It's Monday morning. Your coworker, Bill, is sharing his ideas about a new product design. While Bill is talking, you listen well. You make eye contact with him, nod your head, and lean towards him. You understand everything he says, but you simply don't agree with his idea. So, after Bill shares his idea, you say, "I really appreciate you sharing these ideas, and I think there are many good points. But based on my own experience, I'm not sure this is the best idea."

Are you a good listener?

You would probably say, "Of course!" And many people who study high-quality listening would agree with you. However, our research suggests that Bill probably doesn't think so.

What's happening here?

There is a disconnect between objective listening behavior and the subjective feeling of being listened to. We think this occurs because speakers tend to rely heavily on whether a listener agrees with them as a shorthand for whether they have listened well. Across 11 experiments with 3,396 U.S. adult participants, we investigated this phenomenon and why it happens.

Testing the Effects of Agreement

In these studies, participants were the "speakers," and they were paired with a "listener." Although they thought the listeners were other participants, we actually hired research assistants and actors to be the listeners in these studies, and they were trained to listen and behave consistently in every conversation, so every speaker was met with the same objective listening quality.

Different studies had participants talking about different things, such as personally important socio-political topics (e.g., police reform), campus-related topics (e.g., free speech), and hypothetical hiring decisions (e.g., who to hire). After they shared their views, speakers learned whether the listener agreed or disagreed with them, and they rated how well their partner listened to them.

Time and again, participants thought their partner listened better if they agreed with them but listened worse if they disagreed. We found the same results regardless of whether we were looking at face-to-face video chats, synchronous online chats, or asynchronous audio communication.

We also tested whether it mattered how good the listening actually was. In some studies, we trained some listeners to listen quite well and others to listen quite poorly. In general, good listeners did seem like better listeners than bad listeners, but that didn't matter as much as the listener's agreement—partners who agreed seemed like better listeners, even if they were objectively bad listeners. In fact, when a disagreeing listener listened objectively well, they were seen as a worse listener than an agreeing listener who listened objectively poorly.

Why Does This Happen?

Psychologists have known for ages that people tend to ascribe all sorts of positive qualities to people they like, a pattern called the "halo effect." So perhaps it's just that people like listeners who agree with them more than people who do not, so they assume that listeners who agree with them are good listeners, among a host of other positive traits.

But our findings couldn't be simply explained by the halo effect. A second, more important reason for why this happens is that people assume they have an objective view of the world around them. They believe they see the world the way it "is." Therefore, people assume that if they share their positions on an issue with others, their audience will agree with them, as long as they also are unbiased and objective. If they disagree, it seems that they must not have listened. If they had listened, they would see the issue the same way!

In line with this, we found that speakers believed that a listener who agreed with them processed information more objectively than a listener who did not. Also, when uninvolved observers witnessed these conversations, they were less inclined to see agreement as a clear sign of good listening.

What Should People Do?

People come from different backgrounds and have different experiences growing up, so it's natural that they have different opinions. What Bill thinks is a great product design idea may not excite you, and your stance on a socio-political topic may not be shared by Jane. Conversations can be a channel for people to communicate these different ideas, facilitating learning and decision-making. However, we find that it may be very hard for someone to convey that they are a good listener while voicing opposing views.

One straightforward solution is for both speakers and listeners to acknowledge that they can mistakenly equate disagreement with poor listening. If someone accuses you of not listening, point out that you are listening but are just not agreeing. If you feel that someone is not listening to you, first ask yourself, "Are they really not listening, or are they just not agreeing with me?"

For Further Reading

Ren, Z., & Schaumberg, R. (2024). Disagreement Gets Mistaken for Bad Listening. Psychological Science, 35(5), 455–470.

Zhiying (Bella) Ren is a doctoral student in the Operations, Information, and Decisions Department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on managing and resolving conflicts in organizations.

Becky Schaumberg is an assistant professor in Operations, Information, and Decisions, with a background in micro-organizational behavior. Her main area of research is to understand the role of self-conscious emotions (e.g., guilt and shame) in organizations.