When “You’re Not Listening!” Really Means “You Don’t Agree with Me!”

A new study suggests that people often perceive others as poor listeners if the listener disagrees with them, even if the listener has objectively been listening well.

Imagine having a conversation with someone on a topic you feel strongly about.

You’ve shared your perspective clearly, but the other person still disagrees with your conclusion.

A study published on April 17, 2024 in the journal Psychological Science suggests that, even if the other person listened attentively, you might still perceive them as a poor listener simply because they don’t share your view.

Misinterpreting Disagreement as Poor Listening

Researchers Zhiying Ren and Rebecca Schaumberg from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of 11 experiments involving a total of 3,396 adult participants.

In each study, participants shared their views on a topic with a listener.

Example topics included free speech in the classroom, hiring decisions, police reform, and vaccine mandates.

The researchers either held constant or manipulated the listener’s objective listening behaviors, revealing only after the conversation whether the listener agreed with the speaker.

In one study, 116 undergraduate students had a live video chat with an actor playing the role of a listener.

The actors were trained to listen in a similar way to all the speakers, but after the conversation, the researchers manipulated whether the listener had agreed or disagreed with the speaker.

Speakers perceived the listener as more attentive when they agreed than when they disagreed.

Another study involving 388 participants found similar results in a hiring simulation.

Speakers thought their conversation partner listened better, understood them better, and was more engaged when they agreed with the speaker’s hiring recommendation than when they disagreed.

The researchers suggest that this conflation of agreement with listening quality arises because speakers believe their views are correct, leading them to infer that a disagreeing listener must not have been listening very well.

This aligns with the theory of naive realism, which holds that people usually feel that their views are objective and correct.

The Uphill Battle for Disagreeing Listeners

In some of the experiments, the researchers manipulated the listener’s objective listening quality by varying factors such as comprehension, attentiveness, and the use of markers of high-quality listening (e.g., acknowledging and showing respect for the speaker’s views).

They found that while engaging in higher-quality listening can improve how well speakers think a disagreeing listener listened to them, demonstrating higher-quality listening may still be less effective than merely agreeing with the speaker.

The study also suggests that using markers of high-quality listening, such as acknowledging and affirming the speaker’s views, can unintentionally convey stronger alignment with the speaker’s perspective.

In one experiment, participants thought a disagreeing listener disagreed with them less when they used markers of higher-quality listening than when they did not.

Implications for Communication and Conflict Resolution

The findings shed light on common listening issues in conflict situations.

When one side accuses the other of not listening, while the other side insists they are listening, both parties might be correct.

The speaker may not feel listened to because the listener hasn’t conceded their position, while the listener may have genuinely understood the speaker but simply holds a different view.

Recognizing that the core issue may be one of divergent views rather than poor listening could help improve communication dynamics.

However, the study also suggests that it may be prohibitively difficult for someone to simultaneously convey that they disagree and that they were listening well.

“Overall, this work reveals that to understand how speakers judge the quality of a listener’s listening, one must consider speakers’ inferences about whether the listener agrees with what they are saying,” the researchers write. “In many cases, perceived listening and perceived agreement may be impossible to disentangle.”

Study information:

The study, titled “Disagreement Gets Mistaken for Bad Listening,” was authored by Zhiying (Bella) Ren and Rebecca Schaumberg.

It was published online on April 17, 2024, in Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976241239935