5 Signs of a Bad Listener
If your conversational partner is showing these behaviours, chances are they’re not paying attention.
Have you ever been talking to someone, and thought that they weren’t paying attention?
It’s easy to tell if somebody is simply not listening to you. But sometimes, people who are bad listeners can appear to be actively involved in the conversation. These interactions often leave you feeling more confused or frustrated than you did before, particularly if you’ve gone to somebody seeking their advice.
As a skill, listening is harder than it seems. Unlike hearing, listening requires active effort, rather than being something that just happens passively. Studies have shown that humans process 2,000 of the 400 billion pieces of information received by the brain every second. That means it takes serious concentration in order to listen — let alone be a good listener.
As a result, bad listeners are surprisingly common. They’re also tricky to spot. Luckily, various studies by psychologists have established a pattern of behaviours to look out for. Whether it’s in yourself or your conversational partner, here’s how bad listening skills can be spotted and consequently avoided.
1. Jumping to conclusions
Being interrupted is a common indicator of a bad listener. But what’s more frustrating, and more subtle, is when people interrupt by jumping to conclusions.
In their book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, Suzann and James Pawelski explain that interrupting doesn’t always come from bad intentions: ‘some of us may have good intentions thinking we know what the other person is about to say and in an effort to bring them to the finish line, we complete the sentence for them.’
However, finishing someone’s sentences can also insinuate a level of premeditation, of having planned out the conversation beforehand. The listener in this scenario is essentially following a script, written by them. As a result, they don’t listen as attentively to what the other person is saying, instead waiting for the opportunity to deliver their next line.
This leaves the speaker feeling misunderstood, ignored, or both. This can be easily avoided by letting someone finish speaking before formulating a response, allowing the conversation to naturally build upon itself.
2. Re-claiming the conversation using shift-responses
In The Pursuit of Attention, sociologist Charles Derber explains the two forms a conversational response can take: support-response, or shift-response.
A support-response keeps the focus on the speaker, expanding upon the topic they’ve brought up. A shift-response shifts the focus of the conversation away from the speaker and back onto the other person. A bad listener is more likely to utilise the shift-response, diverting the attention back to themselves.
For example, if person A is talking about their upcoming trip to Spain, person B might respond by saying “I went to Spain five years ago!”, before continuing to talk about their experience. Person A has been sidelined — despite the fact that they brought up the topic, the conversation is no longer about them.
Many perpetrators of the shift-response don’t even recognise that they do it. It could be an attempt to be relatable, to show that they understand what the other person is saying. But it just comes across as dismissive and self-absorbed. A support-response approach allows for a much more satisfying and supportive conversation.
3. Becoming defensive
It’s natural to become defensive when you feel attacked. In a conversational setting, this could occur if you are being questioned, or your thoughts undermined. Becoming defensive is a natural, protective response.
However, it also prevents the conversation from moving forward. A defensive reaction leaves the other person feeling similarly attacked, and reluctant to share as a result. Both people close off, putting up a barrier.
The truth is, a defensive response from Person A is likely to be less a reflection on what Person B is actually saying, and more how Person A feels in the general situation. This means it’s possible to resolve the conflict by actually listening to what the other person is saying. It’s vital to try to understand where the other person is coming from, before calmly responding.
The result? A mutually beneficial conversation.
4. Avoiding eye contact
This is a much more common sign, which we’ve probably all been guilty of at some point. But something as simple as maintaining eye contact whilst having a conversation can have a huge impact on the standard of communication.
If someone is not looking at the person they’re talking to, they come across as both distracted and disinterested. This leaves the speaker feeling unworthy, as if their thoughts and feelings hold no value, and that the other person couldn’t care less.
It’s widely known that body language plays a huge part in communication. In his book Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian outlines his renowned communication model. According to this, 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language.
Therefore by not looking at our conversational partners, we miss out on a huge proportion of the interaction. Equally, our own body language plays a significant part in how we communicate with others. Maintaining eye contact is a good (and easy) place to start.
5. Offering self-serving advice
Bad listeners can be guilty of not making enough effort to understand the other person’s position. As a result, they end up offering advice that might not necessarily be bad, but that serves themselves more than the person seeking help.
I remember a conversation I had with a family member where I was voicing my concerns regarding a job interview. What I wanted was for them to listen to what I was saying, and try to put themselves in my shoes. Instead they dismissed my feelings, telling me I was wrong for feeling a certain way, and suggested what they would do in my situation.
The family member in this scenario took my situation and applied it to themselves. I didn’t feel that they were listening and trying to understand the way I was feeling and why. They just couldn’t comprehend why someone would feel like I did, because they had never experienced it themselves.
Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg recommends moving away from the phrase ‘mindful listening,’ instead favouring ‘receiving empathically.’ Rather than separating yourself from the conversation, it’s vital to try and understand how the other person feels and why. It’s not enough just to offer recommendations based on how you would personally react — separating yourself from the problem will not help to solve the problem.
Bad listeners are surprisingly common. Most of us will have, at one point or another, displayed some of these traits ourselves. That doesn’t mean that our intentions are bad — we want to be good listeners, but scientifically it’s harder than it seems. Being a good listener requires work — but it’s a skill that can be improved.
These slightly more subtle examples of ineffective listening are easy to spot, and easy to fix. If you catch your eyes wandering, or your mind jumping ahead, consciously bring yourself back to the conversation. If you recognise these behaviours in somebody else, know that it doesn’t always mean they’re not trying.
Ultimately, a good listener makes an effort to actively listen to what somebody is saying, and tries to relate to it. Aim to have a conversation with someone, rather than against them or separately to them. Two minds are better than one.