Dec 18, 2022 3 min read

The Dark Side of Active Listening

We are being constantly told to be better communicators. As part of this push, courses and programs tell us to become "active" listeners. But this active approach towards listening can actually be counter productive and make our communication worse, not better.

Consider some of the common recommedations of active listening:

  • Paying attention to words, tone, and body language
  • Open-ended questions
  • Providing feedback, reflecting, and mirroring back to build rapport

Nothing wrong with it, and certainly better than a self-centered, disconnected monologue. But notice how the focus is on a whole bunch of "performing"— it's a performative model and no wonder it's "active". In practice, it ends up being a whole lot of doing and paradoxically, a lot less of listening.

William Isaacs of MIT Sloan School of Management puts it this way:

For all the wonderful qualities of listening and the fully engaged participation that can be evoked through it, there is also an underside to this practice.

...we tend to think in ways that lead us away from wholeness and into fragmentation. Again, fragmented listening is abstraction, which literally means “extracting meaning from something.”

A part of me can listen and be fully participative while another part can abstract and fail to attend to what I hear—or attend only selectively. It is only by becoming aware of those parts of ourselves that fail to listen, even as we try hard to listen well, that we may break through to a new experience.

A part of me can, in other words, remain high on the ladder of inference, and so have perceptions not grounded in directly observable experience. Instead of listening without resistance, I listen but resist what I hear, selecting what I want and discounting what I do not want to hear. When we have an ax to grind with someone, we tend to hear the grinding of the axes, not what the other person has to say.

Instead of allowing a quality of stillness to pervade our listening, it is easy to be in motion, seeking to “grasp” or “take in” what is being said. Our listening becomes more intellectual. We are “here,” others are “there.” We try to “get” what they say. Our thought is doing the interpreting. We are separate from the person, and then the “transmission” model of listening prevails.

Have I received from them what I needed to perceive rather than what they were actually saying? Listening in this sense objectifies the other person. It is possible to listen in this way, but we end up treating the other person as an object to manage not a being with whom we can create new possibilities.

What are we to do? The challenge is to become aware of the fact that especially when we try hard to listen, we will often still have a part of us actively failing to do so. The key is to simply become aware of this, to make conscious just what we are doing. Awareness is curative; as we stand still, our listening can open us into frontiers we did not realize were there.

— William Isaacs in Dialogue, The Art of Thinking Together

As human beings, we are naturally wired to listen if we are genuinely interested. Consider your experience of falling in love. You didn't need a class on listening — you were the best natural listener because it was driven by genuine care and curiosity.

Active listening, by definition, requires us to "latch onto" something, a "grasping for" that tends to force the issue instead of letting it naturally emerge and evolve. Too much focus on execution and getting it right makes us miss a whole range of "data" unfolding and evolving before us.

Leaders and managers are especially prone to this kind of listening. After all, they became leaders by jumping at problems and solving them. But often what gets said and what the person is trying to communicate are dramatically different.

The dark side of "active" listening is that in our eagerness to listen and "tackle", we forget to pay attention to the nuances, what's unsaid, and what is often more important than the content of the delivery.

So what to do instead? Learn human communication rather than digital. Almost all communication training is based on the Shannon-Weaver transmission model of communication. While a good start, its basis is in digital transmission of information rather than human. Human communication is fundamentally different but not as widely disseminated. One reason is because it's easier to package and sell "doing" rather than "non-doing".

Isaacs talks about "seeking to grasp" and wanting to "take in" what's being said. One way to counter the need to jump at what's being said is to develop what John Keats called Negative Capability , something that modern leaders should be actively working on.

Isaacs also mentions the ladder of inference. I have written about how leaders can use it for better decision making.

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Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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