Active Listening Didn’t Work! Why Not?

So maybe you haven’t dusted off your Leader Effectiveness Skills for a while now. Or maybe you’re a fresh fawn in the forest who just got back from L.E.T. training, and you cannot wait to leap into your first Active Listening situation to see if it works as well as it’s supposed to.

And now it’s time.

You informed your team this morning, as compassionately as you could, that there’s a giant project to be completed in the next 90 days, all hands on deck, and overtime will be a fact of existence until then. Lots of overtime. There are always a few difficult conversations that arise from this kind of listening leadership training

First, Check the Conditions

How do you know the time is appropriate for Active Listening? By first checking your Conditions. There are three that must be present in the sender and five in the listener.

One employee, in particular, is now displaying behaviors that indicate she’s experiencing feelings or a problem (Sender Condition 1). She’s also sending signals that she’s upset (Sender Condition 2). You’re guessing (but not yet sure) she’s willing to talk about it (Sender Condition 3), because after the project kickoff meeting you saw her huddled around the coffeemaker with her two best work-friends for an extraordinarily long time. (You need to verify, however, that she’s willing to talk about it with you; there are more ways than one to mess up a confrontation, and trying Active Listening with an unwilling participant is just the first.)

As for you? You’ve checked your own conditions and found all in good order. You feel accepting toward the employee (Listener Condition 1). You genuinely want to help her (Listener Condition 2)—she’s a productive member of the team and usually not one to grumble. You have enough time to help today (Listener Condition 3) because you cleared your calendar, anticipating some push-back on the 90-day project schedule. You also believe she is capable of solving her own problem (Listener Condition 4), getting through the emotional flooding of the moment and back to productivity. Finally, you absolutely feel separate (Listener Condition 5)—this is her deal, not yours.

So an hour after your attempted Active Listening session fell as flat as a souffle pulled out of a cold oven ten minutes too early, you could be forgiven if your first instinct is to blurt out, “This Active Listening stuff is garbage! I tried it, and it didn’t work!”

Ah. But did you? Were you genuinely Active Listening? Or did you inadvertently introduce one of the eight classic Active Listening Errors into your session?

The Active Listening Errors

Your employee opened with, “This is absolutely ridiculous! My grandmother’s 90th birthday is in two months. The whole family has been planning a two-week celebration for the entire year. I hadn’t put in for time off yet because I was waiting to see which days I’d need to take my relatives to and from the airport and coordinate their transportation to events around town. Today you tell me I’ll probably be working overtime during those weeks and can’t take time off?”

Oh, yes. She definitely has a problem.

But Active Listening poorly executed could actually make matters worse.

Accurate and skilled Active Listening, in a nutshell, is a way of restating what you’ve heard in order to acknowledge, “I hear what you’re feeling,” without expressing judgment, agreement, or disagreement.

Inaccurate and unskilled Active Listening, on the other hand, can make the Sender feel patronized, condescended, misunderstood, attacked, or bored—all of which can make matters worse.

There are four distinct ways to get Active Listening wrong by over-listening and four distinct ways to get it wrong by under-listening.


  • Overshooting: Exaggerating the feelings the Sender is expressing. “You’re upset because you think you won’t see your family or your grandmother at all during her birthday celebration weeks because of overtime.”
  • Adding: Generalizing or expanding beyond what the speaker said. “You think you should be treated differently than everybody else regarding overtime because of your grandmother’s upcoming birthday.”
  • Rushing: Anticipating what the speaker will say next. “You’d like to put in for specific days off right now since you didn’t get around to it before the overtime announcement.”
  • Analyzing: Interpreting the sender’s motives. “You know, it’s possible you felt you were shouldering too much of the burden for organizing this party and that’s why you hadn’t put in for the time off yet.”


  • Undershooting: Minimizing the Sender’s feelings. “You’re unhappy.”
  • Omitting: Reducing or stripping important facts expressed by the speaker. “You’re upset about this project’s overtime requirements.”
  • Lagging: Failing to keep pace with the speaker, or backtracking. “You’re doing a lot of planning for your grandmother’s party.”
  • Parroting: Repeating back nearly word-for-word what the Sender said. “You’re upset because I told you today you’ll probably be at work overtime during the weeks of your family party and won’t be able to take time off.”

None of those eight “restatements” are genuine Active Listening. They’re errors in Active Listening.

A skilled Active Listening response that opens the door for the employee to say more (without minimizing or exaggerating her statement) would be:

“You’re really upset to learn about this big project because you were counting on taking off a couple of those weeks to celebrate your grandma’s birthday. Now you’re very worried how you’re going to do that, given this news.”

Active Listening only appears simple. It’s complex and subtle, like fine food and wine or good art. And also like those things, skill and expertise improve with practice and exposure.

Check the conditions often, and when they’re right, take out Active Listening and use it. The more you do, the better you’ll get, and the more easily you’ll recognize the slippery slope to the eight errors.

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