How to Deal With a Poor Listener

Your Strategy Will Change Depending On Your Relationship With Them.

By Steve Schumacher

First, let me say that in my decades of training, coaching and consulting I have rarely come up across people who are truly good, active listeners. When I say active listeners I mean people that seek to understand what you are saying, ask good questions, show true empathy, work to clarify, summarize what you have said and show they really care about what you have to say. These people are a rare commodity, indeed. I have no doubt that you can think of one, maybe two, people that you have met with those abilities. 

There are a number of reasons why most of us struggle with good listening skills. We want people to hear us, it is hard to be patient when someone is talking, we are in a hurry and listening takes time, learning to listen is tough, etc. Most of us try to hear what others say to us, but that is oftentimes where it ends – hearing, not listening.

As an adult, you have the choice of completely ignoring people who are not good listeners. Of course, that is not a reasonable approach in most cases. If you meet a complete stranger on an airplane who just wants to hear themselves talk, you will probably not have to deal with them ever again, so it is fine to ignore them. On the other hand, there are probably situations when you not only will not ignore a bad listener, you will want to help them become better.

Your boss is a bad listener. This is really a tough one. When your boss simply talks and talks and does not listen to your ideas, concerns, preferences, etc. it can be very disconcerting. You feel boxed into a corner. The fact that your boss does your performance review and decides on your raises and bonuses makes you hesitate in being honest. 

Your first choice is to decide if being straight with the boss is worth the risk. If it is not, just live with it and try not to complain to others. If you feel like you have to say something, look for an opportunity when the boss seems to be receptive to feedback about their listening skills. Perhaps in your performance review, use the opportunity to ask for higher level two-way discussions with your boss. Think about putting your ideas and thoughts in writing and set a time to discuss them. 

Maybe suggest a communications skills workshop or online programs for your whole department to participate in. The bottom line is, when dealing with a poor listener who is your boss, tread lightly.

Your coworker is a poor listener. A peer who struggles with listening may feel like you are the only one they can talk to who listens to what they have to say. One of the downsides of being a good listener is that you attract people who need to be listened to. 

People who are going through tough times need someone who will listen. When it becomes a steady diet of one-way communication, you must act. Try not to be like other people who write it off as just how they are and then talk behind their back. Do the right thing by getting them alone in a place where you can discuss freely. Be straight but gentle by telling them when they do not listen, what happens to you, and a suggestion for them to improve. Be prepared for them to be taken aback by your direct feedback. Ask how you can help them make improvements in the future.

Your employee is a poor listener. Many managers wait until the annual performance review to give any kind of negative feedback to their employees. With an issue like poor listening, it takes more than an annual face-to-face to get an employee to change behavior. 

When you first notice the situation, assess the impact of the behavior on you, coworkers, customers, and other people. Meet with the employee, be very specific about the poor listening behavior, the impact of the behavior, and your suggestions on how it can be made better. You can offer them seminars, webinars, workshops, books, etc. but it is your personal coaching that will make the difference. Put a plan together where the two of you can role-play situations together where good listening skills are imperative. 

When you notice a difference, even the slightest, a pat on the back is in order. As a leader, you have a great influence over your employees and their behavior. Solid coaching is the best tool.

Most of us struggle with being good listeners. In the work environment, poor listening can affect productivity, teamwork and morale. There are some things you can do but do not expect miracles overnight.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at [email protected]

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