What’s your listening sin?

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly
Plutarch (46 AD – 120 AD)

I believe I’m a good listener. Most of us do, don’t we? Effective listening isn’t rocket science and most of us can reel off exactly what we should be doing to show we are listening, but in practice, so much can get in the way can’t it?

When I deliver coaching skills programmes for managers we “confess our listening sins” in a light hearted way and then seriously commit to keeping them front of mind in order to address them.

Here are some of the obstacles to effective listening:

  • Being distracted by something seemingly more exciting going on nearby such as hearing your name mentioned
  • Deciding that you’ve heard this message so many times before
  • Hearing something that clashes with your values, beliefs, or opinions
  • Thinking about something you’d rather be doing or somewhere you’d rather be
  • Preparing your response
  • Telling people what you would do if you were them, or were in their situation even when they haven’t asked you to
  • Finishing off the other person’s sentence for them in your own head or even out loud

In order to develop and maintain effective listening skills we need to constantly check in with ourselves and consciously practice them.

So, it’s time to ‘fess up! What listening sins are you guilty of and what strategies do you use to stay focused on the speaker and what they are saying?

29 Responses to What’s your listening sin?

  • Hi Julie, very useful post!

    I think we are all guilty of one or more of these sins once in a while. For me ‘preparing your response’ is a point where there’s room for improvement. I’ll make it one of my goals for next week to focus even more of my attention on what my conversational partner is saying.

    When it comes to effective listening, I always like to take it a step further to ‘active listening’. This involves making eye contact, nodding, taking notes etc.

    Thanks again for your tips,

  • I am multi tasker by nature, often while listening on conf. calls, I feel bored and start doing my own work, in the process I miss out on some valuable knowledge and often the speaker has to repeat for me if they asked me out. Good post, we all need to learn to cultivate our listening skills.

  • Busted! I confess I’m guilty of giving advice too much and deciding I’ve heard a message many times before. For the former, I am careful about not coming across with “this is what I would do if I were you”. Instead focus more on describing things I’ve done in the past in similar situations, making suggestion prefaced with “Have you thought about…?” and leaving it up to the other person to come up with the solution. Still, I should ask if they want my advice before giving it. Sometimes people just want to be heard. For the latter, I need to focus on what’s different about the message, rather than what’s the same.

  • Great tips Julie. Listening is such a vital skill for leaders and one that is all too frequently overlooked. It’s amazing what we can learn when we close our mouth and listen actively to another person. It also allows us to have deeper conversations and acquire richer information to make better decisions.

  • Sometimes I zone out completely (thinking about work) when others are talking to me. If that person does not snap me out of it,I would’nt even know they were there. I believe I have a problem with leaving work at work rather than a listening problem. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for your comments Bradley. Perhaps staying in the present is the issue and that gets in the way of listening fully. I have worked with people before who, when they are with their families, their mind is on work, and vice versa.

  • Excellent, thank you!

  • I’m quite sure I do all of them! I always thought I was a good listener but truth is if someone is boring to listen to I tune them out.

  • Awesome Post! Guilty of almost all of them! 🙂 That is why I badly need a separate room for my home office especially during client interviews. I easily get distracted and it destroys my momentum! Hope you can share tips on how to overcome this

  • Hi Julie – my perspective on this also to be aware of the cultural preferences the speaker and you both bring to the communication. For example, I’ve spent the past 6 years working in ASIA and learned the hard way to appreciate & validate the need of colleagues to explain the context before getting to the core despite the complete reverse preference I have.

  • Wow!! I am totally guilty!!! I will finish people’s sentences before they do, then they wind up saying what I said. After it happens each time – I wonder if they would have said something else if I kept my dang mouth shut!!!! AND- unfortunately I also tell people what I would do if I were in that situation. Even worse, before they are done I will sometimes say, ‘Do you want my opinion?’. I am working on it!!!! Sadi be quiet and listen!!!

    • Oh Sadi. Your post really made me smile. You know what? I don’t think you should change a thing. You aren’t a great listener but you sound a fun and entertaining friend and I suspect your friends and family value everything else you bring to the conversation.

