Why Active Listening Stinks

By Chris Sheesley


“What I hear you saying is … stop parroting what I’m saying!”

Anyone motivated to read this article already knows active listening skills through exposure to it in training and books. Yet, if you’re like most people, you find it strangely distasteful to be either the giver or receiver of active listening technique. Nine out of 12 times it registers as insincere, patronizing or like the person using it is an insufferable undergraduate at Active Listening University.

What’s worse is the preceding clumsiness only emerges if you can remember your lessons from Active Listening 101. When the conversation becomes fiery, your brain tends to bypass the synapses capable of constructing flawless “I statements” and arrives instead at an ancient, reptilian place where self-preservation and blamelessness reign. No wonder active listening smells funny.

So, what’s a well-meaning communicator like you supposed to do when you find yourself in the fray? As a conflict facilitator who’s witnessed thousands of tense, face-to-face conflict conversations, my advice revolves around one insight: Just be curious. At some point in the conversation—preferably earlier than later—ask yourself why your opponent sees the situation as he or she does. What does this disagreement look like from his or her foothold in the universe? To clarify, I’m not talking about the “Why the heck does she think that?!” brand of curiosity, but the “Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know why she sees it so differently” type. Happily, this mindset is both plausible and actionable because you actually already are curious; you’re just clever at masking it.

Once you tap into curiosity, step two is to demonstrate and quench your curiosity any way you choose. Technique becomes subordinate to real inquisitiveness. If your interest inspires you to summarize, clarify and validate emotions, then those formerly stilted techniques are transformed into meaningful queries and genuine dialogue. My clients who find it in themselves to ask real questions and strive to ensure they actually understand the other always have an easier time navigating out of discord. In the end, it’s not active listening that stinks but our collective failure while in the cauldron of conflict to infuse it with real wonderment.


Chris Sheesley puts derailed workplace relationships back on track. Senior managers and HR professionals hire Chris when they recognize the need for an experienced, objective facilitator to transform high-stakes or seemingly impossible internal disputes into cooperation and employee efficiency. With 22 years of full time experience, a client roster of hundreds of notable organizations and a track record of over 1,500 cases, Chris is among the most seasoned conflict management professionals in the Northwest. He has amassed over 5,000 hours of experience teaching dispute resolution and related skills grounded in his real-world experience. More about Chris Sheesley’s services http://inaccordnw.com/

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