Listening

How to Know If You're a Bad Listener (And How to Fix It)

You might think you're a good listener, but the odds are against it.
How to Know If You're a Bad Listener (And How to Fix It)
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Excerpted from the book The Art of Connection: seven Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now by Michael J. Gelb. Printed with permission from New World Library.

My friends in Los Angeles swear that the worst drivers in the country are to be found on the 405, but anyone from D.C. will tell you they're on the Beltway. Folks from New Jersey commiserate about the Turnpike, but Bostonians will tell you that the Callahan Tunnel is the epicenter of bad driving. If you speak with Italians, Brazilians or Indians, they'll explain that the standard of driving in their countries makes U.S. drivers look tame. Yet, although people are quick to agree that the general standard of driving leaves much to be desired, most people believe that they are above-average drivers.

Related: The 4 Levels of Listening: Why Every Good Entrepreneur Should Talk Less

Listening is like driving: Most people think they are better than average, but that can't be true.

In a classic study entitled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning report that in many social and intellectual domains "people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact." Dunning and Kruger's subjects overestimated their prowess in logical reasoning, grammar and sense of humor.

Researchers at the University of Stockholm in Sweden posed the question: "Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?" The answer? No! Other studies have found that people often overestimate their popularity, job performance and relationship abilities.

Related: Listen Up! Here Are 6 Ways to Become a Great Communicator.

All of which means: You might think you're a good listener, but the odds are against it. In fact, just as you may have been cut off by someone in a rush to get to work or stuck behind a torturously slow car in the fast lane, chances are that at some point another driver felt that you cut him off or that you failed to signal before turning. As you reflect on the bad listening manifestations that you've observed in others, please consider the possibility that others may have perceived you as being a less than ideal listener.

Before we explore the art of listening well, take a moment to consider the bad listening you've observed in others. Think back over your last week:

  • Have you had people check their messages or text while you were trying to speak to them?
  • Have you been interrupted?
  • Has anyone fidgeted, checked his watch or rolled his eyes at you?
  • Have you had someone fail to make eye contact, look at her device or change the subject when you were speaking?

Now take an inventory: Have you done this to other people? If so, you'll benefit from doing the following exercise to help you become a better listener -- because when you're a better listener, you develop better insights and relationships.

Related: 5 Ways Listening Grows Your Business

For this exercise, you'll need a partner. Tell your partner about something that interests you. Choose a topic that is meaningful, something that you'd really like to share. You might, for example, offer your thoughts on a political issue, ideas for a vacation you're planning or memories from the best concert you ever attended. Your partner's job is to practice bad listening -- to show as many non-affirming listening habits as possible, like fidgeting or interrupting. Your task is to persist in communicating your message. After a minute or so, switch roles. Aim to do a worse job of listening than your partner did.

When this exercise is practiced in a class setting, the results are always fascinating. Tension quickly fills the room, often manifested in near hysterical laughter. Even though everyone knows it's only a game, the stress generated is palpable. The result is that participants become sensitized to the manifestations of bad listening.

This sets the stage for a deeper consideration of listening. Because when you know what it feels like to not be listened to, you're less likely to do it to other people. In this way, we can all become better listeners.

Related Video: Get Out of Your Own Way to Become a Better Listener

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Stop Interrupting and Listen to the Question