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Chapter 2

Fallacies about Listening

Among the great hindrances to effective listening are the fallacies that people hold about listening. These false ideas often cause people to have inflated opinions of their own listening performance. Believing that they have no problem with listening, they make no effort to improve. Indeed, why should they? Not knowing that their listening skill is “broke,” they see no need to “fix” it. Consequently, they don’t take steps to improve. Knowing about these fallacies will assist you in avoiding this trap. Here, then, are several of the common ones.

Fallacy #1: Listening Is Not My Problem!

People generally believe they are better listeners than those around them. It is the people they work for, the ones who work with or for them, their family members, and their friends who have a problem in listening effectively—not them.

When I teach classes or lead seminars on communication, I often ask participants to assess themselves as listeners. With 10 being high and one being low, they are to rate themselves as listeners compared to the other members of the group. The average score through the years has been about 7.5—some higher, some lower, but the overall average is 7.5.


Next, they rate the other group members as listeners. That rating has been 4.1 on average. In other words, they believe that listening is a problem, but that the problem belongs to someone else. Remember that each group member is being rated as part of the group by the others; that is, each member is part of the group receiving the 4.1 rating.

The point is simply this. The people around us believe that we have more of a problem listening effectively than they do. This should tell us something. Listening is not just someone else’s problem—it’s ours.


Fallacy #2: Listening and Hearing
Are the Same

Simply having good hearing does not make one a good listener. In fact, many people who have perfectly good hearing are not good listeners. Having good hearing does facilitate one’s perception of sound; but good listeners don’t simply hear words—they focus on the meaning. We communicate effectively with each other insofar as we share meaning.

If I tell you something and you misunderstand me, effective communication has not occurred. If I tell you something and you understand what I meant—that is, if we have an effective transfer or sharing of meaning—we say that the communication is effective. Effective listening implies that the listener understands what the speaker means.

The difference between hearing and listening can be stated this way: Hearing is the reception of sound, listening is the attachment of meaning to the sound. Hearing is passive, listening is active. Understanding the difference between hearing and listening is an important prerequisite for listening effectively.

Fallacy #3: Good Readers
Are Good Listeners

This statement is often untrue, even though both reading and listening depend on the translation of words into meaning. Because of the shared translation function, there is obviously some kind of relationship between reading and listening; the problem is, many people mistakenly believe that all good readers are necessarily good listeners.

Researchers who administer different standard reading tests to the same individual find a high positive correlation between the two sets of scores; that is, persons who score well on one reading test generally score well on another while persons who score low on one test tend to score low on another.

Similar results are found by researchers who test individuals on standardized listening tests. Those who score high on one test tend to score high on another, and vice versa. Interestingly, however, there is often a surprisingly low correlation between one’s scores on reading tests and that same person’s scores on listening tests. For a demonstration of this result, consider the following experiment.

A teacher divides a class into two sections, randomly assigning students until each section has half the students. Each new “class” is placed in a new, separate classroom. Each student in one class is given a short paper, told to read it once and then place it on the desk, blank side up. Students in the other class listen as the teacher delivers the paper as a speech. Students in both classes are then given identical tests on the material covered.

Experiments like this one consistently result in certain questions being answered correctly more often by those who read the paper while other questions are answered correctly more often by those who heard it delivered as a speech. This result is really not all that surprising. When we read a document, visual cues—margins, illustrations, punctuation—become factors. On the other hand, when we listen, the speaker’s vocal emphasis, reading style, pauses, and the like influence our understanding. There is, then, a difference between processing information from the written word and processing it from the spoken word. The fact that some people are better at one than the other demonstrates the fallacy of believing that good readers are necessarily good listeners.

Incidentally, test results also show that most people score higher as readers than as listeners. Being a good reader is no guarantee that you are a good listener.

Fallacy #4: Smarter People
Are Better Listeners

Obviously, intelligence plays a role in a person’s capacity to listen. Persons with limited intelligence will be limited in their capacity to process the information contained in messages they receive. Conversely, those having high intelligence levels will possess a greater processing capacity. Yet, the belief that “smarter people are better listeners” is often false. In fact, evidence suggests that the reverse is often true.

Some years ago, I administered a listening test and a standardized IQ test to students in several college classes. I compared the results of the listening test to the IQ scores for each student. There was little correlation between listening test results and IQ scores—with one surprising exception: There was an inverse relationship between listening scores and IQ scores for those students having the very highest IQ scores. In other words, the smartest students actually scored lower on the listening test than did many students having lower IQ scores. These results lead to the conclusion that higher intelligence levels do not necessarily result in better listening among college students who possess the capacity—if not always the willingness—to listen. Further, higher intelligence may actually interfere with the listening of those who are the very smartest.

We must keep in mind that this study was conducted with a specific group—college students. Most were in their late teens and early twenties. And the test did not assess all types of listening. It required that students listen to conversations for two reasons: to gain information and to understand something about the speaker—what we will later refer to as informative listening and relationship listening.

It is quite possible that the smarter students were bored with this test. If so, boredom could explain their lower performance. Whatever the reasons, however, the fact remains that smarter people are not necessarily better listeners.

