Sound Advice: How to Deal with Poor Listeners

Posted By - Geoff Watts


How to deal with poor listeners? I recently wrote an article about The 7 Deadly Types of Poor Listening and How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills and one reader asked me:

That’s all well and good Geoff but I have a colleague/manager who does all of these! How do I deliver feedback to poor listeners like them?

And that’s a great question so this post is aimed at helping you deal with poor listeners.

The Seven Deadly Types of Poor Listening

A quick reminder of the dysfunctional listening behaviours we’re talking about. For more detail on them check out the previous post:

  1. The Kibitzer – they don’t really listen; they just want to offer their solution/advice.
  2. The Narcissist – they turn everything you say back to them.
  3. The Co-Narrator – they finish your sentences (often not how you intended to finish them!)
  4. The Squirrel Spotter – they are easily distracted by other people, their devices, squirrels…
  5. The Stickender – they misinterpret what you are saying often because they aren’t really listening
  6. The Reloader – they are just waiting for a pause in the conversation so they can fill it
  7. The T-Shirter – no matter what you say, they’ve already got the t-shirt (and have always done it better or had it worse)
Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Giving Feedback to Deal with Poor Listeners

It can take courage (one of the five Scrum values) to deal with poor listeners; it’s much easier to let it go but just think of how your conversations and relationship with that person could be so much better and let that motivate you.

When dealing with individuals who exhibit one or more of those dysfunctional listening behaviours above, my first piece of advice is to think of your actions as encouraging improved communication with someone who has positive intent. Try and avoid thinking of ‘teaching them a lesson’ or ‘getting even’.

Even think of this as ‘helping them’ because they are suffering from suboptimal communication and reduced rapport in relationships. They almost certainly *think* they are helping and rarely think they are having the negative effect you are experiencing; that’s certainly not their intention in my experience.

Once you are in that mindset, here’s a set of generic steps to start with when trying to deal with poor listeners:

Pick Your Feedback Target

When giving feedback, almost every model or piece of advice will encourage you to be specific so even if they fit all of the above personas, pick one to begin with. Clearly describe the problematic behaviour and provide a real, recent example to help the person understand its impact.

Stay Calm

Approach the situation with patience and a positive attitude, not a wounded victim at the end of their tether. I know it’s cliché but this isn’t really a problem; rather it’s an opportunity to improve your relationship with someone valuable.

Assume Positive Intent

One of the Scrum values I try hardest to model is “Respect”. I rarely find anyone trying to deliberately sabotage you, the conversation or the organisation. Assuming other people have positive intentions and respecting that they may have other things going on that you are unaware of almost always helps lead to successful outcomes.

Use “I” statements

When discussing the behaviour, frame your concerns with “I” statements to express your feelings. It’s easy to start your sentences with “You” e.g. “You interrupted me” and while this is factually true it can feel accusatory whereas “I didn’t get to finish what I was saying” is equally true and slightly less accusatory.

“You made me feel annoyed” might feel factually true but there is a school of thought that nobody can make you feel anything. How you respond and feel is within your control and is likely driven by your values, needs and mindset more than anything anyone else does.

Offer alternatives

When trying to deal with poor listeners don’t leave them hanging. If there is something specific they could do that would make the communication better between you, suggest it. Ideally with an optional request rather than a demand. For example “Could you help me out by letting me finish my train of thought before sharing your experience?” as opposed to “Stop interrupting me”.

When it comes to delivering feedback on the specific dysfunctional listening behaviours, here are some tips:

The Kibitzer

The positive interpretation here is they really want to help you by sharing their experience or advice. They see you suffering in some way and want to help you avoid that again.

  • Explain that you really value the act of explicitly being heard. Maybe ask “Have I explained myself well there?”
  • Explain that you value their advice but your primary aim here is to get your feelings across and be heard
  • Explain that you would prefer to express your thoughts fully before receiving feedback.

The Narcissist:

The positive interpretation here is that you have connected with a thought or memory of their own so the message resonates with them. Assume that they are processing the information in the only way they know or feel comfortable with by playing it through their own frame of reference.

  • Express positivity that there is a connection between them and what you are saying.
  • Redirect the conversation back to what you are hoping to achieve.
  • Politely express your desire to focus on the issue at hand and invite the listener to share their experiences later.

