There are plenty of books and blogs that will tell you how to be a good listener. After all, practicing good, active listening skills is critical for a leader to connect with their team. But after reading the book “The Listening Life” by Adam S. McHugh, I was intrigued by his list on how to be a bad listener. I felt that these resonated with me almost more than the discussion of how to be a good listener. In some cases, it hits close to home. And in other cases, it reminds me of a bad boss from my past.
The author gives twelve examples of bad listeners. This week we’ll look at the first half of his list and learn how to be a bad listener.
The one-up master. My wife an I have a nickname for these types of “listeners”. We call them “Topper”. This is the person who certainly is an active listener. But their reason is that they can’t wait to tell you their story that one-ups yours.
This type of “listener” is basically focused on proving their status. This is a classic sign of a person that has a fixed or limited mindset. Their self-worth is largely dependent upon their ability to prove that they are better than anyone they are with.
Self-diagnosis tip: If you catch yourself on the edge of your seat, and can’t wait to get a chance to tell your story, you may be a “topper”. Be self-aware of the reason you are wanting to share your story. Is it so you can genuinely add advice or perspective? Or is it simply to prove that you have a better story. If it’s the latter, establish the discipline to not step in. When I catch myself wanting to chime in, I take a moment and seriously evaluate whether my story adds value to the conversation. If not, I fight my urge to tell my story.
Another self-diagnosis tip. If no one ever asks you your opinion, then there’s a good chance that you weigh in with your opinion too often.
The Sleight of Hand
The sleight of hand is a cousin to the “topper”. They listen and feign interest until they can switch the topic to their agenda. The difference is that they don’t want to top your story, they want to replace it altogether with a new storyline.
In some cases, the listener may have a legitimate reason. Perhaps they called the meeting and have something important to discuss. Perhaps you have taken the conversation in a direction that is self-serving to you and isn’t of interest to them at all. But let’s just assume that the purpose is self-serving.
Self-diagnosis: Much like the advice for the “topper”, if you catch yourself wanting to interrupt so you can change the topic, then you may be guilty of sleight of hand. My advice is twofold. First, give the other person time to finish their topic. Participate actively, but try to bring the topic to an end politely. Second, if the other person will not stop on their topic, you can politely ask to change the topic. You can say something like this, “I hate to interrupt, but I have a hard stop at the top of the hour, and I really want to talk to you about something important…”. By doing this, you are acknowledging that you are interrupting, but that you are doing it for a specific purpose.
The inspector asks a series of closed-ended questions, attempting to lead you to the information or story they want to hear. This is sometimes a technique used by manipulative sales people. I have also had employees that were trying to get a specific commitment out of me as their boss.
You can hear the attorney now, “Objection, Your Honor, Counselor is leading the witness”. “Objection sustained”.
Self-diagnosis: If you catch yourself disappointed that your questions are not leading a certain direction, then you may be guilty of this.
Another clue is if you feel like you have the answer, but you want the other person to arrive at the same conclusion. Clues that you are doing this include asking leading questions such as “don’t you think”, “why wouldn’t you do x” are just a couple of examples. I have to admit, I am often guilty of this. In fact, I probably fight this one more than any bad listening habits.
Advice for those struggling with this is to work on asking truly open-ended questions and don’t try to lead the witness.
If you are on the receiving end of this type of listener, my suggestion is to not allow them to corner you with a closed-ended question. Adapt the question by saying “if you are asking…”, making it an open-ended question that allows you to explain your position.
This is the person who can re-route your comment into what they want to talk about, no matter how obscure. There is truly a skill to this, almost worthy of a “Whose Line Is It Anyway” sketch.
There was a great example of this in one of my favorite sit-coms, Big Bang Theory. Howard Walotwitz had just returned from his mission as an astronaut to the International Space Station. Back on earth, he managed to change any topic back to the fact that he had been to space. Watch a short segment of it here.
Self-diagnosis: If you always manage to get the topic changed to what you want it to be, then you may be guilty of being a rerouter. Let’s face it. Not every conversation goes the direction we want it to go. I had a prospect once that I could not get on track. Every time I got the topic shifted to business, he managed to get it off to something else. Looking back, perhaps we were both rerouting. He was avoiding talking about business, and that’s the primary thing I wanted to talk about. In the end, we probably had a frustrating conversation of dancing back and forth between topics that the other person did not want to participate in.
Similar to the reroute, in this case, the listener cues in on a single word and dwells on that, even if taken out of context. Like Howard Walowitz, sometimes a person is just waiting to hear the word “space”, so they can take over the conversation. Role-playing it, you say “hey Howard, is their space in your car for me to ride to dinner?”. Howard replies, “there may not be space in my car, but you know who’s been to space…”.
Self-diagnosis: Just like the rerouter, if you are fixated on a word or phrase so you can hijack the conversation, then you are guilty of using the password crutch. Just don’t do it.
So you really want to know how to be a bad listener? This person may be the worst. The projector projects their problems onto others. No matter how obscure, the listener sees the other person in the same situation. As with the previous two, the listener is participating from purely a selfish motive.
The difference with the projector is that they are actually trying to make you feel as bad as they do. They are listening only for the opening to bring their woes to the table so they can share them with you, and make you feel guilty or even a part of their situation. They personify the idea that “misery loves company”.
Self-Diagnosis: This one is probably hard to self-diagnose. A person guilty of this is probably depressed or under intense stress. They are just looking for someone to share their problems. Ironically, this person needs to find someone who is a good listener.
More to come
This is one-half of the list. Next week we’ll examine the other six bad listening styles. Then you can truly know “how to be a bad listener”.
Do you suffer from being a bad listener? Or do you have a bad listener in your office? Give me a shout and we can discuss possible solutions for you and your team.