In work life from time to time you may be accused of not listening. It may not be fair. You may not like it. But you’d be shocked how many people completely flub their reaction when the boss, a coworker, or a customer says, “you’re not listening.”
Here’s my three-part formula for what to do when someone says you’re not listening.
- Shut up
- Active listen
- Keep and use a mental ledger going forward
Shut Up, Immediately
If someone says you’re not listening the first thing to do is immediately begin the demonstration that you can. Acceptable responses:
- “I understand”
- “Tell me more”
Unacceptable, yet nevertheless incredibly common, responses:
- Keep talking, simply ignoring the comment. Recall the First Rule of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging.
- Get defensive. “Of course, I’m listening to you.” “Most people tell me I’m a great listener.” “I pride myself on my listening skills.” Recall Kellblog’s Second Rule of Feedback: defensiveness kills communications.
- Make pedantic distinctions between listening and hearing. “I’m listening to you, but perhaps I’m not hearing you.” “I’m hearing you just fine — my ears work perfectly — I just don’t agree with you.”
The second part of your listening demonstration is to use active listening. This boils down to showing that you’re listening and confirming understanding using these techniques:
- Focus on the speaker. Look at him/her. Make eye contact. Don’t engage in any common distractions like looking at your phone or screen.
- Take notes, even if you have an amazing memory and don’t need them. Taking notes shows that you are engaged and listening.
- Don’t interrupt. If the speaker says something you disagree with, write it down. I put it in triangle I’ve pre-marked at the bottom of the page. Doing this gives you a third option other than conceding the point or interrupting to dispute it. I’m amazed by how infrequently I come back to these points that, in the heated moment, seemed worthy of interrupting someone.
- Confirm back. “OK Charlie, I want to make sure I understood what you just said. I’m hearing that you  tried to set up the review meeting on Monday,  that everyone initially indicated they could come, and  that … Did I get that right?”
Keep and Use a Mental Ledger
The first two steps help eliminate basic communication problems. But say it’s deeper. You’re communicating just fine, you just happen to disagree with a lot of the feedback. Examples:
- You disagree with almost every piece of directive feedback a board member gives you — and he gives you about ten pieces of it  every board meeting  .
- You are a consultant and you disagree with most of the feedback your client gives you on a draft survey that you’re running.
- You are a manager and you disagree with most of the messaging in a presentation one of your subordinates is creating.
These are not easy situations and nobody wants to lose on every point, so you need to step back and make a mental ledger of credits (I took your input) and debits (I did not), so you can both ensure you’re somewhat balanced and to get a big picture sense of the score. This will prepare for you for a “you never listen to anything I say” attack, because you have kept some tally of accepts and rejects.
“Well, in fact, I took about 40% of your ideas and rejected about 60% and while I know that might not feel good, it’s simply not true that ‘I never listen to anything you say.’ Now, let’s go discuss the important points on the merits.” 
You may think I’m reducing feedback to game theory, and I suppose I am. The three key points are:
- People do keep some mental tally and it’s almost always biased, so why not actually keep some rough score to inform the conversation.
- You must keep the power balance in mind when playing the feedback/input game. If you’re a consultant servicing a customer, you want the customer winning. If you’re a manager challenging a senior vice president, you should be hoping to score a few points.
- More than anything it says choose your battles, keeping the power balance in mind when you do so.
The last point leads to a corollary I love: when you are in the position of inferior power you should never argue about small matters. Why? Because the mental tally is, in my opinion, unweighted, so the smart way to get what you want and let the person with superior power win, is to let them win on issue-count while you win on importance-weighting. Put differently, if it’s a small matter it definitionally isn’t that important, so why take a mental debit to win? Concede, instead.
Finally, when responding to input, it’s always useful to start not with the numerical tally  but with a summary. “Well, Sarah, I agreed with your on these points and I disagreed with you on those.” That starts the conversation in a balanced place which should keep everyone most open for feedback.
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 Directive feedback = “You guys should do X.”
 The best solution here, if relationship allows, is to ask the board member not to give directive feedback. However, that’s not always possible.
 I have a theory that board members should never give CEOs directive feedback. Here’s the proof. Case 1: the CEO wants to do the idea, in which case it will be done anyway. Case 2: the CEO doesn’t want to do the idea and does it only because they were so directed. Thus the only result from directive feedback is to make CEOs do ideas they don’t want to do, which is a terrible practice. QED.
 For spouses I recommend an entirely different methodology. Say, “you’re right.” Repeat as necessary.
 Which you can keep in your pocket for later if challenged.