7 Clear Signs You’re a Bad Listener

Updated: Jul. 18, 2018

Are most of your conversations in one ear and out the other? Here's expert advice on how to focus, connect, and improve your listening skills.


You interject with a comment or story immediately

Many of us don’t “listen” at all; we’re just waiting for our turn to talk, says Gerald M. Goodman, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at UCLA and author of The Talk Book: The Intimate Science of Communicating in Close Relationships. “You can improve your attention giving after you become aware of how rushed responses, interruptions, and overtalk contribute to verbal crowding in conversations,” he says. The next time you’re in a conversation, be aware of how soon you feel like you want to share your comment and be honest about whether you’re really listening. Take a breath and consider whether your contribution will really add to the discussion. Positive body language also helps you feel more connected.


You ask, ‘How are you?’ and don’t listen to the answer

How often have you greeted a friend or family member this way, but didn’t actually listen to—or want to get into—how they were doing? “Our interchanges become so ritualized,” says Dr. Goodman.  “We say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ but we really don’t care about the answer. Those kinds of things that creep into conversation can deteriorate the meaning of the connection,” he says. Next time, instead of rushing through a compulsory greeting to get to the “real reason” you’re talking to this person, allow time to hear how they’re really feeling. Do this as a matter of course, and you’ll build more meaningful relationships with friends, colleagues, and even casual acquaintances. Here’s what all good listeners do during conversations.


You don’t allow someone to think out loud

When a coworker knocks on your office door and says they want to run something by you, if you interject with advice before hearing them out, you may interfere with letting them work the problem out themselves. “When someone is trying to come to an insight, they’re semi-talking to themselves,” says Dr. Goodman. “It’s best to let the person talk like this for a while, as long as you see them moving forward.” This kind of situation—when someone is talking mostly to themselves out loud as part of problem solving—is different than when they’re just talking to hear themselves talk. Read on for how to deal with that type of talker.

iStock/Samo Trebizan

You get bored with long-winded storytellers

We’ve all been stuck in the company of someone droning on and on and wondering how we can get out of this conversation. You can still be a good listener and help move the situation along, suggests Dr. Goodman. Ask yourself, “What is the heart of what he or she is trying to say to me?” Figure out the essential message and see if you can summarize the whole thing in one sentence. You could say, “It seems like what you’re really saying is…” The speaker won’t need to go on with what they’re saying because they’ll feel understood. Check out these tips for making small talk naturally.

iStock/Paolo Cipriani

You find yourself mentally drifting whenever you’re on the phone

When your friend is sharing an important story and you realize your mind has wandered off, be candid about it, suggests Dr. Goodman.  Interrupt with something like, “I’m sorry but my mind slipped and I lost the last minute of what you said, can you please repeat that?” It’ll make the storyteller feel like you’re being honest and are still interested in hearing them speak. “It often creates a touch more trust between the conversationalists,” says Dr. Goodman. Try these other magic phrases that save awkward conversations.

iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Your work conference calls are so boring that you can’t focus

If you’re often subjected to long, monotonous conference calls where you don’t have to participate and you’re tempted to write your grocery list rather than pay attention, you might better retain information if you doodle on a notepad while listening. Researchers found that study participants who listened to a monotonous telephone message recalled 29 percent more information during a pop quiz later if they were doodling during the call, according to a study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. This 2009 study suggested that drawing while listening may help people stay focused and retain information. (You’re probably better off trying this in the privacy of an office—not sitting next to your boss in a meeting room.)


You’re a chronic multitasker

If you’re guilty of being on your computer, scrolling through Instagram, or doing chores around the house while gabbing on the phone, you may struggle to focus on what your friend is saying. But your level of focus could depend on the seriousness of the topic. If the other party views the discussion as serious or personal, devote more focus to it, says Dr. Goodman. If you don’t learn how to make someone feel really understood, you might find that you struggle to have close relationships. Improving these communication skills can strengthen bonds with coworkers, friends, and family members. Here’s what happily married couples do to communicate well.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest