Are You a Good Listener?

Some people freely admit that they're not good listeners. But many who claim to be good listeners aren't. That's because they fall short in a critical aspect of listening. In this week's column, Naomi Karten offers ideas and examples that will help you be-and be perceived as-a good listener.

Jack viewed himself as a good listener. But after observing him in team meetings, I didn't totally agree. It wasn't that Jack didn't listen; actually, he did. It was what he did as a result of listening that caught my attention. In particular, he had a bad habit of redirecting other people's statements and observations into comments about himself.

Jack's behavior highlights the fact that you can listen intently and hear precisely what someone is saying, yet still be perceived as a poor listener. This can happen because listening consists of two parts. The first is the physical act of hearing. The second is demonstrating that you really heard by responding in a way that acknowledges what the speaker said. It's in this second part where many people fall short.

It's about me, me, me.

Consider the following example:

      Person A: I fell off my treadmill on Tuesday. Ouch, did that hurt!
      Person B: I once dropped a three-pound weight on my foot.

Clearly, person B (let's call her Ms. WeightDrop) hears what is said by person A (hereafter known as Ms. TreadFlop), since her response is in the same vein-an exercise-related mishap. But is she truly listening? The response of a skilled listener in this interaction gives clear evidence of having heard Ms. TreadFlop describe her painful plunge.

For example, Ms. WeightDrop might offer a concerned response, such as "How awful! Are you OK?" Or an information-seeking response, such as "How in the world did that happen? Did you lose your concentration?" Or even an unkind response, such as "My goodness, how clumsy of you!"-though this response, despite demonstrating listening, would not earn any empathy points.

Abruptly changing the subject fails the listening test because it appears to dismiss what was just said, yet it's what people often do. Furthermore, by immediately redirecting the interaction to her weight mishap, Ms. WeightDrop may ensure that she, too, won't be listened to, because Ms. TreadFlop still will be contemplating her unplanned departure from her treadmill. Listen to a few conversations, and you'll be amazed at how little actual listening is going on.

You think that's something?

Another sign of non-listening is a response that sounds like an attempt to one-up the speaker, such as:

      Person C: I found a great bargain on refurbished hardware.
      Person D: You think that's something? I just bought a smartphone for half-price.


      Person E: I'm so excited. We completed the project an entire month ahead of schedule.
      Person F: That's nothing. I once completed a project $50,000 under budget.

In responding as they do, persons D and F display three listening flaws. First, they don't acknowledge what persons C and E say. Second, their responses lack empathy-that wonderful quality that conveys an appreciation of the other person's circumstances. And third, their responses sound like an attempt to trivialize or minimize the first speakers' accomplishments by presenting accomplishments of their own that are purportedly bigger, smarter, or more important.

Responses like the dismissive "That's nothing" or "You think that's something?" are signs of a poor listener, someone more interested in being the hero in the interaction than in noting what the other person said.

Instead, person D could comment on the great hardware bargain before redirecting the interaction to himself. For example:

      Person C: I found a great bargain on refurbished hardware.
      Person D: That ought to save you a bundle. Did you find it on the Web?

And person F could acknowledge person E's accomplishment, such as:

      Person E: I'm so excited. We completed the project an entire month ahead of schedule.
      Person F: A month! That's amazing. Your customers must have been impressed.

Alternatively, person F could acknowledge person E's delight at his accomplishment:

      Person E: I'm so excited. We completed the project an entire month ahead of schedule.
      Person F: A month! No wonder you're so pleased.

There's no need for persons D or F to suppress their own accomplishments in these interactions Once they acknowledge what they have heard, they could offer an I-really-heard-you transition, such as:

      Person C: I found a great bargain on refurbished hardware.
      Person D: That ought to save you a bundle. I found a smartphone for half-price, so I'm pretty happy too.


      Person E: I'm so excited. We completed the project an entire month ahead of schedule.
      Person F: One whole month. That's amazing! That reminds me of the time I ...

In describing their own accomplishments, persons D and F give persons C and E an opportunity to demonstrate their listening skills.

I'm everything; you're nothing.
A related sign of non-listening is a response that seems intended to belittle or dismiss the speaker, such as:

      Person G: Wow, I found four serious bugs this week.
      Person H: Well, it'll really count when you can find a dozen.

Person H could simply say "Well, good for you!" which, of course, is what person G wants to hear.

Listen to me!
Most of the time, people who respond like persons B, D, F, and H mean no ill will; they are simply voicing a thought that popped into their head. And there's nothing wrong with such thought-popping. What's wrong-if you want to be viewed as a good listener-is redirecting the interaction to yourself without first acknowledging what the person has said.

If coworkers view you as a poor listener, chances are they aren't going to tell you so. Instead, they'll stash that impression in their mental database and let it color both their attitude towards you and their satisfaction with the work you're doing with or for them. But, this reaction is easy to avoid. Simply signal that you're really listening by responding in a way that stays on the topic and acknowledges what the speaker has said.

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