Selective Listening and Attention: Hearing What You Want to Hear as a Manipulation Tactic

“Tuning-out” someone who’s trying to make a point, teach a lesson, or call attention to a problem is a principal way that the disordered character resists internalizing the values, standards, and controls society wants him to adopt.

I’ve posted a series of articles on certain behaviors that are commonly encountered in persons with significant disturbances of character. Individuals who display these behaviors habitually resist accepting the social principles that would otherwise help them develop more accountability and responsibility. The behaviors also often serve as tactics to manipulate others. Some of the behaviors we’ve discussed already have included the tactics of blaming, shaming and guilt-tripping, the tactic of rationalization or excuse-making, and the tactic of playing the victim role:

Another behavior that disturbed characters frequently display is “selective attention” or “selective listening.” Disturbed characters are good at seeing only what they want to see and hearing only what they want to hear. Stanton Samenow referred to their habit of paying highly selective attention as “mental filtering” or “paying attention only to what suits him.” “Tuning-out” someone who’s trying to make a point, teach a lesson, or call attention to a problem is a principal way that the disordered character resists internalizing the values, standards, and controls society wants him to adopt. One cannot be “open” to the idea of accepting a principle while simultaneously refusing to pay it any attention. One cannot empathize with another’s concerns and tune out the other person at the same time. In short, one cannot be in the receptive/submissive mode and the combative/closed mode at the same time.

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The tactic of selective attention goes hand in hand with the inattentional thinking patterns I wrote about in an earlier post. (See “Inattentive Thinking and Character Disturbance”) When you start to confront a disordered character about a problem behavior, they almost always know what you’re about to say before you actually say it. And, they almost immediately start tuning you out. The reason they “don’t want to hear it” is that they are not prepared to submit themselves to the principle of conduct you and they both know underlies the confrontation you are about to make. So, when they start tuning you out, you have absolute assurance they have no intention of changing course.

Many times, selective attention is mistaken for attentional deficiency, especially in children and adolescents. Some young persons, through no fault of their own, have trouble sustaining focus and attention. They might be able to do so when hyperstimulated, but otherwise have problems attending to a task. Selective attention is different, although it can accompany attentional deficiency. Many parents have intuitively known that their child’s hearing seems to improve instantly when they’re talking openly about something they know the child wants or likes.

One of the key tools to empowerment that I first advocated in my book In Sheep’s Clothing is the tool of selective speaking. In my early work with disturbed characters, one of the ways I confirmed that they were indeed tuning me out deliberately and to test whether they were in the slightest ready to receive counsel was simply not to talk unless they at least appeared attentive and receptive. Over the years, this has turned out to be by far one of my most powerful therapeutic techniques and also one of the most empowering tools for persons in relationships with individuals of disturbed character.

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