To improve your listening skills, you must learn what’s keeping you from seeking and hearing the information you need. Below are descriptions of six of the more common archetypes of bad listeners. Anyone individual can demonstrate these archetypes at different times and under different circumstances. I admit that I’ve demonstrated all six, sometimes on the same day.
During your business conversations this week, see if you recognize any of these kinds of bad listeners—or recognize them in yourself—and track the results. If you can use the descriptions below to set up some alarm bells for your own off-putting behavior, you’ve taken the first step in curing what ails you.
The Opinionator listens to others primarily to determine whether or not their ideas conform to what he or she already believes to be true. Opinionators may appear to be listening closely, but they aren’t listening with an open mind and instead often use their silences as opportunities to “reload.” While Opinionators may have good intentions, the effect of this listening style is to make conversation partners uncomfortable or even to intimidate them. Opinionators routinely squelch their colleagues’ ideas.
Grouches are poor listeners who are blocked by a feeling of certainty that your idea is wrong. One typical grouch, a top executive I worked with at an industrial company, made no secret of his contempt for other people’s ideas. He approached conversations as a necessary evil and sent the implicit message: “You’re full of it. You’re a fool. Why did you think I’d be interested in this?” Through perseverance, people could get through to him in conversations, painful though that was. However, many of his colleagues simply didn’t have the energy to break down his barriers every time they needed to express an idea to him.
The Preambler’s windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches, often intended to box conversation partners into a corner. Preamblers use questioning to steer the discussion, send warnings, or generate a desired answer. I remember a meeting with one Preambler, the chairman and CEO of a medical complex, who (by my watch) spent 15 minutes posing slanted questions and making rhetorical assertions that all supported a recommendation he wanted to make to his board. Such behavior epitomizes one-way communication.
Perseverators talk a lot without saying anything. If you pay close attention to one of these poor listeners, you’ll find that their comments and questions don’t advance the conversation. As often as not, Perseverators are editing on the fly and fine-tuning their thoughts through reiteration. Perseverators use the thoughts of their conversation partners to support their own prejudices, biases, or ideas. When talking to one, you may feel that the two of you are having completely different conversations.
The Answer Man
Everyone wants to solve problems, but Answer Man spouts solutions before there is even a consensus about the challenge—a clear signal that input from conversation partners isn’t needed. Answer Man may appear at first to be an Opinionator. But the latter is motivated by strong feelings of being right, while the former is desperately eager to please and impress. You know you are speaking to Answer Man if your conversation partner can’t stop providing solutions and has ready answers for any flaws you point out, as well as quick rejoinders to all the points you raise.
Pretenders feign engagement and even agreement but either aren’t interested in what you’re saying or have already made up their minds. The worst Pretender I ever met was the CEO of a health care company who had all the right moves: he seemed to hang on every word uttered, for example, and frequently won people over with a knowing, empathetic smile. That gave his conversation partners every indication that he was processing their words and agreeing with them. Yet eventually, his colleagues would realize that he had not acted on anything they’d said or, worse, didn’t have access to that information when it came time to make decisions or take action.
Am I imagining that this is a growing problem, or have I just been picking up the wrong books lately? Has it always been like this? Are we forgetting how to listen? If so, what are the reasons? What do you think?
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