How to Not Get So Comfortable Listening

I generally hear enough of what people say to know how to respond. Just like continuing to “read” even when my mind is wandering, it works for me to take quick mental breaks and still stay on track with what the person is saying. I was in a meeting this week, for example, when someone said something that triggered another thought. I wasn’t mentally absent long, maybe 10 seconds.

The problem came when the person asked for my opinion after that mental break. Uh oh. I stammered something unimpressive, but it was clear I hadn’t really heard enough to know how to respond.

Elizabeth Bernstein points out that, for a number of reasons, human beings are not natural listeners:

  • We are wired to swap stories, so we interrupt.
  • We’re uncomfortable with emotions, so we avoid focusing too closely on someone else’s.
  • We’d rather talk about ourselves, so we rush the talker along.
  • We experience “listener burnout,” which causes us to unconsciously shut down the parts of the brain focused on someone else talking.

bad listener

As I wrote for Training magazine, it’s uncomfortable to do activities that require intentional focus. Active listening requires enormous energy using the front (frontal lobe) part of the brain. As we gain experience with people, activities and ideas, we rely less on this taxing part of the brain and instead think, act and speak using the back (limbic/cerebellum) region.

This part of the brain is often referred to as the primitive brain because it developed much earlier and doesn’t require the maturity and effort to use it. And it comes in handy when you’re faced with an immediate threat. If a wild animal’s charging at you, you don’t want to have to stop and think. You need to react in the moment.

In the day-to-day of the modern world, however, the result is that the more experienced we get, the more comfortable we are. And the more comfortable we are, the worse we are at listening. My wife and I have been married 13 years, and active listening is only getting more difficult.

When we don’t listen, people trust us less. They question whether we can be accountable and if we really care.

So how can we overcome the natural inclination to slide into the comfort zone that comes with experience? Here are three steps I’m working on:

  1. Declare intentionality. For me, this means deciding, right now, that I won’t spend years 14 and beyond of my marriage in a continual listening comfort zone. I’m also committing to giving full attention to my colleagues, my clients and the others on my extended team. I will remember that my greatest gift to them is not my productivity but my engaged presence.
  2. Embrace the pain. The energy required to really listen is significant. To analyze, synthesize, empathize and realize what people are saying is not and rarely will be comfortable, but it will be worth it. I will repeat what you’re saying inside my head, I will write it down, I will paraphrase it back to you, and I will work to recall it later—even if it means getting a little uncomfortable in the process.
  3. Ask for feedback. Have you seen the stickers on the backs of commercial trucks that say, “Tell me how I’m driving” and give a phone number? Why would those truckers need that feedback? I mean, really, they drive for a living and do it all day long! They know far more about driving than you or me. Which is exactly why they need the feedback. The more we do it, the less intentional we get.

As I wrote last week, deeply listening is the best way to deepen trust. How will you stop being so comfortable when you listen?



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  • Ann Yaggie
    May 7, 2015 at 1:42 am

    And. . . when you do take that mental vacation, feel free to be completely transparent about it! Let your listener know that your mind took a bit of a vacation and could they repeat the question or comment.

    • Matt Norman
      May 7, 2015 at 2:37 pm

      Great point Ann. Thank you for the reminder to be transparent and authentic!

  • Mike Norman
    May 12, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Matt, These are such important points. One of the difficulties we seem to need to overcome is the temptation to want to reciprocate both good and bad listening. If I am in a relationship where the other person makes the intentional effort to show interest and listen as you suggest, I am more inclined to want to reciprocate. If the opposite is true, I tend to also follow suit. The irony is if I commit to being an intentional and active listener, those I am in relationship with will generally follow. It is up to me! Thanks for the insights.