Why Active Listening Is So Hard (And What To Do About It)

I could be a better listener. You probably could too. See if you recognize this scenario: somebody is talking and you’re intently listening. One minute you’re laser-focused, the next – they say something that triggers some thought in the darkest depths of your brain.

In a fraction of a second you’ve traveled miles from the path the conversation was on and now are lost in the wilderness building some point you’d like to make. Recognizing this is bad, you either blurt out what you’re thinking OR return to the conversation to try to figure out what’s being said now.

We can do better than this.

Master interviewer Celeste Headlee says there’s a massive mismatch between how fast we think and how fast we talk. Most people talk around 100-150 words per minute but think at 400-450 words per minute. That’s a 4x speed advantage of thoughts over words. We write a mental paragraph in the same amount of time as we utter a single sentence.

Headlee says this simple mismatch is why listening with our full attention is such a skill and a superpower. One common mistake people make is to try and slow their thinking down. This often leads to fake signaling that we’re paying attention. We’ve all gotten the active listening training. Just because someone is nodding and saying “uh-huh” doesn’t mean they’re actually listening better.

Instead, we want that extra speed to be focused on taking in more information from the speaker. Headlee calls it listening for the super-text and the subtext. We can look for additional cues around speech in body language, word choice, inflection, etc. The added speed of thought means we can cover more ground to try and capture more of the message. We need to stay focused on the actual purpose: to listen.

Good communicating, like a good interview, starts with good listening. Our brains are wired to work against our objectives if we let them. If we know how to correct for the inevitable self-imposed distractions, we have a better chance of taking in the whole message. Good listening means we show people we care and make them feel heard. In a world where everyone’s brain is racing all of the time, it’s simple soft skills like these that can make all of the difference in creating the connection we want to make.

Check out Celeste Headlee’s book, “We Need To Talk,” or her interview on the Jordan Harbinger Show Podcast (I always love a good interviewer interviewing a good interviewer about interviewing).