Do you think you are a good listener?

A former executive colleague was stunned when she received feedback on a 360 assessment that most people surveyed didn’t think she was.

“How is this possible?” she lamented, taking the feedback as hard as if she had been slammed under a bus.

“I am a “expletive word” good listener,” she emoted.  “I am just very fast-paced and multi-task when I am listening!  I listen very intently to what people tell me and I am insulted and hurt by these comments…”

Others were not surprised at the feedback she received.  As a matter of fact, many of her direct reports and peers were relieved that she had participated in the 360- feedback assessment.   They had chronically felt that they were not being heard, and frequently complained to one another about their individual experiences.  I too, was not at all surprised by the barrage of comments pointing to an overall feeling by others of being dismissed.

So what was it in her behavior that was creating this impression of poor listening?  Her intention was clearly different than the impact her behavior was actually having.

Here are three things I observed in her approach and communication that impeded her listening:

1.  Most of her interactions with others were in transmit mode vs. inquiry mode

Helen was very smart and had great instincts.  These qualities had gotten her promoted quickly and had resulted in more and more leadership responsibility over the years.   When interacting with someone, she quickly sized up the person and situation in her head, mentally made a judgment, and moved to solving the problem and to immediate action.  These mental habits resulted in her operating in “transmit” mode—basically telling the other person her opinion on the subject and what needed to be done.

What was missing was genuine inquiry—asking questions and seeking to first understand the other person’s perspective without jumping to conclusions, judgments, or preconceived notions based on past experience.  This tendency to pre-judge and solve perceived problems and transmit her opinions and solutions rather than inquire and care about what others had to say was the root cause of others not feeling “heard” by her.

2.  She didn’t pay attention to context or the “why”

Helen moved so quickly and was so personal-achievement/”I can save the day” oriented that she frequently neglected to find out the “why”.    Why were things being done the way they were?  Why did someone think something different?  Why was a certain approach taken in the past?  Why were certain decisions made?  None of these questions interested her and she dismissed others or cut them off when they tried to explain them to her.  She was more interested in acting on her judgment and what she had done successfully in the past than hearing from others about the context.

3.  She multi-tasked when talking to others

As others talked, Helen was known to look at her blackberry, shuffle papers, pick lint off of her pants, and rifle through her handbag.  She would nod occasionally and mutter “yea” or “uh-huh” every so often, but her attention was divided as the person talked.  Even though she would insist she was listening and interacted verbally without missing a beat, her physical demeanor and body messaging left others feeling unheard.


So what about you?

Do you unintentionally do things that make people feel as if they are not being heard?

Do you communicate more in transmit mode than in inquiry mode?

Do you ask others their why and try to understand context or jump to judgment?

Are you genuinely interested in other perspectives or are you just looking for reinforcement for your own?

Do you give your full attention to the person in front of you and make them feel valuable and important, or are all the things you need to do and get done more important?


Want to be a better listener?  What would happen if you slowed down, paid attention, suspended judgment, and really sought to understand the perspectives of others this week?