Here’s How It Hurts You and How to Fix It

We’re taught to read and talk as children, but rarely are we taught how to listen. As a result, almost everyone has bad listening habits—habits that can damage our careers and relationships.

Not being a good listener might mean that you miss out on potentially valuable information…that you fail to develop a truly deep understanding of your friends and acquaintances…or that you simply annoy the heck out of conversation partners.

Most people don’t think that they’re bad listeners—but they are. Are you? The first and most important step in overcoming bad listening habits is to become more aware of them.

Here’s a look at nine common bad listening habits, plus strategies for becoming a great listener…

Problem: Distraction

Many bad listening habits involve a lack of focus on what’s being said…

Bad habit: Jumping to conclusions. The speaker still is providing information, but your mind has raced ahead to where you think he/she is headed. Unfortunately, you sometimes jump to the wrong conclusions…and even when you jump to the correct ones, jumping ahead still means that you miss key details.

Example: Your boss tells you that your presentations are weak. As you’re being told of the specific weak areas, your mind immediately jumps to the conclusion that you’re losing your job. As a result, you don’t hear how you could make your presentations ­stronger.

Bad habit: Ducking potentially dull topics. The first words out of a speaker’s mouth (or the topic printed on an agenda) hint that a talk will be dry or even pointless, so you mentally check out. But even if the speaker or the topic is indeed less than thrilling, there still might be an important detail or two provided. In fact, if everyone else present tunes out this dull talk, you might be able to pick up something that no one else knows by listening closely, providing you with a strategic advantage.

Example: The speaker at a conference titles his talk “Achieving Quality” and starts by spouting jargon. Eventually he gets to specific strategies and case histories that are truly useful—but only for those few in the audience who are still paying attention.

Bad habit: Closed-mindedness. The speaker utters a word or phrase that tends to be spoken by people with whom you disagree. For some, that phrase might be “global warming”…for others, “gun rights.” You immediately think, Here we go again, and tune him out.

Bad habit: Letting offensive or emotional content distract. Someone says something that you consider insulting. You become so upset that you hear little else during the minutes that follow.

Example: Someone refers to you as a “senior”—even though you’re only 60 years old.

What to do: Use the Purpose/­Detail/Action (PDA) strategy to overcome distraction-related bad listening habits. When you notice your mind drifting, assign yourself the following three tasks to regain focus.

First, try to determine the speaker’s purpose—what is he trying to tell you? Listeners’ minds tend to drift when speakers are not skilled at conveying their purpose. Setting your mind to work ferreting out this purpose can turn listening to a poor speaker into a mental challenge that locks in your attention.

Once you have a sense of the speaker’s purpose, seek out detail. Is this speaker providing factual evidence that proves his point to your satisfaction or just unfounded opinions? If you do not hear evidence, politely ask the speaker to provide it.

Finally, consider what action the speaker wants you to take—it’s OK to ask if this isn’t clear. Do you think this action is appropriate? And if not, what action, if any, do you believe would be more appropriate?

Problem: Inward Focus

Sometimes the problem isn’t just that we aren’t paying enough attention to the speaker—it’s that we’re paying too much attention to ourselves…

Bad habit: Planning what you are going to say while someone else is still speaking. It might seem prudent to plan out your words before you speak during a conversation—but if you start planning your words while someone else is still talking, you will miss much of what he is saying.

What’s more, your ­response might not be as appropriate as you imagine if you have missed key nuances of the conversation.

Bad habit: Ascribing your thoughts to other people. A speaker says something that is related to something you already know or believe. Rather than hear his actual words, you hear a confirmation of your existing thoughts.

Example: A friend recommends the Sherlock Holmes TV show on PBS. You already enjoy the Sherlock Holmes TV show that runs on CBS, so you say you already watch it…and fail to realize there is a second show based on the same fictional detective that you might enjoy as well.

What to do: To avoid focusing on yourself, make a conscious effort to keep conversations focused on the other person. This might feel unnatural at first—most people steer conversations toward themselves and what’s in it for them without even realizing that they are doing so. We tell our family what happened during our day…we tell our colleagues our opinions about a project. But we will learn much more—and people will enjoy interacting with us much more—if we do exactly the opposite.

Example: You ask a friend what he is planning to do this weekend, and he says that he is going camping with his family. Before you were trying to become a better listener, you would have responded by supplying your weekend plans, shifting the conversation from him to you.

Instead, ask follow-up questions about his camping trip—where he will camp…how often he camps…or for his recommendations about camping equipment. This transforms the conversation from soon-forgotten small talk into a relationship-building, ­informative exchange.

Problem: Perfunctory Listening

Sometimes we truly do listen—we just don’t listen deeply enough, in the right way or with sufficient compassion and patience…

Bad habit: Ignoring body language and/or tone of voice. The words that are spoken to you might not be the entire message. They might not even be the most important part of the message.

Example: You ask a friend how she’s been, and she says, “Fine.” You miss the slight tremor in her voice that suggests that everything is not really fine.

Bad habit: Making false inferences. Sometimes there is more than one ­possible interpretation of what has been said. Unfortunately, many people never bother to question whether their initial interpretation is correct.

Example: A jogger, stooped over and short of breath, asks a passerby if he has a watch. The passerby tells him the time. The jogger actually wanted to use the watch to check his heart rate because he feared that it had become dangerously rapid.

Bad habit: Rushing speakers. When someone says something that you think you already know, you hurry them along with “yes, yes, yes…” or “I get it, I get it…” You think this is saving everyone time, but mainly it just annoys people, and you may prevent the speaker from giving important details.

What to do: To prevent perfunctory listening, when the words that someone is speaking fail to hold your complete attention, consider it a perfect opportunity to practice listening between the lines. Study the speaker’s tone of voice, posture and expression to try to glean an overall sense of what this person is thinking and feeling. Most people are surprised to discover how quickly their ability to identify nonverbal messages improves. And even if you are not especially skilled at this, making the effort will help you pay closer attention.

One useful listen-between-the-lines strategy is to try to determine whether a speaker truly believes what he is saying. Monitor the number of “ums” and “uhs” and the overall smoothness of speech. People tend to stammer and insert “um” and “uh” at greater than their usual rate when they are lying, uncertain or indecisive. This is a great way for bosses to check whether their employees truly believe their upbeat reports…or whether they are just afraid to be the bearers of bad news.

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