or our relationship and more about her. 

I no longer feel like defending myself or making her feel bad. Instead I can reflect my observation and remind her of the choices that are in front of her. (“I know you are tired. You are welcome to watch TV when your room is clean or go to bed early.”)

I would not be able to listen to her in this way if I took her complaint personally. I am able to move on, and she will either take responsibility or stew in her complaints. Either way, our relationship isn’t impacted negatively by her complaining.

Emotional Separateness Key to Relational Connection

This is not a typical way to feel more connected with others. It seems counter-intuitive. When we are anxious, tense, or unhappy, we usually push for sameness, agreement, and togetherness.

However, I am convinced that the way to feeling more connected with others is to allow each person to have their own bucket of emotions. That is to separate our emotions as being a reflection of the person that carries them.

By not taking others emotional reactions personally, we are truly able to hear what they are saying. To listen to what they are saying about themselves. To know a person is to connect with them.

How can you use these 5 steps in your dating or marital relationships? Please share other ideas you have for not taking others negativity personally.


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Photo Credit: “Dream Walking” by Digital Pimp

2 responses to “How to Listen Without Taking Personally

  1. cathy ritter

    Excellent ideas to approach the “negative dis…ease”. cERTAINLY helps to detangle an others negative thought pattern; before it may enter your own mindset.