You’re probably not a good listener. No offense. It’s just that most people aren’t.

Why you are a bad listener
Everyone wants to be a good listener. Few people want to become a good listener. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

No one wants to be known as a bad listener. No one wants to forget an entire side of a conversation and have to ask someone to repeat. Everyone wants to be a good listener. Few people want to become a good listener. Just like everyone wants to play the guitar, while few want to learn to play guitar.

You are likely a bad listener for one of seven reasons:

  1. Selfishness. This isn’t as bad as we have made it sound. This is normal. You are always thinking of yourself. Have you ever had a dream that you were not in? 
  2. Preoccupation. You are distracted. Deadlines, problems at home, an illness. 
  3. Your mind wanders. We speak at about 130 words per minute. You can listen at about 400. You can think at 1,000. There is a 600-word gap between thinking and listening. Your mind is going to fill that in.
  4. Lack of training or bad training. I won’t say who it was, but one of the three most influential people in my life is a terrible listener. I have copied this person’s bad example.
  5. Defensiveness. If the other person is being critical and your defense mechanisms kick in, you will not hear a word he is saying.
  6. “Helper Mode.” As soon as someone shares a problem, you start trying to fix it, rather than listen.
  7. You miss the big picture. You get caught up on the details of the conversation and miss the overarching point.

How do you become a good listener? Here are 7 ways. Share yours in the comments below.

  1. Lean in. If you are sitting, get on the edge of your seat. If you are at a table, put your elbows on it.
  2. Maintain an “open position.” Do not cross your arms. If you are sitting but not at a table, sit with your hands on your legs. If you are standing, do not build an emotional barricade with your arms. Keep them at your side. Signal that you are open and available to receive their words.
  3. Copy good listeners. Observe what good listeners do and model your behavior after theirs. Find a listening mentor.
  4. Practice. A lot.
  5. Fake it ’til you make it. Yes, I am suggesting this. If you have these three options, which do you choose?

Option A: Bad listener – reality and perceived

Option B: Bad listener – reality only

Option C: Good listener – reality and perceived

Of course, option C is first, but option B is much better than option A. So faking it is a better alternative to both being a bad listener and seeming like one.

  1. Get accountability partners. Find some people that you trust and tell them that you are trying to become a better listener. Ask them to hold you accountable.
  2. Follow up. The follow up shows you care. It shows you listened. And if you did miss something, it allows you get that information in a less embarrassing way.

What are your tips for being a better listener?

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23 thoughts on “Why You Are a Bad Listener and How to Fix It

  1. Great post. I’m pretty good listener, but I went to school for it (masters in social work). Still I suck at it when I’m distracted. The hardest time is when you get a walk in and you have to shift gears quickly. I usually have to tell them to give me a minute.

    In a one-on-one I make sure my table is cleared of stuff and there are no barriers between us. I also try and just ask questions instead of talking at them. I also, don’t try and fix everything.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      That is a great tip. Not sure if I mention it in my one-on-one advice. Absolutely make sure the table/desk is clear. It frees you from being distracted and them worrying about it.

  2. Carol Dublin says:

    I definitely need more practice at this. My mind tends to drift off more often than not – especially if someone is long-winded. One of my dear friends does that and I have to say my eyes glaze over. Unfortunately, I practice that unconsciously instead of good listening habits. Great advice!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I am with you on the glazing eyes. I have to be VERY cognizant of that. I allow them to wander just enough to keep them from getting tired and watery, otherwise I focus on the speaker.

      Here is a tip…try it in everything. When you are at a conference and the speaker is boring, don’t whip out the laptop…FOCUS. You might just learn something. When watching a video online, do the same. Focus on maintaining eye contact with those types of “people” and it will roll over into real life.

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    Great post, Matt. As you know, I teach communication courses. You effectively pointed out the most-common causes for poor listening and several ways to change those habits. By the way, I’m one who actually learned to play the guitar, but lately I’ve chosen the banjo and ukulele. I wonder if anybody will listen?

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I sold guitar learning courses for years and never learned myself. Kind of sad.

  4. Lily Kreitinger says:

    This seems to be the hot topic on the blogosphere these days. I think it’s because it’s so critical. I loved Joel Manby’s explanation in Love Works. When you don’t listen to people is because you don’t trust them and you think your ideas are better than theirs. Ouch. Thanks for giving me some more tools to practice active and engaged listening.

