There is an art to a little selective deafness (Or so I’ve heard)


There is more to the art of selective hearing than acting a little deaf as a way of choosing what to hear and what to ignore. Because, if you get the art wrong, you won’t enjoy the expected benefits. Even worse, you won’t hear the end of it (of being caught at acting a little deaf, that is). So listen carefully to what I have to say (even if you must read it twice).

I am noticing more examples of selective hearing in action and I have found myself, more often than is good for my ego, on the ignored-end of a verbal interaction. Let me give you an example of an interaction which should not shrink my self-confidence, yet it does.

We have a German Shepherd bitch who has refined the art of selective hearing. She ignores my voice unless I am the only human at home; and then she might deem to acknowledge my presence. I console myself with knowing that she treats other humans the same way when she wants to. When she does not want to do as commanded, irrespective of whose voice is commanding, she does not even react to her name. Her brother, on the other hand, wags his tail the minute he hears his name, even if he is in a different room to the voice speaking his name.

How do I know that the bitch is not deaf, or just a little deaf? Because she is the first one of the dogs to react to any strange noise outside the house, no matter how faint. And also because she is quick to react when she hears her walkies-lead being picked up. Or when the treat bag rustles.

My wife, my son, my daughter, and even a few employees also show signs of selective hearing. This has now bothered me into pondering the benefits of selective hearing. Surely, there must be benefits, else why be blatantly rude when there is risk attached to this behavior? (Note: I am Father, Master and Boss. There is risk in ignoring me.)

One of the first thoughts I had in reflecting on selective hearing is this. Selective hearing is not the same as being just a little deaf.

Selective hearing is a deliberate strategy to avoid the outcome that will surely follow if you acknowledge that you did indeed hear what was said. Obviously, this strategy applies to assumed unpleasant outcomes — for example, a yucky feeling resulting from hearing what was said or a gross duty that now has to be performed. On the other hand, you would welcome any communication that could cause a pleasant outcome. In this case your hearing would improve unexpectedly.

A little voluntary deafness is different. It is a chosen strategy to keep the world at bay, to create a fog of peaceful quiet, even if the quiet is as flimsy as a fog. A little voluntary deafness is a deliberate blankness to deflect certain voices from penetrating your fog of peace and quiet.

Do selective hearing and a little deafness still sound the same to you? Well, open your ears for here’s more. And it is aimed squarely at you. If you squirm just a little as you read it, then you have heard me loud and clear.

You practice selective hearing when you are the underdog and you realize that a bit of passive-aggressive behavior is your best course of no-action. And you practice a little deafness when you have earned the right to choose when to enjoy a bit of peaceful quiet — specifically when you have (finally) become the alpha dog in a particular setting.

Now, I admit, both lack-of-hearing strategies have at least one major interpersonal benefit that makes them worth deploying as needed. When you choose to act as if you did not hear something unpleasant, it can keep you out of an argument (don’t take the bait) and it can stop you getting hurt (sticks and stones are not the only things that can hurt).

Actually, now that I think about it, my hard-of-hearing act has sucked me into many unpleasant arguments. The Other Person in my life too often sees through my charade as a pathetic attempt to ignore her. So maybe we should scrap that as a benefit.

Finally, if you have not yet earned the right to the peace and quiet that comes from practicing a little selective deafness, then hear this and hear it well:

Take out those damn earphones while I am speaking to you! (Yes, those damn earphones are provoking generational resentment by creating unearned selective deafness.)



James McIntosh at

Writes about nonsense at work. Was chased by a lioness. Ran with elephants. Got bored, moved to USA seeking adventure. Executive Coach since 1990.