If you’re not listening, your meetings are a waste of everyone’s time

Before my mum passed away, she used to phone me every evening at 6pm to have a quick chat. This started back in the days when it was cheaper to phone after this time and because my mum had done this for so many years, it became a habit.

Unfortunately, 6pm wasn’t the most convenient time for me. I soon got into my own habit of pretending to listen while I completed another task.

I recall rushing through our conversation, which consisted of lots of ‘yes’ ‘really?’ and ‘oh lovely’ comments coming from me. I clearly wasn’t fully focused on what she was saying, and sometimes even found myself missing parts of her stories.

Then, things changed. My dad passed away. All of a sudden, I realised how important the 6pm call was to my mum, as some days I would be the first person she’d spoken to that day. She placed a lot of value on the conversation and she’d look forward to it all day. I realised I needed to get out of the habit of just answering without paying attention to what she said.

Are you ‘pretend listening’ at work?

I recently shared this in a workshop with a group of leaders, whilst exploring the 5 levels of listening by Stephen Covey. This was in reference to level 2: pretend listening, when someone gives you the impression they hear what you’re saying, and may hear some of the words, but they are not ‘present’. They tend to nod their head, smile, say ‘yes’ etc to indicate they are listening, but they are clearly not giving you their full attention.

What was interesting was the amount of examples the leaders could share of when they experience pretend listening in the workplace or pretend listen themselves, particularly in meetings. This ranged from the odd smile, head nod, ‘yes’ to overtly replying to emails in meetings, and covertly checking social media notifications under the desk.

They could see how these examples of pretend listening impacted on the outcome of the meeting, with leaders making assumptions after hearing only certain words, or misunderstanding opinions, updates, and decisions as they were only hearing elements of the debate. As well as impacting on the overall effectiveness of the meeting, the pretend listening led to them feeling less committed to the organisation, and being perceived as lacking in motivation or respect for others.

Stop pretending and start listening

Fortunately, Steven Covey’s model doesn’t stop at “pretend listening”. It shares how level 5 “empathic” listening focuses only on the other person. And listening carefully to the words being used to see things from their point of view, rather than through your own filter / lens. The emphasis at this level is on understanding the feelings behind the words, and recognising the emotions expressed.

When you’re on the receiving end of empathic listening, you feel truly listened to. You know the other person is giving their time and full attention to truly hear you, to get more understanding of what’s motivating you, which enables them to respond in a way that shows their understanding of your needs. Empathic listening leads to a stronger relationship, improving mutual understanding and trust, and bringing about positive outcomes.

Have a conversation

When I realised I’d been pretend listening with my mum, we had a conversation about the 6pm call. To have a proper conversation, we both needed to value the call equally. For her, she wanted to speak with me before 7pm as that was when her TV schedule kicked in; and for me, I wanted to speak with her when I wasn’t focused on something else. We agreed she would call me at 6pm (that was going to be a hard habit for her to change!) And if I didn’t answer, it wasn’t anything for her to be worried about. It meant I was focused on something else, and I would call her back before 7pm. That way, we both placed equal value on the call.

A meeting that isn’t valued by everyone present is a waste of precious resources and time. I discussed this with the leaders and how they could move things forward in a similar way. We discussed how having an open conversation would help every person place equal value on the meeting. This enabled them to show up and focus on the meeting rather than turn up and focus elsewhere.

Being fully ‘present’ in the moment and listening to understand, can turn your lack of focus and attention into much deeper conversations that you both value and are committed to.


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In the work I do with my clients, I demonstrate empathic listening so you feel truly listened to. If you want to speak your mind and be listened to without criticism, get in touch with me here

“Andrea’s a great listener and perspective focuser. The predominant lesson for me has been to take time to look up and see the wider perspective. Secondly, I’ve learned that the answers are already in my head, they just need the time and space to emerge” – NHS Manager

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Andrea helps you focus on leading yourself first, so you can be a great leader. Start getting your regular dose of leadership tips and inspiration with the ‘Leadership Breather’ – encouraging you to give yourself a breather and take 5 minutes for you.

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