The first potential issue with the traditional active listening model is that it creates the opportunity to appear as if we are attentively listening when we are not.
There is a huge difference between appearing to listen and actually listening. I would confidently wager that many readers are quite skilled at maintaining eye contact, smiling, nodding, occasionally paraphrasing what they hear, or at least repeating the last word they heard with a questioning tone. This all while ignoring their counter-parts, thinking about some other pressing issue in their world, or preparing their next response. We cannot fully focus on two conversations simultaneously. Our internal monologue wins anytime someone is talking to us while we are talking to ourselves.
Another common example of active listening backfiring is when we fail to deliver on a set of directions and expectations we have received. Maybe our spouse, boss, teacher, or friend has asked us to take care of something for them. From their perspective, we appear to be attentive and engaged so they believe we acknowledge and understand the request. Fast-forward to when we fail to follow through, and they feel personally disrespected because we have led them to believe that they had our commitment when we hadn’t fully listened to what we had committed to.
Appearing to attentively listen should encourage someone to share more information. However, you may end up damaging the relationship if the roles reverse during the conversation and that person asks you questions you can’t answer because your mind wandered. The same risk applies if people expect you to retain the information they shared, and you either never receive it, completely forget it, or must return to ask them again at a later time.
The second potential issue with active listening is the perceived authenticity of the listener. Listeners who robotically respond, interject at awkward times, or consistently rely on the exact same verbal and nonverbal prompts can appear insincere and damage relationships as a result.
Many years ago, I went on a camping trip with another family. We were all sitting around the fire late one night when an unexpected argument erupted between another couple. The wife stormed off and I ended up sitting at the fire alone with the husband. He told me how he felt about the situation and asked me if I understood where he was coming from. I answered, “absolutely,” because I felt like I truly did. He immediately looked at me and asked, “Do you? Because you always say ‘absolutely.’” I was taken aback. I really did feel like I understood his position, and I definitely didn’t want to appear humoring. Thankfully, I was able to recover and give him a specific example. That night, my unconscious response almost created a real problem, even though it came from an authentic place.
A third issue with active listening involves the potential for our verbal reflections of the speaker’s perceived feelings harming the relationship. The overwhelming majority of adults do not enjoy being treated like children, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. Telling someone what you believe they are thinking or feeling, or what you believe they should be thinking or feeling, can be received as an assumptive and parental approach, which might shut your counterparts down.
In fact, the word “you” is among the most dangerous words in the English language. The more a listener responds with the word “you,” the more the speaker may feel his or her self-image is being attacked, which risks putting them on the defensive. We will discuss this idea in greater detail in chapter 13. This trap can be avoided by framing your response around the issue, not the person. For example, don’t say: “I can see that you’re angry.” Say: “Being treated that way can easily make people angry.” Don’t say: “You’re clearly upset.” Say: “People can only take being ignored for so long before they become upset.” Or “Feeling upset is a valid response.”
Finally, there are two opportunities that active listening doesn’t expressly address: What should we be specifically looking for during our critical conversations, and what do we do with our observations? Active listening illustrates how to convince our audiences that we are intently listening. Active listening focuses on evaluating the words spoken, observing body language, and emphasizing the importance of responding empathetically. However, the process doesn’t go into great detail on how to increase the power and accuracy of our observations, or how to activate the valuable intelligence we focus on picking up.