In a recent “Listening Masterclass” with senior leaders, we asked: “What are the benefits of poor listening?”

You may be thinking “What? There are no benefits, are there?” Perhaps the leaders thought the same.

The logic driving this question is that most people agree that we experience poor listening in the workplace often. If there were no benefits to poor listening, this wouldn’t be the case and we wouldn’t do it, would we? So there must be some perceived benefits.

As the group explored this question, a number of different answers came up.

Take a look at these benefits and see if there are reasons why you might not listen as well as you could.

Saving time: The biggest reason is that we don’t have time to listen properly. We are going from meeting to meeting, task to task and it feels as if we will lose or waste time by listening. So poor listening has the perceived benefit of saving time. We also believe we can multitask while listening, again to feel like we are being efficient and making good use of time.

Saving energy: Being 100% present takes mental and emotional energy and is required for high-quality listening. Poor listening also keeps us at a distance and stops us from getting absorbed in the issues or emotions of another. We avoid getting pulled into what we may see as negativity or complaining. It saves energy.

We don’t need to think: Real listening involves being open to influence by what you hear. Whether you agree with what is said or not, it takes effort to consider what is being said and to think through how it relates to our own ideas, knowledge and beliefs. When we disagree, it takes mental effort and skill to disagree well. Poor listening saves our mental capacity.

We don’t need to change or take action: People feel truly listened to when something happens as a result of the conversation. This may be behavioural or policy changes in response to feedback or a follow-up discussion about issues raised. It could also be a discussion about why a decision has been made not to make a change after we considered what was raised. Either way, it requires further action. Poor listening lets us off the hook from having to change or do something different.

Distancing: When others learn that we don’t listen well or make much space to do so – especially if we hold a leadership position – they stop “bothering” us. The longer this continues, the greater distance we create. Ongoing poor listening may have the result that we gain more space and time to ‘get work done’.

We consciously or unconsciously justify our poor listening with these reasons, given our busy, high-pressure lives. High-quality listening feels like a lot of effort and investment.

In our discussion, however, we acknowledged that these are short-term benefits with longer-term costs. We may save time and energy in that moment when someone wants to be listened to but it damages trust in the relationship and we miss critical information. Sometimes the cost is small, other times it is catastrophic.

Over time, the cost of persistent poor listening will grow, as people usually stop speaking to us if we don’t listen. We hypothesise that this poor listening environment is the source of many organisational crises that have made it into the media, where issues were known but not addressed.

“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley

Our masterclass group became more aware that the moments in which they made a choice not to listen were driven by these perceived short-term benefits. They acknowledged the need to be more cognisant of the longer-term consequences, particularly for complex and important people issues. The challenging part is making the conscious choice in the moment so that we create the space to listen deeply when it really matters.

  • How are you ‘caught’ by the perceived benefits of poor listening?
  • How would it benefit you and your leaders to have a greater capacity to make the conscious choice to listen?
  • Can you afford not to?