Active Listening is the Worst!

by Bluewater Advisory

January 26, 2024

When I ask leadership cohorts the two primary types of listening, they almost always jump up with the same response: active listening (and they struggle to find a second type).  And it’s easy to see why.  Active listening is an incredibly common phrase positioned as the “Gold Standard” of listening. Though, in all honesty, it is my least favorite answer of all. When describing active listening, we often hear descriptive phrases such as: showing interest by practicing good eye contact, noticing (and using) non-verbal cues, asking open-ended questions to encourage further discussion, and paraphrasing and reflecting what has been said. You could almost insert the word “pretend’ in front of those descriptors and it wouldn’t change the definition much at all.

We prefer to define the two types of listening: 1) listening to respond and 2) listening to understand. Listening to respond is the one to which we most frequently default.  And it can be useful in some situations: What day was our meeting moved to? Tuesday. How many new customers did we acquire in Q1? 35. These are straightforward questions that need simple responses. Listening to respond can be perfectly acceptable in some situations. However, the problem arises when we use this default when we really need to be listening to understand. Listening to understand requires us to not only pause long enough to hear what the other person is sharing with us, but it also requires us to genuinely consider what the other person is saying. It requires us to stop and wonder if what the other person is saying could be true. It necessitates putting aside our own biases, opinions and most importantly, certainty of our rightness, to truly consider the other person’s perspective.

Think for a moment about the last time you shared a thought or an idea with another person who you were sure already had their mind made up and you knew they weren’t considering your idea at all. Hint: these individuals will often sense that we know they aren’t considering our ideas and will then work to convince us by using phrases such as, “I hear you, I hear you.” or, “I know exactly what you are saying, but…”  Here lies the question: have you ever been convinced they were listening by hearing them telling you that? My guess is no, not ever.  This is because we can sense when someone is genuinely considering what we are sharing versus when their mind is already made up and they are simply letting us speak. At best, listening to respond when we should be listening to understand is a waste of time. We are going through the motions of being quiet (hopefully) long enough for someone to speak but nothing is going to change or be accomplished during that time. And worse, we are eroding trust, missing out on good ideas to solve or prevent problems and in the long run, shutting down lines of communication. Who wants to talk to someone when we know they won’t listen to us?

As Patrick Lencioni shares in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, people don’t have to have their way adopted to buy in, but they do need to feel heard. Whether we like it or not, simply making eye contact and nodding our head when speaking with someone isn’t truly listening. It is only when we can get out of our own head, move past our own perspective, and self-regulate our need to be right, that we can truly hear and consider the ideas of others. And when we can effectively do this, people feel heard, we build trust and more often than not, we come up with better ideas than either of us had on our own.

So, my question to you is, which type of listener are you? And perhaps more importantly, what type of listener do you want to be?

Lindsey Weigle,
Managing Partner