  • Great post!

    Actually, this is the perfect post for me to read before heading to an interview this afternoon. My friends always tell me that I am a good listener, but my sin is clear. I am guilty of trying to prepare my answers before the question is asked.

    Job interviews are a great example, as interviewees get so caught up in thinking of the “right” answer that they don’t listen to the question. Being a good listener means one thing – listening!

    One of my favourite quotes: “You have two ears and one mouth; listen more than you talk.”

    Thank you for the excellent advice!

  • Hi Julie:

    Great blog…Also, being a coach it has been ingrained in me to listen without distraction. Being human I often find myself being distractd and sometimes missing part of the conversation. When this happens I take a deep breath and focus on listening again. Sometimes I have to ask the person to repeat what they said.

    Have a great day. Helen

  • very-very nice…

  • Great post, Julie. I just wrote about listening, too. So many obstacles get in the way of really listening. I would have to admit that my biggest sin is ‘unsolicited yet well-intentioned advice’ 🙂
    I’m a bit of a nurturer so want to try to find a way to help – but often, people just want to be heard. Whether it’s to vent or just think out loud to sort through a problem – they simply need a good listener. That gold old Golden Rule is helpful … do unto others! I know it can irritate me if I get advice when I just want to share so I’m working hard on listen & understand and if they ask my opinion, only then give it away.
    Thanks for this!

  • Dear Julie,

    Great post. Listening is something we’re not taught to do. Yet, it’s a hugely effective communications tool. We know our brain listens at about 300 words-per-minute but the average person speaks at the rate of 125/wpm. That leaves plenty of time to, as you say, daydream, evaluate, prepare your response, etc. I try to use that time to focus in on the body language and tone to get a truer understanding of the speaker’s message. I also let them finish before I start speaking. As for listening sins, I find that on the phone I may not focus as well. So, I force myself to listen by taking notes. If the speaker is a slow speaker, I actually write down what they say. It really helps when reviewing notes later on too.

  • Thank you for following my Twitter. I am looking forward to reading and learning from your insight. As to listening foibles, people tell me that I might listen too well… There is something in the way I reply that tips the speaker off that I’ve possibly discerned more than they wished to reveal, which can be a tad unnerving. Of late, I find myself either not responding or opting for a surface reply, while keeping my observations to myself. Any thoughts?

    • I think it depends on the context and our role within it. We need to focus on reflecting back what we have heard rather than psychoanalysis. Having said that it may be appropriate and expected for us to share our perceptions, for example when coaching. A couple of suggestions that will avoid unnerving people is to ask them if they would like to hear your thoughts. It’s also a good idea to share inklings like this in a tentative way rather than as fact. For example, “I’m wondering if…..”

      You sound like a supportive friend so it would be a shame to withold your insights.

  • Julie, you’re right, no matter how great we think we are there’s always tons of room for improvement. I’m good at listening but not that good! Because we humans are inherently selfish beings, it takes constant practice. Personally, I need to get better, especially as far as crucial conversations are concerned. It’s easy to get carried away by emotion and we need to, not only listen what other person is saying (content) but learn to also watch for conditions and consider how things are occurring to the other person. When the other person may be saying something unpleasant, that’s when our listening skills are put to the ultimate test.

  • My listening sin is clear – I’m a pretty directive speaker at work and appreciate being spoken to in the same manner; so I totally wonder off when people start talking about rocks when the conversation was to be about a project update. Then of course I get, “So, what do you think?” oops! Caught. Focus takes work, that’s the lesson.

  • Hi,
    I try to, when possible (you don’t need to keep interrupting) , just reiterate what the person is saying
    for example , ah so what you’re saying is “dad de dah de dah” this way it helps you stay focused on what that person is saying and the person also then knows you are listening and taking an interest

    • Thanks for your contribution Tony. Reflecting back what you’ve heard is a great way of staying focused yourself, demonstrating your listening to the other person and helping them develop their thinking and awareness.


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