What Kind of a Listener Are You? (Part 1)

Having spoken a lot this year, it is always interesting to see what learning lessons will emerge from the people that I address. I recently conducted a session with a large group with one person who seemed to be more interested in challenging me than in listening and learning about something that she hadn’t heard before. She seemed bent on contesting a lot of what I was saying with a constant barrage of, “Yeah, buts.”

Noticing that the rest of the audience was becoming more and more annoyed and distracted as time passed, I chose to speak to her on the next break. When I asked her why she seemed set on challenging me, she responded that she had trouble staying focused, so asking questions was her way of staying engaged in the conversation. I expressed appreciation for her desire to stay focused, but then helped her to notice how she was affecting the group by highlighting some of the subtle behaviors of others that reflected their irritation. I invited her to continue to ask questions about things she didn’t know or wanted more information about, but I also invited her to find a different way to maintain her focus.

Everyone listens differently. Unfortunately, the way that some people listen and attend detracts from the effectiveness of a conversation more than their behavior contributes. Over the next two weeks, I would like to offer a number of ineffective ways that people listen. You will probably notice some of these tactics being used by those around you, or you may notice that you practice some of these behaviors yourself. In either case, you can begin to improve your listening skills or help others to focus their skills by effectively managing the following types of listeners.

1. The Defiant is the type of listener who seems to be more interested in validating what they think they know rather than in learning what they don’t know. Consequently, when they hear something that they haven’t heard before or don’t know, they will challenge everything you say. I once had an individual in a critical thinking class who looked up on Google or Snopes.com everything I said. I didn’t mind that, but what I did mind was his insistence that he provide the documentation or source for what I was saying and the way he shared the information by confronting me with it in front of the class.

   What to Do: If you are speaking with this type of a listener one-on-one, listen to their perspective on an issue. Also listen for or request the data or evidence for what they are offering. If they lack a platform of support, the constant challenges will soon cease. Be sure that you are always prepared to offer support for your opinions.

2. The Stonewall is the type of listener to whom you ask a question or try to engage and they say nothing. Teenagers usually fall into this category. Sometimes speaking to this type of listener leaves you feeling that they are someplace else. I have found that when I press them for a response that it is not uncommon for then to respond by saying something like, “I’m thinking.” Or, “I really don’t know how to answer that question,” or, “I am wondering what you are really looking for by asking that.”

   What to Do: If you are in a relationship with this person, it would be helpful to set some ground rules for how you will interact when this happens. You might ask them how they would like you to proceed when they don’t respond to you. Having an agreed upon course of action when the situation arises will help you maintain respect and improve the likelihood that the conversation will be able to move forward.

3. The Obsessed hears everything that other people say in the context of what they want or may be proposing. They take a person’s opinion that may run counter to what they are proposing and turn it into evidence that supports their position. Consequently they don’t hear the details or clearly understand what you may be offering when this occurs.

   What to Do: First you have to be aware that they aren’t really listening to your point of view. Once you can identify how they are interpreting your perspective, you will have to point out the differences in what you are saying and offer data that supports your view. You may also have to compare and contrast the two different perspectives to help them better understand what you are saying.

4. The Fixer likes to listen in order to play “Mr. or Ms. Fix It.” When you speak to these types of listeners, they believe that what you are telling them or sharing with them is an invitation for them to offer advice or tell you what they are supposed to do or say in a given situation. This can be quite irritating to some, but they truly believe their advice and expertise is what you really want from them.

   What to Do: If you know that you are interacting with this type of listener, you need to tell them what you would like them to do. You might say, “I just need to be able to voice my point of view without interruption.” Or, “I am interested what you would do in my situation, but would like you to listen to my entire perspective of the situation until I ask you what you would do if you were me.” If you will manage the interaction upfront, you will be able to clarify your expectations of their behavior and find your expectations being met much more frequently.

5. The Talking Thief looks for opportunities to steal your talking turn. In other words, you might be sharing an event that happened to you, and before you know it, they have stolen your talking turn and have begun telling about a situation that they have experienced that is similar to your own. These types of listeners engage in this behavior because they are trying to establish common ground and they want to demonstrate that they relate to you. Unfortunately, this tactic feels more like they are trying to “one up” you or compete with what you are trying to say.

   What to Do: I have found that when someone steals my turn, then I will give them my total attention. When I do this, they usually will start to become aware of what they have done, and then return my turn back to me. It usually sounds something like, “I’m sorry, you were talking about….” If you find that this doesn’t work with this particular person, then you will have to give them some feedback about their behavior if you ever expect them to change the way they listen to you.   

6.The Interrogator listens to identify what they think you know and don’t know. If they decide you really don’t know what you are talking about, they try to point that out to you or to others by asking pointed and interrogative questions. These questions are not intended to help them learn more about your perspective, but are intended to make you look bad. Their questions are intended to demean or belittle you or your ideas. Obviously, no one likes to be around these types of listeners and their behavior usually keeps other people from speaking up or sharing a different perspective for fear of being led to the slaughter.

 What to Do: If you know you are going to have to deal with this type of person, then you need to be prepared. If they tend to use questions to lead you down a path until they get you to a point that they can make their point at your expense, you must notice that this is happening. When they begin to ask questions and you are unsure of where the questions are going, simply ask them, “Please tell me exactly what you would like to know and why, and I would be happy to respond.” This will call them on their tactic and force them to think about what information they are seeking.   

Every one of us at some time or another has difficulty maintaining our ability to listen and focus on others. Becoming more aware of our own listening patterns can help us to improve the way we listen. Our ability to fully listen will not only improve our understanding but will also improve the quality of the relationships, respect, and results that we desire to achieve with others. 


Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

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What people are saying

Patricia Vanderpool | October 23, 2015 | REPLY
Great, succinct information. Listening plays a pivotal role in my training in anti harassment, EAP supervisory training, team building, clinical work, etc. With your permission, I'd like to reference your articles (with credit to you, if course). I'd suggest adding a statement or two about the challenges of communicating with the hard of hearing (who don't always state they have difficulty hearing). Thanks for the great information.
John Stoker | November 24, 2015 | REPLY
Please feel free to refer the article or to pass it along to others. Best Wishes!!
Jesse | October 23, 2015 | REPLY
Very interesting. I got on this post by accident, but am glad I did. I found out what kind of listener I am, and much needed advice on how to handle the various types of listening.
John Stoker | November 24, 2015 | REPLY
Good for you! Awareness is key to making improvements in how we listen and interact with others. Once you can recognize what you are doing, you can make a choice to do something differently. Best of luck. Let me know how it goes!
Mark B | August 27, 2020 | REPLY
Very insightful article, John. Thanks again for providing tips to improve our communication skills.
John Stoker | August 27, 2020 | REPLY
You are welcome Mark. Let me know if there are other topics that interest you. j