Skip to content

You Might Have Poor Listening Skills If... (Plus How To Improve)


You've been there before. You're listening to an employee, a colleague, or a loved one talk about the latest challenge in business or with family. You're doing your best to follow, but five minutes into the conversation, all you can hear in your head is:

  • "I know how to fix this. I know exactly what I'll say. Just let me talk now."
  • Or "This wouldn't have happened if you listened to my advice. You never listen to me."
  • Or even worse... "I wonder what we'll eat for dinner tonight."

Amidst that little voice shouting inside your head, you come to the unpleasant realization... my listening skills are bad. You intended to pay attention, but you haven't heard anything they've said, and now you're in an uncomfortable position. Do you ask them to repeat the last five minutes and admit that you weren't paying attention, or do you just pretend that you're hanging on to every word and hope that what they say next clears up your confusion? Add on to that all the guilt you feel surrounding your lack of attention and... oh no. They're still talking.

Poor Listening Habits Are a Barrier to Interpersonal Communication

As a leader, your job is to not just hear but understand what the individuals in your life are telling you. At work, it's a risk for them to approach you with challenges or suggestions. When you don't listen to what they have to say, you're endangering not only your relationship but their future performance. When you don't listen, people stop coming to talk to you. They may either shut down entirely or go elsewhere with their complaints... like their coworkers. This breeds dissent among the team and can create a negative environment. Employees may feel unappreciated and unimportant. When you don't listen, brilliant ideas that could have a positive effect on your company, are lost.

When you improve your skills, you'll relate better to those around you. You'll gain (and keep) the respect of your team, and you'll open yourself and your company up to exciting opportunities. Learning to be a better listener will improve every aspect of your life and not just in the workplace.

What Are the Main Causes of Poor Listening?

In order to improve your listening skills, it's important to identify the cause. There are several factors that could be at play:

Lack of training

Listening is one of those activities that we just take for granted. While you've been listening your entire life, you've likely never been educated in how to listen well. Communication training makes a powerful impact on listening skills for leaders.

Bad habits

If you grew up in a household filled with poor listening habits, you'll likely be suffering from the same issues. If your family thought nothing of talking over one another or ignoring people when they spoke, the behavior will be ingrained in you. The same thing goes for physical habits like fidgeting with your hands or physically standing up and walking away mid-conversation.

Poor vocabulary or a language barrier

Maybe English isn't your native language, or you're just listening to someone using technical jargon and larger words than you're used to. Either way, it's difficult to focus and follow along when you don't understand what's being said. Instead of paying attention to understand the gist, you're hung up defining a word in your head.

Lack of interest

Not everything is interesting to everyone. If you don't care about the conversation at hand, chances are you'll drift elsewhere. This may also happen when you don't care for the person speaking.

Characteristics of a Poor Listener: You Might Have Poor Listening Skills If…

Are you still wondering if you're a poor listener? There are some common characteristics of people with poor listening skills. See if any of these sound familiar:

  • You're glancing up at the speaker, but you're still focused on the task at hand.
  • You're waiting impatiently to tell your own story which will shift the focus to you. Meanwhile, all you can think about is what you have to say.
  • You're only listening to their words and not paying attention to non-verbal cues. (Which are equally, if not more, important).
  • You interrupt or interject your thoughts while the other person is still speaking.
  • You close your mind to other possibilities because you don't agree with them or because you've "heard it all before."
  • You listen to the first sentence and then tune out the speaker to plan your "defense."

What Are the Five Poor Listening Styles?

Not all bad listening occurs in the same manner. There are five different styles to be aware of:

  1. Spacing Out: Are they even talking? Your thoughts are elsewhere. From the pile of paperwork on your desk to your kid's soccer practice, your brain is anywhere but here.
  2. Pretending: You're not listening, but you nod in affirmation and say "yes" and "oh" and "sounds great" so they think you're paying attention.
  3. Selective Listening: The entire conversation doesn't interest you so you only listen to the "important" parts. Why bother yourself with all that other stuff?
  4. Word Listening: They're saying one thing, but their body language and intonation suggest something entirely different. You miss out on the subtext because you're focused solely on the words.
  5. Self-Centered Listening: You see everything from your point of view and are unable to shift your focus to understand where they are coming from.

How to Develop Good Listening Skills

Now that you've identified the "bad" listening habits, here are some steps you can take to improve them:

  1. Orient your body towards the speaker and make eye contact. Be focused and interested but not hyper-vigilant (i.e. It's okay to blink)
  2. Be open-minded and willing to hear other opinions... even when you don't like or agree with what's being said.
  3. Hear the words and create pictures in your mind. This allows you to absorb and store the information more easily.
  4. Pay attention to their body language (posture, eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression) and take this into account as you hear their words.
  5. When they pause, ask any questions you have to clarify what they're saying and better understand them.
  6. Wait until they are finished speaking to interject.
  7. If you are unclear on anything they said, repeat back what you heard and confirm their intent.

Whether your poor listening skills are due to a lack of understanding, interest, or being raised in a family with communication challenges, investing some time in learning the right way will improve your relationships in and out of work. You'll be perceived as more caring, understanding, and appreciative of those around you, and it isn’t just a perception! Your newfound skills may even rub off on others and make communication in your business and your family more pleasant and productive.

New call-to-action