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6 Bad Listening Habits You Probably Have and How To Crush Them

6 Bad Listening Habits and How To Fix Them

Are bad listening habits unknowingly destroying your conversations? In this article I shine the spotlight on six habits that I frequently observe in myself and others. And I offer ‘listening fixes’ for each, fixes that have dramatically improved my own discussions.

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1. Having an “I’m Right And They’re Wrong” Attitude

It’s very easy to enter a discussion believing that your viewpoint is the right one. And there may be good reason for this belief.

But holding to the stance of ‘being right’ gives no room for your discussion partner to present an alternative view.

It will prevent you from truly listening to them and you’ll find yourself trying to make them listen to you.

Furthermore, this difference of viewpoint can quickly become a disagreement. This is because your stance can be interpreted by your discussion partner as “I’m not interested in your viewpoint and I think that you have nothing meaningful to contribute.”

The 'Bad Listening' Fix

Change your goal from ‘being right’ to ‘finding a solution that will work’.  

Instead of immediately dismissing their viewpoint as wrong, take time to understand why they have arrived at their particular stance.  

Firstly, stay open to exploring their opinions by challenging your own thinking.  Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Is my position based on the full facts, or would additional information cause me to change my view?

  • Assuming we both have the same information, are there multiple, equally valid, ways of solving or viewing this issue?

Then, ask them Active Listening questions to understand their viewpoint from their perspective.

After hearing them out you may:

  • still choose to respectfully disagree with the person, which is quite okay.

  • discover that their viewpoint is correct.

  • realise that both viewpoints are valid and that merging them will result in far better perspective than either individual viewpoint.  

  • come to some other form of mutual agreement.

Regardless of the outcome, being willing to temporarily set aside your viewpoint in order to genuinely listen will give you a deeper respect for their stance. And you’ll strengthen the trust and rapport in your relationship rather than divide it.   

And as a kick-start, you’ll get a cheat-sheet of 6 bonus Active Listening questions (plus examples) to boost your conversations even more.

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions
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From time to time I'll launch paid products for subscribers wanting to go further, but will never spam you - I hate it with a passion!

Want Even Better Conversations?

Enter your details to get easy, regular listening tips that actually work, as well as other free training tips and downloads.

From time to time I'll launch paid products for subscribers wanting to go further, but will never spam you - I hate it with a passion!

And as a kick-start, you’ll get a cheat-sheet of 6 bonus Active Listening questions (plus examples) to boost your conversations even more.

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions

2. Conversational Hijacking

Hijacking a discussion is when we respond to the speaker in such a way as to shift the focus of attention away from them and refocus it onto us and our desired topic.

Dr Charles Derber, public sociologist and Professor of Sociology at Boston College was the first to call this behaviour a “shift-response”. [1]

Sometimes the shift is temporary with the focus eventually returning to the previous speaker. This can be appropriate and productive.

Other times the hijacker keeps the discussion permanently focused on themself.

For example:

Sarah: “I cooked a delicious seafood chowder last night.”

Jack: “Sounds good. I had a tasty meal last night too. [Shift-response. Focus has shifted onto Jack]
I cooked a medium-rare Porterhouse steak with a creamy pan-sauce and lightly steamed vegetables on the side. My mother used to cook this meal on special occasions and…” [Jack keeps talking, forcing Sarah to become the Listener]

If you frequently shift the focus, the conversation becomes unbalanced and the previous speaker will become frustrated at having their thoughts devalued. Eventually, they will leave the conversation.

The 'Bad Listening' Fix

Try to use more support-responses, which maintain focus on the current speaker.

For example:

Sarah: “I cooked a delicious seafood chowder last night.”

Jack: “Sounds good. What made it so delicious? [Support-response in the form of an Active Listening question. Focus is kept on Sarah]

Sarah: “The ingredients were the freshest I’ve ever managed to obtain. And…’ [Sarah is able to keep speaking]

Active Listening almost exclusively utilises support-responses, from back-channel signals such as “mhm”, “yes”, “aha”, “uh-huh”, “go on” through to Active Listening questions that clarify and draw out more information. 

As alluded above, the occasional shift-response can be appropriate. They enable us to positively build on the existing topic by carving out a moment of speaking time to offer our opinion on the speaker’s current train of thought. But then, as an active listener, we need to let the conversation revert back to the speaker after having shared our view.  

3. Non-Stop Talking

Have you ever finished a conversation unable to recall anything that your colleague said?

For some people, this is a clue they have talked so much that their discussion partner had no room to actually say anything!

When I’m in ‘conversation’ (or more correctly in a monologue) with people who do this, I usually come away feeling that the speaker had no interest in me at all.

The 'Bad Listening' Fix

Non-stop talking can be reduced by determining to find out the speaker’s perspective instead of being fixated on sharing yours.

A great way to do this is to start your discussions as the Listener rather than as the Speaker.

In social situations use a conversation starter to get them talking and then use support responses to keep them talking.

In business situations resolve to find out your customer’s or colleague’s needs rather than immediately launch into selling them your service, concept, solution or product.

A highly effective strategy that I find helps in both of these kinds of situations is to speak only at natural pauses, and then only to ask Active Listening questions.

If you do have a thought that you’d like to share, share it at those natural pauses. But:

  • only share it if it builds on what they’ve been saying. No hijacking the discussion - shift responses are illegal!

  • keep it short and make sure that you revert to being the Listener and allow them to resume being the Speaker.