Fallacy #5: Listening Improves with Age

Certainly, the capacity or ability to listen and attach appropriate meaning to messages improves with age and experience—at least in the early years and at least to some point. But although listening ability increases, listening performance generally declines at some point. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The discrepancy between listening ability and listening performance is often due to our having learned bad listening habits. Here are some of the most common bad habits.

1. Learning not to listen. We learn a lot about not listening while growing up. For example, a parent tells us: “Don’t forget to wear your coat to school!” But we don’t want to wear a coat, so we “learn” to not listen. Later, at school, the teacher repeats an assignment several times, hoping to make certain that all the students have heard it. The teacher’s behavior reinforces not listening, since there will be multiple opportunities for us to get the information. Another example is found in the focus given to repetition in radio and television advertising. This repetition further conditions us against listening carefully the first time.

2. Thinking about what we are going to say rather than listening to the speaker. In trying to plan our response, we often miss the point that the other person is making. Then, when we do talk, it sounds as if we weren’t listening—which is exactly what happened.

3. Talking when we should be listening. Our entire culture seems to condition us to talk, not to listen. The silent act of listening seems no match for the messages hurled at us almost incessantly. The way to control things—to have things go our way—seems to be by out-talking others. Some justify this behavior by saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” But the truth of the matter is that we miss a lot by talking when we should be listening. A wise person once observed that since we were created with one mouth and two ears, we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. More of us should heed this advice.

4. Hearing what we expect to hear rather than what is actually said. This habit seems to become an increasingly greater problem as we grow older, as suggested by the following incident.

When my youngest daughter, Missy, was in grade school, she frequently invited girlfriends home with her to eat supper and spend the night. And since we had four other children in the household at the time, an extra one or two didn’t really bother us. One Saturday, because we were planning to have special guests for the evening meal, I told Missy not to ask anyone home that evening.

“Alright,” she answered. Then, “Could I go to Angie’s house this afternoon?”

“I guess so,” I said, “if it’s alright with Angie’s mother. But make certain that you are home by five o’clock.”

I didn’t think about Missy again until about four that afternoon when the phone rang. I answered it and heard the voice on the other end say, “Hello, Daddy. This is Missy.”

I was amused that she called me Daddy and then identified herself, but I decided to play along. “Missy who?” I asked.

“The Missy that lives at your house,” she said impatiently. “I’d like to talk to Mama.”

“Mama’s pretty busy,” I informed her. “You’ll have to talk to me.”

“I’d a whole lot rather talk to Mama,” she replied.

With all the parental authority I could muster, I told her, “You will have to talk to me.”

There was a slight pause, then I heard, “Would it be OK for Angie to eat supper and spend the night with us?”

I exploded! “Missy, didn’t I tell you that you were not to ask anybody for tonight? I’m coming to get you right now.”

“But, Daddy,” she pleaded, “it’s only four and you said I could stay till five. And besides. . . .”

I cut her off. “Besides, nothing. I’m coming now. You be ready!”

I was met at the door by Missy and Angie along with Angie’s mother, who said, “John, would it be alright for Missy to eat supper and spend the night with us?”

“Why, that would be nice,” I replied.

“But Daddy,” Missy piped in, “that’s what I just asked you and you told me I couldn’t.”

“Oh, . . . Missy,” I stammered. “I thought you were asking if Angie could come to our house.”

“It’s OK,” Missy said. “Sometimes you don’t listen very well.”

Hearing what we expect rather than what the other person means can pose a big problem. Whether we are listening to learn, evaluate, discriminate, relax, or improve a relationship, it’s important to listen to the other person.

5. Not paying attention. The name of this bad habit says it all. In addition to the bad habits discussed above, there are some other common factors that cause us to not pay attention.

Preoccupation. Sometimes we don’t listen because we are preoccupied. We have so many things to think about. Our mind is full of ideas, facts, worries. We are unable to put them aside while we listen. Nevertheless, good listening demands that we avoid preoccupation when someone is speaking to us.

Prejudice. Attitudes and feelings not tempered by logical thinking can lead to prejudice. Perhaps we don’t like the speaker. Or the subject may be one that we know little about and “don’t want to know.” Maybe we don’t like the method of presentation. In any event, we are prejudiced against the presentation; we have prejudged it. Consequently, we may mentally argue with the speaker. Or we may simply “tune out.” Prejudicial thinking can divert our attention away from what the speaker is saying.

Self-centeredness. Since we live with ourselves all day every day, most of us spend much more time thinking about ourselves than about others. It is therefore not surprising that self-concern interferes with our listening to what another is saying. We must work at transferring our concentration from “I” to “You”—from ourselves to the person doing the talking.

Stereotyping. As thinking and feeling human beings, we hold certain beliefs about a variety of subjects. We have “fixed” judgments or concepts which we believe to be true and correct. If a speaker presents evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we tend to ignore what is being said—either because it is not believable to us or because we don’t want our ideas challenged. Good listeners do not allow themselves to be trapped by stereotypes.

Fallacy #6: Listening Skills
Are Difficult to Learn

Actually, the skills themselves are not all that difficult—and initial progress is rapid. But learning to apply the skills consistently does take hard work. And becoming really proficient takes much time and practice—a lifetime to be exact. But the effort is definitely worthwhile. The last chapter will tell you how to become a better listener in any situation. First, however, we need to understand the process of listening and the types of listening. The next chapter explains the process.