Bad listening is stronger than good

What’s more productive: targeting problems or building on strengths? Robert Sutton wrote in the Harvard Business Review Blog that “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” This essentially means that eliminating the bad in the workplace – performance obstacles, bullying behavior, and even toxic people – is more effective than recognizing positive accomplishments and helping employees build on their strengths. Sutton’s post recounts the work of psychologists such as Roy Baumeister: “a huge pile of peer-reviewed studies” show that “negative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impact than positive ones.”

Courtesy Jes/Flickr

Under this reasoning, eliminating bad listening habits should be more of a priority than celebrating the most enlightened listening practices. Damage done to team and client relations by bad listening is more significant than the benefits of recognizing and promoting listening excellence.

Thus perhaps this blog should use more scare tactics: 10 Ways to Fail as a Listener, and Therefore as a Lawyer?  5 Listening Mistakes No Decent Lawyer Should Make?

Although these titles are a bit dramatic, they do lead to an important and somewhat fun question: What actually *are* the worst listening practices?

Here are my opening nominations for the three worst. Please feel free to use the comments for sharing your own thoughts on lawyers’ worst listening practices.

1. Looking at one’s smartphone while supposedly listening.

I recently heard two complementary stories about how smartphones affect listening. In the first story, an interviewee checked his phone during the interview. The interviewer couldn’t help but wonder: “What’s so important that you need to look at your phone during my interview with you?”

In the second story, a law firm won a client’s business partly because none of the 20 firm lawyers in the room looked at a smartphone during their lengthy presentation to the client. The client expressed astonishment at the focused attention and lack of distraction in the room during that presentation.

2. Appearing to listen, then sending a confirmatory e-mail that is misleadingly incomplete or biased

Effective listening is a great way of building trust. That trust is broken when an ostensibly good listener follows up with a disappointingly incomplete recounting of the conversation. Or worse, a biased and self-serving recounting.

3. Listening with intent to start speaking at the first opportunity

In a scene from Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta: “Do you listen or just wait to talk?” He says, “I wait to talk, but I’m trying to listen.” Several people have brought this scene to my attention since I started Listen Like a Lawyer. It is so memorable because it rings so true with people’s experience of frustrating conversations.

Negativity can be so . . . well, negative. Yet the idea that “bad is stronger than good” suggests that the most productive way for people and organizations to be better at listening is to stop being so bad at listening. 

Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Matt Homann for tweeting a link to Sutton’s post. Thanks to Matt for passing along another thought-provoking article with implications for listening.



4 thoughts on “Bad listening is stronger than good

  1. Excellent post. Thought provoking, illustrative and timely. References to pop culture are good better than than to staid scholarship IMHO. For me, texting while someone is speaking remains one of the rudest offenses. A few years ago, I took a young lawyer to lunch and I should have left him mid-lunch with the check after I belatedly noticed he was furtively texting under the table. What a jerk. LOL. It was our last and only contact thereafter — and lunch had been his idea!

  2. Another thought provoking post Jennifer. As a coach, I would agree that eliminating remarkably bad behavior is the first goal. My nomination for the bad listening Hall of Fame is the owner of a company who clipped his toenails at meetings. Still, it’s important not to settle for eliminating the negatives. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, being maximally helpful to colleagues and clients –through learning and practicing the best communication skills possible.

    Sent from my iPhone Laurie Schloff Senior Coaching Partner The Speech Improvement Company 617 739 3330

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