Ten Listening Pitfalls

By Andrew Sobel

There’s a story about a woman, in 19th century England, who had dinner with two great prime ministers and political rivals, Gladstone and Disraeli. Gladstone was the more educated and intellectual of the two; Disraeli more street-smart and intuitive. When asked to compare the two, she said: “After my dinner with Mr. Gladstone, I felt he was the cleverest man in all of England. After my dinner with Mr. Disraeli,” she continued, “I felt as though I were the cleverest woman in all of England.”

Listening is probably the most underrated and overrated skill in business. It’s underrated because we don’t always appreciate just how powerful and positive deep, empathetic listening can be in our relationships. It’s overrated in the sense that many of us think we’re good listeners, but we’re not. Let’s look at 10 listening pitfalls—10 common mistakes people make that can have disastrous consequences.

  1. Insincere listening. This is when you pay lip service to the other person’s ideas. You have to be genuinely interested in your client and what he or she is talking about.
  2. Thinking ahead. Our minds often race ahead to the next question or issue while the person we’re with is still talking. The result? We don’t really listen to what they are saying.
  3. Believing you’re the smartest person in the room. We tend to forget that it’s not always about being right or having the perfect idea but rather helping a client make changes that will improve their business.
  4. Being in love with your own ideas. After spending weeks or months analyzing the problem, it’s easy to become enamored with the conclusions you’re trying to present—as opposed to creating a give-and-take with the client as you socialize and test your ideas.
  5. Being overly-focused on your own agenda. It’s about your client’s agenda, not yours. Try going into your next meeting, and instead of saying, “We have three points to cover with you,” ask, “From your perspective, what’s the most valuable way to spend our time this morning? Which of these agenda items are most critical for you?”
  6. Listening without giving back. Good listening is about mutual disclosure, not just sitting there and taking notes. The conversation has to be interspersed with your own thoughts, feelings, ideas, and experiences.
  7. Not affirming. Affirmation is a powerful reinforcement for the person speaking. If you just listen and never say anything, the speaker may feel stranded. Paraphrase and synthesize as you go along. Affirm that you’ve understood your client.
  8. Being distracted or rushed. All of your body language has to reinforce that this is the most important conversation happening in the world today.
  9. Indulging your biases. We all have biases, and even prejudices, which inhibit our ability to listen. Some studies have shown, for example, that doctors give inferior care to certain minority groups. Why? Most likely because their unconscious biases prevent them from taking these patients as seriously as they should. Over the entrance to the ancient Greek temple of Delphi, where the oracle lived, was written, “Know thyself.” Well, to listen well you DO have to have strong self knowledge.
  10. Not allowing silence. Silence gives the client a chance to think and reflect, and it can make you seem thoughtful and considered in your judgments. Don’t rush to fill every second of airtime—embrace the occasional pause or break in the conversation.

So try and avoid these 10 pitfalls. Ask thoughtful questions, and build a reputation as a great listener.


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