4. Interrupting or Talking Over Others

This habit is similar to non-stop talking in that you’re not sharing the airtime with your discussion partner.

With this habit however, instead of not allowing them to say anything, you let them speak, but frequently interrupt them or start talking over the top of them.

This behaviour has three negative outcomes:

  1. You keep cutting off the speaker. So you never get to hear the information that the speaker is trying to share with you. This can have costly or dangerous consequences if the discussion is business- or safety-related.

  2. You frustrate the speaker by your interruptions. Eventually, they’ll give up and the discussion will die. You might feel satisfied with having shared your information. But your partner will leave frustrated that you paid little attention to their message.

  3. You damage your rapport with them. Interrupting and talking-over are signals that you’re uninterested in what they have to say.

The 'Bad Listening' Fix

Fortunately, you don't need to exert lots of will power to curb this habit. Instead, train yourself to look for verbal and non-verbal cues. Then ask Active Listening questions about them.

Doing this will divert your focus away from the compulsion to make yourself heard and onto the other person and what they’re saying. Then as a natural consequence, the interrupting and talking-over will die away.

5. Being Distracted With Self-Talk and/or Planning Your Reply

It’s extremely easy to be distracted from listening effectively by self-talk and by planning our response.

Can you relate to any of these scenarios:

  • In your head, do you argue with yourself or with the other person while they’re talking?

  • Do you entertain negative self-talk (a few deep breaths can help quieten this)?

  • Are you consumed by the need to add your own information to the conversation?

  • Do you become distracted by forming responses or counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking?

The 'Bad Listening' Fix

Regardless of what distracts you from listening attentively, there is an easy way to shift your thoughts from yourself to the other person.  

In formal settings (e.g., business interactions) ask yourself questions such as:

  • What key point is this person trying to make?

  • What are the key takeaways from the speaker’s message?

  • What aspects of their message are of importance/interest to them?

  • What aspects are of importance/interest to you?”

Then ask Active Listening questions to clarify and draw out more detail.

If the conversation is informal (e.g., social gatherings) then simply ask questions about whatever comments or non-verbal cues capture your interest.

6. Biases and Filters - Hearing Only What We Want To Hear

Regardless of how good a listener we are, we all filter the information that people share with us. We filter their words, gestures, tone of voice, etc through our own life experiences, attitudes, core beliefs and worldview. Our brains are wired this way. [2]

Furthermore, flaws occur in the way our brains process information. These are called ‘cognitive biases’.

For example, have you ever had someone outright dismiss or ignore something you were trying to share with them regardless of how valid your views were? This reaction is particularly noticeable when our views are negative, critical, or unpleasant.

This is confirmation bias - only paying attention to perspectives that support our pre-existing views and prejudices, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing others that don’t. [3]

Sometimes this bias is deliberate. But often it’s subconscious and we simply don’t hear those opposing views. Our brain filters them out.

These filters and cognitive biases hinder our ability to accurately understand the speaker’s message. This has given rise to the saying “we only hear what we want to hear.” 

So as listeners, how do we avoid the misunderstandings that arise from these filters and innate biases?

The 'Bad Listening' Fix

Here’s a practical way of limiting the impact of them:

  1. Honestly admit that we all have filters and biases and that they are continuously skewing all the verbal and non-verbal information that we receive.

  2. Decide that you want to minimise their influence.

  3. Use Active Listening questions to clarify what you’ve heard and to draw out more information, even when you think you understand.

  4. Paraphrase to the other person what you think you’ve heard.

  5. Then, immediately ask them whether or not this paraphrase is a fair understanding of what they meant.

  6. If it isn't a fair understanding, go back to Step 3 - Use Active Listening questions.

The focus of good listening is not 'listen to me and my message.' It's 'listen to them and their message.' Andrew Ward

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The Common Factor In All Bad Listening Habits

Years ago I heard of a tourist boat captain who would chat to his passengers over the intercom, telling them all about himself and his family. He would finish his life story with "So... enough about me! What do you think about me?"

This beautifully reflects the common factor in these six different habits. They stem from the same internal attitude that “this conversation is all about me and what I want to say.”

Holding this attitude completely undermines our effectiveness as listeners because the goal of listening is to understand what the speaker is trying to tell us from their perspective (that is, we’re attempting to put ourselves in the speaker’s shoes).

Therefore, one of the most effectual fixes for any bad listening habit (in addition to the specific fixes described above) is actually the fix for Habit #3 ‘Non-Stop Talking’.

Decide to start the majority of your discussions as the Listener rather than as the Speaker. Initially withhold what you want to say and focus firstly on the speaker and understanding their perspective. Then feel free to share your thoughts after you understand them.

By positioning yourself as the Listener, you’ll be more successful at avoiding those habits that hinder your listening.

So what bad listening habits do you wrestle with and how do you overcome them? Tell us in the comments below.


Notes

  1. 1
    Derber, Charles, “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life”, 2nd Ed, Oxford University Press, June 2000.
  2. 2
    Goulston, Mark, “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone”, New York: American Management Association, 2010.
  3. 3
    Heshmat, Shahram, Ph.D., "What Is Confirmation Bias? People are prone to believe what they want to believe.", Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias, 23 Apr 2015.
  4. 4
    Feature image credit: Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay
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About the Author

Hello, I’m Andrew Ward and I’m the Kiwi guy writing most of the stuff on this website. You can read more about my story here.

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