UPenn Researchers Explain Why Disagreement Is Often Mistaken For 'Bad Listening'

Has someone ever called you a 'bad listener' for disagreeing with them? New research reveals why this happens, and how to counter it.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 15, 2024

A new study published in Psychological Science found that many individuals often equate agreement with effective listening, leading them to perceive disagreeing listeners as poor listeners.

I recently spoke to the lead and co-author of the study—doctoral candidate Bella Ren and assistant professor Rebecca Schaumberg—from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to discuss disagreement and perceived listening quality in communication. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What motivated you to investigate the impact of disagreement on perceived listening in your research?

Disagreement is common in daily life and in the workplace. Disagreement can be hard. It can be frustrating. But it also is essential for information exchange, decision-making and creativity. If all members in a group agree, then no one learns. No one changes. No one grows. The group is no better than if there was just one mind, just one person.

We (my amazing co-author, Prof. Becky Schaumberg and I) love to disagree. We debate different ideas and approaches to our projects. We challenge each other's views. We disagree not because we dislike each other, but because we find it stimulating and inspiring. And our work is better because of it.

We value disagreement, but this doesn't mean we always find it easy. Sometimes it feels personal. When does this happen, and why? We were curious about these questions. We wanted to know what turns disagreement from a useful exchange of different perspectives into a fight.

We kept thinking about the role of listening and a common exchange in conflict. One person feels the other person is not listening to them, while the other person insists that they are listening. Curious about what is happening here, we started to investigate the relationship between listening and disagreement. We wondered whether the accusation that the other side is not listening is actually about listening per se. Maybe, instead, it is about the other side not agreeing.

What are the reasons behind people mistaking disagreements as indicators of bad listening, and why might speakers perceive a disagreeing listener as being a worse listener?

We find that people evaluate a listener who disagrees with them to be a worse listener than a listener who agrees with them. We find that this happens for two reasons.

First, people simply like people who agree with them. People tend to rate people they like highly on a range of traits. They see them as better listeners, more pleasant, more approachable and even more humorous. This is what psychologists have referred to as a "halo effect."

However, a second more important reason for why this happens is something called "naïve realism." The idea is that we believe we see the world the way the world is—that we feel that we perceive things unbiasedly and objectively.

Therefore, we assume that if we share our positions on an issue with others, they will agree with us, if they also are unbiased and objective. If they instead disagree with us, we assume they must not have listened. If they had listened, they of course would see the issue the same way we see it.

We also considered a possible third reason this happens. Perhaps people who disagree with us on an issue are actually worse listeners. They interrupt. They are disengaged and closed off. This could be the case. But we find this does not explain our findings. We ensured that the listeners in our studies always listened the same to the speaker. We did this by hiring actors or giving listeners scripts to follow and revealing only after the conversation that the listener agreed or disagreed with the speaker.

How can individuals improve self-awareness when they believe they have effectively communicated but have not been heard, and refrain from harshly judging others in similar situations?

Speakers and listeners should consider what they want from a conversation prior to having one and communicate this want more explicitly during the conversation.

Maybe the speaker wants emotional support. They have failed a test, for instance, and just want to commiserate with someone. Alternatively, maybe the speaker and listener are trying to make a decision, and want to exchange as much information as possible to facilitate effective and accurate decision-making. In such cases, the conversational goals should be practical ones (e.g., informational exchange), and speakers should expect, and even encourage, disagreement from their listeners.

In short, before a conversation, speakers and listeners may want to clarify what they are looking for or trying to provide in the conversations so that they can communicate in a way that serves the collective goal better.

How can individuals effectively communicate that they are actively listening while respectfully expressing disagreement with someone's point of view?

For speakers, one important takeaway from our research is that listening is a dyadic experience. When we think of improving listening, we often think of changing what the listener does. But our work shows that even if a listener listens objectively well, speakers may still feel unheard because they conflate high quality listening with agreement.

Through our research, we hope to urge speakers to think about the following: The next time you feel like someone is not listening to you, instead of asking, "Are they not listening to me?" you should first ask, "Or are they just not agreeing with me?"

For listeners, our results suggest that it is difficult for a listener to disagree while also making a speaker feel heard. But here's the good news: we find in our research, as you would hope, that objective listening quality does matter. On average, speakers felt a listener listened to them better when the listener focused on the speaker, demonstrated understanding and showed respect and interest in what the speaker was saying. So, even if a listener disagrees with the speaker, it is still worthwhile for them to engage in these behaviors.

What seemed to work the best for disagreeing listeners was to acknowledge and express appreciation for the speaker. But there is a complication. We found that when disagreeing listeners engaged in these behaviors, speakers thought the disagreeing listener disagreed with them less. Thus, listeners may face a trade-off. Using high-quality listening behaviors may help listeners convey better listening, but it also could unexpectedly convey greater agreement than the listener intends.

We are exploring this potential trade-off more in our on-going work; we note it as something that the listener should be conscious of.

Can you suggest some ways through which organizations and individuals can improve communication and collaboration?

Again, scholars and practitioners have spent most of their resources and time training people to become better listeners, but we need to realize that conversations involve two (or more) parties, and speakers also have the responsibility to facilitate a better, more open-minded conversational experience.

Organizations should spend more effort creating a culture that welcomes and encourages moderate levels of healthy disagreement. It may also be helpful to develop training programs to help individuals recognize that there are many different perspectives from which to approach the same issue.

As a result, individuals may be better able to understand that disagreement may not stem from poor listening or close-mindedness—others may simply see the world in a different way because of their different backgrounds.

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