By Susan de la Vergne
We're Terrible Listeners
— And Here's Why
“I know you’re right. I should actually listen
to other people. I don’t do that very well. I
try. I remind myself, ‘Okay he’s talking, so pay
attention,’ but I can’t keep it up. My mind is
going like crazy all the time, and I’m not
I can’t tell you how many times
I’ve heard that — from coaching clients, people in
my classes, colleagues and friends. Listening is
far and away the most difficult of all forms of
Why is that?
For starters, listening isn’t
usually considered an important job skill, which
is why we’re never rewarded for being good
listeners. You might get a performance review
that mentions your ability as a writer or
speaker, but you’ve probably never had one that
called out your listening skills.
One reason is that listening
rarely shows up as a job requirement. We see
this in job descriptions all the time:
“Excellent verbal and written communication
skills required.” But how many job descriptions
mention good listening skills? I just checked
Monster. Of the thousands of jobs posted in Los
Angeles, only 65 ask for “good listening
skills.” In New York, only 50. In Chicago, 34.
In Honolulu, three.
Here’s another reason we don’t
listen: for as long as we can remember, we’ve
been vying for attention. Whether it was talking
over our siblings to get Mom to hear us, raising
our hand first in class because we knew the
answer, practicing for a job interview to stand
out from the crowd, or creating work products
that get noticed and bring rewards to us
personally — we’re always trying to get
attention. Doing so requires good speaking
ability and sometimes writing. Never listening.
So there’s the problem: we’re
bad at listening because we’ve had almost no
practice at it whatsoever. For decades.
I could dust off some recycled
listening techniques and share them with you
now — like count to seven before you speak, or
wait for the other person to finish before you
start, or ask clarifying questions. But I’m not
going to do that.
Instead, I’m going to give you a
different take on why we don’t listen. It’s
because we think we’re important. We think
we’re more important than our colleagues and
associates. We’re more important than people we
don’t know. We’re more important than our boss,
than the barista who makes our morning latte,
the admin assistant in our department, or the
security guy who roams the parking lot. We’re
I’m not saying we’re egomaniacs
over-impressed with our own worth. I’m talking
about a very normal, everyday way of being in
the world for all of us that practically
guarantees we’re bad listeners.
Here’s what thinking “I’m
important” looks like.
I’m late to an important meeting, it’s terribly
urgent for me. Outta my way! ’Scuse me,
’scuse me. Let me through. I’m in a hurry! When you’re late for an important meeting, I
don’t really care. I may notice you’re pushing
your way along, but the fact that you’re late
isn’t important to me, not nearly as important
as when I’m late.
don’t get that promotion I’ve been hoping for,
I’m disappointed. I may even be seriously
distraught. It’s a crushing blow. But if you
don’t get the promotion you’ve been hoping for,
I don’t care nearly as much — even if you’re my
best friend at work. I’ll offer you a few words
of encouragement, but I’m not particularly
That’s what I mean. We think
we’re important. We’re more important than
Not convinced? Here are another
couple of examples.
always wanted to create and run my own company,
but for one reason or another, I never do it.
Life goes on, decades pass, and still I haven’t
created my own company. I’m hugely disappointed
about that, maybe even depressed, because my
life didn’t turn out as I’d hoped it would. But
if you fail to reach your life goals, I’m far
less concerned. I may not even remember what you
wanted, even though you’ve told me dozens of
times you wanted to, say, teach college. I’m
important. My goals matter. Yours — not so
driving in traffic. I’m impatient. You’re trying
to get out of a driveway and merge into the lane
in front of me, but I cut you off because I just
don’t feel like letting you in. I’m important. You’re not. (Maybe his wife is in the
hospital having a baby. He needs to get there.
That is more important.)
That’s what I mean. We’re
important, and we’ve believed that and operated
that way for as long as we can remember.
Now imagine if we shift that way
of thinking so we instead think others are at
least as important as we are. I realize this is
a big step, given that “I’m important” is
ingrained, but go with me here. Imagine you do
manage to shift your thinking so that you
regularly consider everyone at least as
important as you are. The result? It matters
to you that your best friend at work was passed
over for promotion. You remember the
goals and aspirations of your associate who’s
told you a dozen times he wanted to teach
college undergrads, not test software. You
let the driver merge into the lane ahead of
And what else would come of this
new way of seeing other people? We’d listen
to them. In fact, listening would be easy.
We wouldn’t have to trick ourselves into doing
it or apply the five most popular listening
techniques (when we can remember them). Instead,
we would listen because the person we’d be
listening to matters. They’re important. They’re
just as important as I am.
In his insightful book
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,
Marshall Goldsmith says that one of the habits
that holds us back is that we think we have an
“inalterable essence,” long-standing behaviors
that define who we are. We say about ourselves,
“That’s just the way I am!”
competitive. That’s why I can’t stand to lose.
I’ve always been this way.”
abrupt. I don’t have time for niceties. Never
have, never will. It’s just how I am, like it or
pessimist. Nothing ever works out very well.
I’ve known that forever. It’s how I am.”
But Mr. Goldsmith says these are
needlessly “self-limiting” definitions. We’re
not fixed, inflexible beings. We have the power
to transform in the ways we want to. All of
those characteristics — competition, rudeness,
pessimism — can be changed.
“I’m important” might seem like
one of those “inalterable essences,” an
operating instruction built into our basic
circuitry. If that were the case, we’d be doomed
to think that way for all eternity.
The truth is we’re always
changing, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in
big ones. If it’s important, we can do it — as
long as we release ourselves from the idea that
“I’m just this way and there’s no changing
“I’m important” then becomes
“He’s important, she’s important, just as
important as I am, and I believe it.”
In technology, when we find a
problem with a product, we pursue its root
cause. What’s really making this happen?
Then we fix the root cause. We know we could
just tinker with things so the symptoms stop
appearing, but without getting at what’s really
wrong, it’s only a matter of time before the
problem shows up again.
Same thing applies here. When
we’re trying to listen, we could count to seven
before speaking or remind ourselves not to
interrupt, but those are just symptoms. Becoming
a better listener requires taking a deeper dive
into the problem. We need to get at the root
Why don’t we listen well? The
person we’re listening to isn’t important.
Change that perspective, and you fix the
Susan de la Vergne helps
engineers and technical professionals
communicate. Her new book, Engineers
On Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical
Professionals, is now available from Amazon.
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