5 Signs You’re Not Listening

5 Signs You're Not Listening

It was Sunday morning and I was enjoying a radio interview – a seasoned political journalist speaking with a high-profile guest. The topic interested me; I wanted to understand the guest’s thoughts and opinions. Unfortunately, the journalist stopped listening, and the conversation tumbled along without energy or the initial promise of insight. This happens to all of us, in conversations with family, friends … and clients. Knowing when we’ve stopped listening provides us with the opportunity to make a quick recovery.

How can we identify when we’ve stopped listening? And how can we recover quickly?

  1. When you watch your phone or computer screen for notices of new email, texts or social media posts. While this may seem obvious, we all allow this to happen, whether sitting at a desktop computer or with our phone beside us in a meeting. Each time you look at these notices and acknowledge them, you have stopped hearing the person who is speaking to you. Solution: Turn off your screens when in conversation, or at least look away from them and focus your attention on the person speaking.
  2. When you search for something on your computer, your desk or in your briefcase. This happens to all of us – we start a conversation and then realize there’s something we need, something not right in front of us, and we have to start searching. While you are looking for it, you will not be able to also listen. Solution: Say something like “I really do want to find this before we continue our discussion. Give me a moment as I’m confident I can find it quickly.”
  3. When you read detailed notes or messages. This happens in meetings where some people are reading a report or minutes, while others start or continue a discussion. Or in a phone conversation where one person begins reading through past emails or memos. If you are reading, you cannot fully listen. Solution: Try saying “Let me take a moment to quickly read through this email and then we can continue our conversation.”
  4. When you start saying “Yes, but …” This was the statement the journalist used that clearly told me he was no longer listening to his guest. The ” Yes, but … ” statement completely dismisses what the other person has said and we normally say this because we weren’t really listening. We have a preferred answer in mind and, rather than listen to the answer we are receiving, we brush it aside to push for the answer we want. Solution: Be fully present and open to possibility. Acknowledge and work with the answer you receive to create a discussion. For example, “I didn’t think of that. And what is your reaction to … .”
  5. When you find yourself using one-word answers. We’ve all been here, too, responding “uh huh” or “yes” over and over again while someone is talking to us. Chances are, we haven’t been listening at all. When we are fully listening to someone, there is a natural tendency to contribute, to ask a question or share a comment or experience. Solution: It may be that the timing of the conversation isn’t working for you and it should be postponed. For example, “I’ve had a nutty day today. Could we have this conversation in the morning?” Or you can simply give your head a shake and admit you tuned out, such as “Sorry, but I stopped listening for a few moments. Can you repeat what you just said?”

What signs tell you that someone has stopped listening? Share them in the comment section below.


2 thoughts on “5 Signs You’re Not Listening”

  1. I agree with the first 4 points, but I am uncomfortable with the last one. When I am encouraging people to listen to understand the other person’s point of view, it is important for the listener to really focus on what the speaker is saying. Listeners need to quiet their own urge to rehearse what they want to say or to ask a question too soon – both problems which will take their focus away from really listening to what the other person is saying and thinking about that person’s point of view as it unfolds.

    I encourage listeners to say uhuh, mmm, really, etc. (I call it nod and grunt) until they are able to paraphrase what they think the person means and that they try to paraphrase at least twice before they ask a question. The paraphrasing reassures the speaker that the listener is really listening and they relax and start to think more deeply about what they are saying. In order to paraphrase, the listener really needs to concentrate on understanding what is being said. So in my book, Uhuh, hmm, really are fine so long as they lead to a paraphrase, followed by a few more minutes of nodding and grunting, followed by another paraphrase, followed by a question, answer, question, paraphrase, question etc. until the listener summarizes what he or she understands the speaker to have said and the speaker agrees that he/she has “got it.”

    • Thanks Eileen and I can “hear” what you are saying. My “uh huh” is vastly different from the one you recommend. It is a distracted “yup” that we all use when someone is talking to us but we are thinking about or doing something else. A good example would be when someone insists on talking to you while you are watching a favorite television show or listening to something on the radio that has really grabbed your attention. I’m referring to that “uh huh, uh huh”. Appreciate you sharing your information on how to listen.


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