The Co-Narrator:

The positive interpretation here is that they feel a connection to what you are saying and want to show they understand you. This can also be a response to a feeling of discomfort that you aren’t getting to the point quick enough for their liking.

  • Consider whether you could deliver your message more efficiently, perhaps in shorter sentences.
  • Pause briefly to regain control of the conversation.
  • Communicate that you appreciate their enthusiasm but would like to finish your own thoughts.

The Squirrel Spotter:

The positive interpretation here is that they want to be present but the environment is not conducive to their focus levels and/or they likely have other things going on for them that you are unaware of and that are validly competing for their attention

  • Try a quick “check in” before you get into the real topic. Something as simple as “How are things for you today?” could give you a good insight into where their head is at.
  • Politely ask for their full attention and enquire if there is anything you can do to help them be more present.
  • Suggest moving to a quieter or less distracting environment if needed.

The Stickender:

The positive interpretation here is that they are trying to understand but are so enthusiastic to join in the conversation that they don’t realise they are filtering things through their own lens and they likely miss key nuances as they draw conclusions prematurely.

  • Speak even more slowly to emphasise there is no rush.
  • Try breaking your points down into smaller chunks and check understanding as you go.
  • Clarify your point calmly and patiently.
  • Ask open-ended questions to check their understanding and encourage active listening.

The Reloader:

The positive interpretation here is that they really want to contribute and likely have something very valuable to add to the conversation. The truth is that they will be unable to internalise anything you say while they have something they want to share so urgently no matter how much they want to listen.

  • Let them get their point of view out so they can be more open to hearing you and beware of “reloading yourself” afterwards.
  • Gently remind them to focus on listening by asking for their thoughts on what you’ve said.
  • Encourage active listening by asking for a brief summary of your main points.

The T-Shirter:

The positive interpretation here is that they want to connect through shared experience and potentially make you feel better by realising that things could be worse or there are better times ahead.

  • See their contribution as an attempt to connect, understand you and build rapport, even if clumsily.
  • Acknowledge their experience but redirect the conversation back to the original topic.
  • Appreciate their attempts at empathy through shared experience but explain that hearing someone having done things better or worse dents your confidence and morale.

Remember, when trying to deal with poor listeners, effective communication is a two-way process. By addressing dysfunctional listening behaviours with empathy and patience, you can foster an environment where both parties feel heard and respected.

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

At AMI we cover listening and feedback skills in all our agile trainings for teams and agile product management training. So regardless of whether you want to follow the Scrum Mastery, Product Mastery, Team Mastery, Agile Coach or Agile Leadership Pathways, these are skills we can help you develop as part of your pathway to greatness.

Further Resources:

There are a few great TED talks that could help with these topics:

  1. “5 ways to listen better” by Julian Treasure: In this talk, sound expert Julian Treasure shares insights on the importance of listening and offers five simple exercises to improve your listening skills.
  2. “The power of vulnerability” by Brené Brown: Although not exclusively about listening or feedback, this popular TED talk by researcher Brené Brown touches on empathy, which is a crucial component of effective listening and feedback.
  3. “10 ways to have a better conversation” by Celeste Headlee: Radio host Celeste Headlee shares practical advice on having better conversations, including tips on how to be a better listener.
  4. “The art of giving and receiving advice” by David Garvin: This TEDx talk explores the complexities of giving and receiving advice, which can be applied to providing feedback as well.

If you prefer to read then here are some books you could check out:

  1. “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Stephen Covey, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler – This book teaches techniques to handle difficult conversations effectively, including active listening and giving feedback.
  2. “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone” by Mark Goulston – This book offers practical advice on improving listening skills, breaking through communication barriers, and building better relationships.
  3. “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg – This book introduces the concept of nonviolent communication, focusing on empathy, active listening, and compassionate feedback to improve interpersonal connections.
  4. “More Time to Think: The power of independent thinking” by Nancy Kline – As well as containing advice for how to think better for yourself, it can also help you help others think better.
  5. “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen – This book provides guidance on navigating challenging conversations, including understanding different perspectives, active listening, and giving constructive feedback.
  6. “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss – While focusing more on negotiation, listening and building empathy is covered well.
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