End Poor Listening Habits

Posted: April 11, 2023, 3 p.m.

Bad Listening Habits to Let Go

1. Quit Pseudo-Listening

I'll admit I have a bad habit when talking to my sister. We talk a fair amount, and sometimes I'll catch myself doing the “mhmh yeah, uhhh,” in the right places, all while doing something else. I end up not paying much attention to what she's actually saying. This happens a lot with conversations on cell phones. What I'm doing here is pseudolistening. I'm pretending to listen so the person feels listened to but I'm not actually paying attention. 

This happens often when people try to multitask while listening. Research is rock solid on this: multitasking is not a thing that most people can do. You WILL miss key information and the other person is most likely going to catch on that you are not fully present. 

The issue with pseudo-listening is two fold.

First, you will miss part of the message and you may never know how important these bits were. This can happen when you’re just not that interested. I can only listen to so much information about Minecraft from my 10 year old son before I start to fade out. So when I catch him putting peanut butter on the cat later and he says “But I asked you and you said it was okay…” I might very well have, but I missed the important details when I zoned out.

Tuning out can also happen when you are tired, stressed, or have other pressing things on your mind. At these times it is hard to focus on listening and you may feel you have to “try” to listen and find yourself falling into the Mhmm, trap.

The second issue with pseudo-listening is that no matter how good you THINK you are at pseudolistening, more often than not,  the other person can feel that you are not engaged, even if they cannot see your body language or facial expressions. This can have some unintended consequences -- like signaling to the other person that you don’t care about them or what they have to say.

In both instances, the trick to pseudo-listening is that there IS no trick: you just need to make sure you’re present for the other person. If they’re trying to tell you something important, let the person know that “Hey, I am not mentally in the space to be able to give you my full attention right now. Can we talk about this tomorrow when I can really focus?” 

If the subject matter is something you're just not interested in but the relationship is important, steel yourself and put boundaries around it. Don’t pay fake attention.  For example, with my son, I'll say “You have ten minutes to talk about Minecraft and then we need to talk about something else.” That's totally fair. 

The key to being present even when it’s hard is to still be communicative. This is one of the most important skills for effective listening. So the next time you can’t give your undivided attention, let people know if you physically or mentally just can’t pay attention at the moment. Practice politely asking people to make it short and sweet. When you take the time to make sure you are present, your team will appreciate your honesty and upfrontness. This lets them know that you care about their needs and value your relationship. 

2. Monopolizing Listening

I had a client once that was notorious for being able to turn any conversation into a conversation about him. It didn't matter if someone had a huge problem they needed to talk about, or an issue with their team or their own work, somehow every conversation became about the client and how he had done the same thing or something similar or whatever. He was a monopolizer. Monopolizing is one of the manifestations of poor listening that can be the most frustrating for the speaker. When someone comes to you with a problem the last thing they need or want is to hear about your problems. 

It took quite a bit of work to get this client to get past this bad habit, but once he did, his team really appreciated the change and saw him as a better leader.

In this lesson I want to share the two major issues with monopolizing and how they can undermine your efforts to be a good leader. Consider this a lesson in what NOT to do!  

The first major issue with monopolizing is a phenomenon called Conversational Rerouting -- When someone says something and you follow up with “Oh yeah, I did that one time and then I did this…” all of the sudden the conversation is about you rather than about what the person needs to talk about. You rerouted the conversation! 

Like my client, many people that do this don't recognize they do it, so it's important to reflect on conversations you have and ask yourself, “Did I listen to them, how much of that was about me and how much of their message did I get?” Better yet, ask the people if they feel like you heard them -- they’ll tell you if you’re a monopolizer. 

The second issue is when monopolizing manifests itself in the form of interruptions. This is a significantly more negative problem. Constantly interrupting when others are trying to talk will end up with a team that is disengaged, a team that is likely to move on, and a team that frankly doesn't solve problems well or care for their leader much.

Again here, if this is a problem for you, you might not be aware of it. Using self reflection can help, and I recommend trying this exercise: 

Practice holding your voice, listening to the full sentence or idea from the speaker’s message. Then instead of putting your own point of view out, ask a question instead. If you ask questions rather than stating your opinions,  you're much more likely to have engaged team members. 

To be frank, if you’re monopolizing you are listening poorly -- and as a leader or a manager it really is your job to have good listening skills. So if you feel yourself monopolizing the conversation, making it all about you, offering your opinion without asking questions, or simply one-upping, take a beat and ask a question instead. This skill will make you not only a better manager, but a better listener in all your relationships. 

3. Ambushing Listening

If you've ever seen the movie Goodfellas it gives a perfect example of one way that poor listening manifests. There's a scene where Joe Pesci's character is telling a funny story and at the end Ray Liotta says, “man that was so funny, you're a funny guy,” to which Joe Pesci's character goes, “What do you mean I'm funny? I'm a clown to you?” and gets super defensive and acts like Ray Liotta was attacking him. This is just one of the ways that we allow biases and preconceived notions to cloud the way we listen. 

I don’t want you to fall into these common listening traps and feel the negative effects. I’ll show you how to keep an open mind, build a good relationship, all while avoiding these poor listening traps.

The first one as I noted is defensive listening. This is when you go into  the conversation expecting to hear something negative, so even when their intent wasn't to attack you or point out something negative, that's what you hear. Assumptive listeners will take their previous experiences and let that take over their perspective.Their reaction becomes an emotional response. That's not to say that impact isn't important -- you should be aware that your impact, or how you’re perceived, is more important than your intent. 

But in the case of defensive listening, I am specifically referring to times where you may unfairly be assuming negative intent when you don’t listen for the positive intent. There are some pretty simple ways you can make sure you don’t fall into this trap: 

First, ask their intent: Say, “what did you mean by that,” but make sure you keep judgment out of your tone.  You certainly don’t want to say, “what did you mean by that?!”

You should also wait for the whole message before assessing any intent. If you can put your bias and emotion aside, you may hear the whole message and get a better understanding of their intent and main points.

And if you are regularly hearing negative intent from people, take the time to self-reflect and create a healthier self-image.

Another listening trap you can fall into is ambushing. Ambushing is when you go into a conversation ready to attack -- listening for an opportunity to say what you want to say. The problem with this is you’re not actually listening to their message. You're listening for specific things and the general message. 

My best advice here is DON’T. Don’t go into conversations assuming what you are going to hear or listening for an opportunity to attack. It will not end with an improved relationship and will almost certainly not end with improved understanding. 

The final trap here is really the idea of not looking for an underlying meaning. Literal listening is listening to the actual words, but ignoring or missing the meaning. In our house, it’s the rule that almost doing something is the same as doing it. “I’m not touching her” clearly ignores the meaning behind “don’t touch your sister”... which is leave your sister alone. 

When you listen literally you can miss vital information often linked to emotion. How are you today? I’M FINE! If you then go about your day saying oh, Beth said she was fine so things must be okay, you are in for trouble down the road. 

Don’t fall into these listening traps. Take some time to reflect on some recent conversations and evaluate your own listening habits. Is there a place you can improve your listening? By self-reflecting and adjusting in the moment, you’ll avoid the pitfalls of bad listening and make stronger, more accurate connections. Good listening habits take a long time to establish and a little hard work, but all you need to do is make small, consistent changes. Ineffective listening will cost you a lot more than time if you fall into these traps that make lousy listeners. So, reduce stress that may come up with your team’s communication by becoming a good listener.

For more information, watch the Listen To Lead workshop series or Contact Us to learn more about how you can become a more effective listener!