Bernard Ferrari, who has written a lot about listening skills, has identified six “archetypes” of bad listeners. As I read through the descriptions, I realize that I make some of these mistakes all too often. In fact, for one of these — I won’t say which — I thought, “Boy, that sounds exactly like me. Could it be that I’ve been a bad listener for all these years?” I hope you’re a better listener than I am. However, you may spot yourself in some of the following descriptions. If you do, you’ve still got plenty of time to take corrective action.
The Opinionator — may appear to be listening closely but is really just trying to judge whether what you’re saying conforms to his existing opinions. If it does, you’re OK. If not, the Opinionator is ready to squelch your ideas. Not a good person for helping you develop innovative but fragile ideas.
The Grouch — doesn’t like other people’s opinions and doesn’t want to waste her time listening to them. Through body language and via the things she says (and doesn’t say) she’ll let you know that she thinks you’re a fool. A hard person to get through to.
The Preambler — long-winded, prone to giving “stealth speeches” that are disguised as questions or introductions. May use slanted questions (or other rhetorical devices) designed to steer the discussion and get the answer he wants. Interrupting him may be your only defense.
The Perseverator — talks much, says little. What she says doesn’t advance the conversation but it does take time. By filling the time, she leaves you with less time to advance your cause. She may also simply talk past you — not acknowledging or responding to your points.
The Answer Man — always has an answer to everything, even before the question has been fully formed (or agreed to). Providing an answer before the question is asked suggests that he doesn’t really care what you have to say. He’s so eager to impress, that he’ll jump ahead of you. The Opinionator needs to be right; the Answer Man needs to impress.
The Pretender — appear to be engaged and listening actively but, really, they’ve already made their minds up. It’s hard to spot a Pretender during a conversation — they’re good at pretending. It’s only afterwards, when they do the opposite of what you expected (or do nothing at all), that you realize that they were just pretending.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these? If you do, you might try Ferrari’s 80/20 rule — a good listener speaks about 20% of the time and listens about 80% of the time. I find that hard to do; I’m always tempted to jump in with opinions and solutions. But when I do succeed in listening more and speaking less, I make better decisions and fewer mistakes.
This article is adapted from Bernard Ferrari’s, “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2012. Click here for the full article.