      1. Mark Sieverkropp says:

        Ya, its all your fault that everyone’s talking about listening lately 😉

      2. Matt McWilliams says:

        Ironically, I wrote his post about two weeks ago 🙂

        I usually stay about 2-3 weeks ahead time permitting. That way I can go on vacation some year.

  5. Jana Botkin says:

    Carol Dublin nailed it – sometimes the reason for being a bad listener is because the speaker is BORING.

    I heard Seth Godin say that if a person can speak, he can write; the problem is that very few people can speak, much less speak well.

    No kidding! Have you ever heard how often people fill the airwaves with ums, ands, sos, uhs, etc.? Have you ever counted that stuff while someone is speaking?

    If listening to a decent speaker is difficult, it takes a special extra (Herculean!) effort to listen to a boring person without signaling Get To Your Point Already, I’m Dying Here!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I agree but something I am working on is realizing that it is an exercise to listen to bad speakers.

      Just like calculus wasn’t so that I knew calculus (I don’t) but to stretch my brain, learning to focus on bad speakers makes it that much easier when we are dealing with good ones.

      Try it…it will benefit you greatly.

      1. Jana Botkin says:

        You mean like running sprints, or doing push-ups? 😎

  6. Steve Pate says:

    Funny I got tested last night with this…after a meeting(I’m not one for small talk but I really wanted to get out and go home) I just simply asked a guy, “Hey Mark”, who is generally shy and reserve, “how you doing?” and man whoa, It went from God is so good to the cross to tears to childhood memories…and remember I was just wanting to go home.

    But the blogs from the past couple days ago and pod cast I’ve been listing to, slipped into action. First, I made sure not to finish his own thoughts, make direct eye contact and when my mine would wonder, I just starting saying in my head, “alright God, what do I need to hear.” All I need to say, I’m glad I forced my self to listen and practice what we all been talking about this past week. And I’m sorry Matt, I couldn’t bring my self to fake it, but I do know what you mean by that. Thanks Lily Kreitinger for sparking this topic!

    1. Jana Botkin says:

      Steve, how good that you recognized an opportunity to practice listening, that you gave up what you wanted to do in order to actively care for Mark and that you prayed while you were doing it. Thanks for sharing a lesson on what really listening can look like.

    2. Matt McWilliams says:

      That is AWESOME Steve. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Mark Sieverkropp says:

    Good stuff. I have nothing to add. I like it!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      You broke something didn’t you?

  8. Jon Stolpe says:

    I posted about trusting and listening last week on my blog: http://www.jonstolpe.com/2013/02/06/love-works-wednesday-link-up-week-4-trusting/

    Here are my tips for becoming a better listener:
    Get rid of distractions. At home, turn off the
    television and the music. At the office, get away from the computer,
    and go into a closed office if necessary.
    Shut your mouth and open your ears. You can’t listen when your mouth is moving. In the first chapter of James, it says to “be quick to listen, slow to speak….”
    Take notes. Taking notes helps you remember what is shared in the conversation.
    Restate what was shared to check for understanding. “This is what I heard you say…. Do I understand you correctly?”
    Follow through with action. Assuming the idea or comment is valid, take action to address what was shared.
    Follow-up with your team member. After taking
    action, follow-up with your team member to make sure they know their
    concern has been addressed and to make sure it has been addressed
    Repeat. This is not a one time event. It must
    happen over and over and over again. Trust will develop over time if
    our team members know we are really listening.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Amen to all of that Jon. Great post.

  9. Tom Dixon says:

    What is really bad is to realize you have been engrossed in your iphone when you should have been listening in a meeting! Ever since I started to listen to podcasts at 3X speed, it is painful to listen at the regular pace…step it up folks!

  10. Active listening is so important. It shows the other person that you value them (lets face it – you may not value what they are saying – but we value the person). Listening is one of the best “gifts” we can give people. Millions go counsellors and Psych. folks just to be listened to. Not to judged, not necessarily to problem solve, not to show that you are better – but to listen with your ears and with your heart. What is that old saying? That is why we have 2 ears and one mouth?? Ha!

  11. Mike Kawula says:

    Awesome tips bud!

    For those that have difficult times listening or wanting (needing for some) to speak…I always tell people force yourself to ask 3 questions as a game or you can’t speak. This works also if you’re at networking events. Its teaches you to listen more carefully and thus engage more with the person your listening to.

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