We’ve all experienced frustration when speaking with a bad listener. And if you regularly deal with one at work—your boss, colleague, or direct report—well, it can actually get in the way of your productivity. Maybe it’s a missed deadline or unincorporated feedback—whatever it is, you know how crucial good communication skills are.
Knowing that, have you ever stopped to think about your own listening skills? I know I, for one, never realized how often I interrupt with questions and comments until the day one of my bosses told me “Hey, save your questions ’til the end, they’ll probably be answered by then.”
If he hadn’t pointed that out, I would’ve continued blurting out my feedback and annoying the whole team. There I thought I was demonstrating my engagement when in reality, I was actually being kind of rude and maybe just a little impatient.
It’s surprising but true: Most of us are oblivious when it comes to our own bad habits. And since we all know the benefits (in life!) of being a great listener, take note of the following behaviors that indicate you might have a problem.
1. Keeping Your Eyes on the Screen
The situation: You’re waiting on the last piece of input so you can wrap up a project when Linda from accounting walks over to discuss a budget discrepancy. While she talks, you keep one eye on your inbox, nodding to indicate that you’re all ears—even if your line of vision suggests otherwise.
You may think you’re killing it at the multi-tasking game, giving the impression of an attentive audience as you move your head every so often and mumble “mmhm” and “I agree,” but you’re not fooling anyone, certainly not Linda.
Take a breath, and realize that the five minutes or so of speaking to a colleague won’t make you miss a deadline. Turn, face her, and put down your phone. Body language is one of the essentials of active listening.
If you’re really in the zone and can’t spare a few minutes, let your colleague know as soon as he or she approaches. This could be as simple as saying, “I’d love to give you my full attention, but I’m about to hit a deadline. Let’s sync calendars and find a time where we’re both free.”
Easy as that—your co-workers will appreciate your honesty, and you’ll save yourself some brainpower instead of trying to juggle two things at once.
2. Changing Subjects Abruptly
While you may have a perfectly sound reason for why X is related to your conversation with Thom about Y, remember that he’s not a mind reader and isn’t privy to what’s going on in your head. Your jump will have him scratching his head and wondering why it’s so hard for you follow along.
We’re all guilty of this on occasion, but don’t assume that what makes sense in your brain is immediately, abundantly clear to everyone else. It’s better to explain why you’re bringing up a new, if related, subject. You might say, “Oh, when you mentioned X, you sparked a memory about Y, because similar issues came up during the product-testing phase.”
When you draw the connection to why you’re seemingly changing subjects, you don’t alienate your conversation partner with things that seem out of left field—and you don’t give any indication that you’re in your own little world.
3. Interrupting the Speaker (Even for Questions!)
Let’s say you’re having a discussion about an upcoming client proposal with Jackson, when suddenly you remember at your last meeting the client mentioned they love Mexican food. So you interject—“Hey, let’s take the team to Cosme!” While your intentions are great, what you signal to your colleague is a lack of respect (and patience) for what he’s saying.
Maybe you’re just a person whose mind jumps rapidly from idea to idea and you don’t want to forget anything, so you blurt it out—without realizing how it makes you look. Try to place yourself in the other person’s shoes. An occasional interruption like the one above may not be a big deal, but constantly changing the flow of the conversation with your (enthusiastic) interjections is problematic and maybe even kind of rude.
This is something I’m trying to work on myself, and I’ve found that making a serious effort to relax into the flow of the conversation makes me a better listener and often allows me to make a mental note of the thing I’m excited to add until it feels appropriate to jump in. I drive my spouse nuts when I ask tons of questions (in my defense, they’re always relevant!) instead of just waiting for him to finish what he’s saying.
The best way to break this habit is to take some of the oldest advice out there: Count to five in your head. If the question or idea is still there, then find a time to bring it into the conversation naturally, not in a way that makes it seem like you’re only thinking about what you want to say next. Just because something crosses your mind, it doesn’t mean you have to get it out there that second.
When you think about your favorite leaders and friends, I’m sure one of the traits they have in common is that they’re terrific listeners. And who doesn’t want to come across as a respectful, empathetic, and patient person? Start observing how you act—do you recognize yourself in one or all of these common scenarios? Knowing what the problem is, is half the battle.