6 reasons why you’re a bad listener (and how to change it)

It’s not our natural inclination to fully listen to what others have to say. Here are the things holding you back from really hearing what people are saying.

6 reasons why you’re a bad listener (and how to change it)
[Source illustration: Jackie Niam/iStock]

It may seem counterintuitive, but the way to achieve success is to make the people around you successful, says Fred Halstead, author of Leadership Skills that Inspire Incredible Results. “It’s not particularly intuitive; in our society we believe in ‘me first,'” he says.


To help others succeed you have to become good at listening. Listening is more than simply hearing what someone has to say. You also need to be thinking how you can help the other person achieve the best results by carefully considering their words and asking thoughtful questions, says Halstead.

“If you just hear the words without hearing what the person actually intends to say, you will miss the opportunity to gain the essential clarity and results you seek,” he says.

Being a good listener is especially important for leaders. It establishes your role as effective and empathetic–someone who keeps an open mind and is willing to learn from others, says Halstead.

Unfortunately, listening is hard because there are several inhibitors that are competing for our attention. Here are six reasons why you might not be a good listener:

1. Your natural desire is to talk

Most of us want to create a favorable image, and one way to appear knowledgeable and smart is by sharing what we know. This can stop us from listening to the other person because we’re thinking of what our response will be, says Halstead.


“It might seem impossible to carefully listen and at the same time appear to the other person to be knowledgeable, but doing so makes a conversation just about you,” he says. “When you really listen, however, you are able to form insightful questions that naturally continue the conversation. You don’t have to think in advance about what you’ll say or ask. You’ll feed on what person is saying to bring out their best thinking, and through questions you’ll bring out your own best thinking.”

2. You are judging others

We all judge the actions and words of others, and when someone says something that you think is wrong or misguided, it’s easy to dismiss their input.

“Disagreement with what someone is saying stops listening” says Halstead. “If you’re judging me and think I’m not a smart person, why listen? That can get in the way.”

Instead, thoughtfully assess others’ thoughts and actions. Rather than judging them, hear them out. Maybe you are missing something. Or maybe you can inspire them to grow, says Halstead.

3. You have preconceptions and biases

If you have preconceptions and biases about someone, it can stop you from listening to them. “For example, I may know you to be a person who has no experience in this area, therefore, it’s hard to listen to you because I don’t think you know what you’re talking about,” says Halstead.


Similar to judging others, you have to discard the filters you’ve created, and focus on potential positive outcomes that can only happen when you listen.

4. Your ego gets in the way

Leaders can tend to have more of an ego than their followers, and it can shut down your listening, says Halstead.

“Your ego tells you, ‘I’m really smart. How much do I need to listen to this person?'” he says. “It prevents you from listening to people you think are intellectually or socially inferior.”

Those who are most secure, however, are the ones who have the confidence to listen, respect, and value others, says Halstead.

5. You’re trying to multitask

Our brains are unable to take in multiple sources of information at once, and trying to multitask will shut down your ability to listen.


“It’s easy to do on conference calls or when someone walks into your area distracts you,” says Halstead. “Your brain’s frontal cortex processes what we hear, but it processes serially, not in parallel. When you want to listen to someone you have to drop everything you’re doing and focus.”

6. You shut people off

If we disagree with someone, it’s easy to focus on the disagreement rather than the kernel of truth they may have to share. This can lead to dismissal instead of a conversation. Another time you might shut someone off is if you think you already know what the person is going to say.

“You might think, ‘I’ve heard George before and this is what he always says,'” says Halstead. “Maybe George will say something he hasn’t said before. If you stop listening you won’t hear it.”

Find a motivation for listening

Once you recognize the inhibitors, you can do something about them, says Halstead. “Understand your purpose for listening,” he advises. “For me, one of fundamental reasons that I try hard to be a great listener is that I want to respect everyone, and one of the coolest ways to respect someone is to truly listen.”

Other motivators could be gaining a better appreciation of someone, fueling your curiosity, improving your focus, or building trust.


“Listening is difficult; you’ve got to want to do it,” says Halstead. “The more you practice it the easier it becomes. When you listen to someone, you show respect. People recognize that, and they will most likely reciprocate by listening to you. It’s like laying a foundation for a relationship, even if it’s a short-term relationship.”