Why Are We So Bad at Listening?


We’re pretty good at pretending to listen.

But, the truth is most of us aren’t very good at actually listening. What we’re often doing instead of listening is thinking about ways to reaffirm our position: nodding along while doing something else, thinking about what brilliant response we’ll have once the other person pauses, or trying to gauge what the other person wants from us and how we can either get it done or get out of getting it done.

Most of us aren’t trying to be rude or disrespectful; we simply don’t have the time and the tools to be good listeners. Even though the modern corporation and modern technology have led to significant productivity increases, today’s workday seems custom-built to challenge our ability to listen. Most of us spend much of our workdays feeling like we don’t have enough time to get everything done. And listening requires both focus and time — and significantly more of both when values or sensitive issues are a part of the conversation.

The problem gets worse when we zoom out to the organizational level. In most organizations mixed messages are being sent from top to bottom and back again about speaking up and getting heard. If our organizations say they want to hear from us and value our input, but then turn a blind eye or do nothing when we speak up, it doesn’t take long for the talking and idea-generating to come to a screeching halt. And, the problem gets worse when we’re talking about things people don’t really want to hear.

It doesn’t matter what our rank, role, or position is: if we — as individuals and organizations — aren’t listening well, there’s a very good chance that people are saying things that we need to hear. They just may not be saying them to us.

How does your organization listen? How well does your organization listen? Does listening always need to result in action? What happens when you fill out the latest survey or share your thoughts at a feedback session? How much of what your teammates and colleagues are sharing gets stuck circling around in some feedback black hole instead of turned into genuine change? Do you have a story to share or a great tip about listening, being heard, and taking action? If so, we’d love to hear it.

Debra Newcomer

SVP Learning Design


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