Poor Listening Skills

couple using poor listening skills with each other

I’ve been posting a lot about listening recently. This is because I believe your success, in any role, depends so much on your ability to listen. There is not a communication skill more important to building good relationships and solving problems than learning how to actively listen and really hear what others are saying. And yet most people use poor listening skills. The consequence is they limit the quality of their relationships and well as their ability to influence others.

So, in this article I’m going to present a number of bad habits that prevent you (and me) from good listening.

You Think Faster Than you Speak

Let me begin by saying that a primary reason for poor listening is that you process information more quickly than others can speak. In fact, the average person speaks about 125 words per minute and yet your brain thinks at least three times faster, at 400 or more words per minute.

This means that it takes great focus and concentration to listen well. Your brain literally gets bored while listening and so gets distracted onto topics unrelated to the conversation (I wonder what I’ll fix for dinner tonight). Even if you stay engaged it becomes easy to rush ahead of the speaker by thinking about what you’ll say next. Or you get caught up in your own opinions and judgments about what he or she is saying. Or you may easily slip into advice-giving or problem-solving that takes responsibility for steering the conversation away from the speaker.

These automatic tendencies are not helpful. They put you in your own head rather than being fully present with another. The goal of good listening is to put aside, temporarily, your own inner monologue and remain attuned to the speaker. You can only do that by being aware and staying focused.

The key to good listening is to override your poor listening skills by training your brain to stay focused as you 1. Give the speaker your full and undivided attention. 2. Listen for the main points he or she is making. 3. Do your best to “hear between the lines” by listening to the deeper meaning and not just the words that are being spoken. Doing these things take practice but they’ll help you stay attuned so your mind doesn’t go too far afield.

12 Habits of Poor Listening

 However, in order to become a better listener, I believe it’s helpful to be aware of the traps of good listening. Below are 12 habits that prevent good listening. Some are obvious. Others are quite subtle. And all of them are so automatic and deeply ingrained that we aren’t even aware of using them. Let me invite you to not only read them but note those which you most commonly use.

1. Formulating Your Response

I mentioned this briefly. This is thinking about what you’re going to say next instead of giving your attention to the speaker in order to understand their message and point of view. You only catch a part of what they say because you’re busy thinking about your next words. This is very common, perhaps the most common habit most people fall into.

2. Disagreeing/Arguing

This one is pretty obvious. It’s also very common. It’s when you hear someone express an opinion that is different from your own and you begin arguing or telling them how they’re wrong rather than hearing them out. Not only does this shut down communication but also sets up power struggles or silence and withdrawal which undermine trust and goodwill.

 3. Interrupting

This is jumping in before someone has finished a thought. Sometimes you do it because you disagree. On other occasions you do it because you think you know what they’re going to say or because you are excited to share your own thoughts. Although it may feel like no big deal, especially when the two of you are in agreement, it can leave the speaker feeling not only cut off but not valued.

 4. One-upping

This is also common. You hear what someone says but come back with something like, “You think that’s bad, here’s what happened to me.” Or, “It reminds me of …” In other words, you insert your own experience into the conversation rather than creating space for the speaker to feel heard. Sometimes, in the give and take of a conversation, it’s okay to share your own experience. That’s how conversations flow. But do so with awareness so you aren’t inferring that your experience outdoes another’s experience.

5. Ignoring

This is being distracted or multi-tasking or simply not giving importance to what someone has to say and so not giving them your full attention. You certainly wouldn’t do this with someone whose esteem you desire. You’re more likely to do it with someone whom you think is less important than you. And that’s exactly the message that comes across. It may not seem like a big deal in the moment but has long-term relationship consequences.

6. Lecturing/Moralizing

This is telling others how they should think and feel. It’s like getting up on your soapbox and letting others know what’s what in a way that dismisses their ability to think. This tactic is common for those in authority, like parents, when they’re feeling anxious about their kid’s ability to make good choices. It’s designed to coerce or guilt or simply get others to change their thinking or behavior. Although well-intended, it often results in resentment and/or fails to help others take responsibility for themselves.

7. Criticizing (or Comparing)

This is also obvious. It is finding fault or making negative comments about another’s behavior or character in order to get them to do what you want.

8. Giving Advice

Telling another what to do or how to solve their problems. The intent is usually good although it may not fit the speaker’s situation and fails to respect the responsibility of the speaker to solve his/her own problems. The advice is usually rejected. Even if accepted, it breeds dependency and a lack of faith in oneself. Of course, there are times when advice is helpful and called for but usually further into a conversation, once an individual has been heard and is receptive to input.

9. Fixing

This is taking over or doing something for someone that they could do for themselves. It communicates that the person is less capable than you and deprives them of opportuni­ties to grow and learn.

10. Sympathizing

Not to be confused with empathy, sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. It may seem caring but reinforces a person’s complaining or negative feelings and rewards them for feeling bad instead of taking action.

11. Rescuing or Soothing

Similar to sympathizing, this is trying to make someone feel better rather than allowing them to own their own experience. Rescuing can include making someone feel better by trying to minimize or even undo the consequences of their actions.

12. Choosing sides

This is when you’re a third party. You decide that someone is right and someone else wrong instead of going for deeper understanding and allowing them to talk through their differences. It perpetuates feelings of injustice and lack of understanding each person’s point of view.

Three Harms

All of these poor listening skills or habits are pretty common and all of them prevent good listening. In fact, they cause three harms. First, they invalidate the feelings and experience of the speaker. Second, they make it unsafe for the speaker to talk and so close down communication. And third, they rob the speaker of self-responsibility.

What do I mean by this third point? Good listening keeps responsibility where it belongs, on the speaker. The speaker owns his or her opinions and experience and is also responsible to solve his or her problems. You acknowledge this as you use good listening. But when you don’t use good listening, you step over a boundary by trying to tell someone what to think and feel or how to act.

Although people sometimes do need clear limits or even guidance and help in solving their problems, this usually comes after you’ve made it safe for them to talk and taken time to listen. A rule is that listening and trust-building precede problem-solving. A speaker may need your support, help, or advice, at some point in the process, but don’t forget that they own their lives and behavior and are ultimately responsible for their experience and actions.

Personal Application

So, I invite you to consider your responses when in a listening role. Which of these poor listening practices do you use? What are the consequences? Would you be willing to catch yourself and choose better listening responses?


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

6 responses to “Poor Listening Skills”

  1. Russ Kyncl says:

    Thank you, Roger. This is very timely and applicable to me right now.

  2. Jim Arbuckle says:

    Jean and i have opposite political views so it is difficult for us to discuss politics. I see I would do better to listen more to learn more about why she feels the way she does

    • Yes. It can be so hard to listen when people are expressing views that we feel very strongly about and which are different from our own. This is the truest test of our ability to listen. Here are just a few tips: 1. Be genuinely curious about her point of view. 3. Reflect back what you hear her saying. “Let me see if I understand your point of view…” “Is this what you’re saying?” This builds or preserves the goodwill in the relationship. It is hard to do if we feel/see things differently but is such an important key. 4. Ask if she’s like to hear your point of view. Once someone feels heard, they’re much more likely to listen to us. So you need to have an opportunity to share your point of view. But don’t share it with the intent of getting her to let go of her point of view but simply clarify how you see things. It works much better when it is okay that you have a difference of opinion but can respect each other and learn from each other or at least hear each other out.

  3. Kimberly Searle says:

    Thank you!

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