Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Addressing a Poor Listener

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve noticed lately that my friend isn’t giving me her full attention when I’m speaking. She will start the conversation, but when I’m discussing a point, her attention starts to wander. Sometimes she won’t even acknowledge what I’m saying. It feels like she wants to end the conversation while I’m still speaking. It’s very hurtful and it makes me feel like she does not value what I say. How can I get her to stop doing this?


Dear Ignored,

In our busy, technology-saturated world, gaining and retaining people’s attention can feel like an impossible challenge. We must compete with smartphones in every hand and screens on every wall. And if not distracted by screens, people are preoccupied with an overloaded to-do list and anxiety around getting it all done. I can empathize with your frustration of not having your friend’s attention. I can also empathize with your friend who is struggling to give you the attention you deserve.

I want to share a few skills that will help in your Crucial Conversation. However, before I start, I invite you to shift your expectations. You can’t get people to do anything. People have their agency, and while the dialogue skills can influence behavior, they aren’t a form of manipulation. As you approach your friend, consider that what you share might motivate her to change the way she shows up in your interactions, and it might not. That behavior change is up to your friend, not you.

To be specific, the conversation you’ll want to hold with your friend is an accountability conversation. There is a gap between how you expect your friend to behave when you’re together and the way she is actually behaving. So, how can you attempt to close that gap?

As you approach this accountability conversation, try the following skills:

Assume the best. Rather than assume she is purposefully not giving you her full attention, assume that she is unaware of the problem. When you assume the best of someone cutting in line at Disneyland, for example, you say things like: “I’m sorry. Were you aware that we’ve been standing here in line?” This presumption of innocence avoids an accusation and starts the conversation on the right foot.

Separate intentions from outcome. You stated that when your friend’s attention starts to wander it is hurtful and makes you feel that she doesn’t really value what you have to say. While these feelings are understandable, don’t lead with them. Doing so will likely put your friend on the defense and you’ll start the conversation on an emotional cliff.

Consider that what you’re feeling isn’t the result of her direct intentions. Likely she isn’t intending to hurt you. Possibly, she’s totally unaware of how she’s showing up in your interactions. Assuming the best and separating intentions from the outcomes allows you to hold a pragmatic conversation based on facts and not perceptions. Which leads us to the next skill.

Start with the facts. You’re more likely to have a successful conversation when you start with the facts rather than your feelings. Facts are the least controversial part of what you have to say and the least likely to be debatable. To avoid a debate about the facts, I’d suggest waiting to hold your conversation until the next time these behaviors show up. So, the next time you find yourself interacting with your friend and you notice that she starts to look at her phone, or her attention wanders, pause the conversation right there and point out the behavior. It might sound like this.

“Hey, something just happened that I’d like to draw your attention to. You asked me a question, and as soon as I started to speak, you pulled out your phone and started scrolling. In fact, this is something that happens a lot when we’re together.”

Now that you’ve pointed out the behavior in the moment, you can share your conclusion. “When you start scrolling on your phone, or seem distracted by something else while we’re talking, it makes me feel like you don’t really value what I’m saying or maybe don’t want to spend time with me.”

Then check to see if you’ve got it right. “Is that what is going on or am I missing something?”

Listen. Now that you’ve shared your meaning, it’s time to listen and let your friend share hers. Don’t interject, simply listen. Perhaps you’ll learn something about why she feels the need to put her attention elsewhere when you’re together. Maybe she’s overwhelmed at work and under a lot of pressure, feeling like she needs to be constantly tethered to email. Perhaps she’s emotionally distant for other personal reasons that might surface as she shares her meaning. However, I suspect, she’ll be surprised and apologetic. She’ll say something like, “Oh no. You’re right, I am really distracted and I’m sorry that it has made you feel like I don’t value our time together. I do enjoy talking with you and I’ll try to do better.” If she is receptive in this or a similar way, then move to the next step.

Set some boundaries. Take the opportunity to set some ground rules about how you’ll act when you’re together. Say something like, “Let’s commit to putting each other first when we’re together. Could we leave our phones in our bags instead of out in the open? That will help eliminate the distraction altogether.” Or find another way to ensure that your time together is focused and meaningful.

The last step is important because it allows you to not have to repeat the conversation in the event your friend is distracted while talking in the future. You can just say, “Hey, remember how we discussed eliminating distractions when we’re together?” It also allows you to move the issue forward using the CPR skill—Content, Pattern, Relationship. This first conversation was about the content. But if it happens again, you can now address the pattern. And eventually, if needed, you would address the relationship.

If your friend truly doesn’t value your relationship enough to focus on you when you’re together, then it will soon become apparent, and you may choose to spend your time with others who do.

Best of luck in your accountability conversation.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

7 thoughts on “Addressing a Poor Listener”

  1. Melissa

    Dear receiver of a poor listening friend,
    There are many sides to a story and I feel that perhaps when you are speaking with this person you may have been “saying the same thing over and over” and perhaps they are genuinely bored with you constantly repeating yourself and your stories over and over. Friendships are another word for “relationship” and there are times when each friendship has a season of change – Did you ever ask your “friend” why they appear to be bored with what you have to say? They might surprise you and say “well, I don’t want to hurt your feelings but every time you ask my opinion you do the exact opposite anyway so why bother”! And lastly, a friend is someone that is there for you, listens to you, is honest with you and deeply, genuinely cares about you – if they are not then the season has ended and its time for a change and new friendships should be made and this one ended

  2. Liz

    As someone with ADHD, I have been your friend. I don’t suggest armchair diagnosing her, but this possibility may help you reframe how you view her behavior. She may genuinely not want to do this at all and be really struggling to do better! Or she may be entirely unaware that she does this, and your revelation to her could be a great gift to her! Either way, you cannot know until you talk to her. I hope you get what you need to approach this conversation with the love you have for your friend and assume she loves you too!

  3. Marvin

    Another option is to try framing your response as a question. The question compels the friend to answer. Then respond with another response framed as a question.

  4. BLÉ Philippe TAPE

    Merci beaucoup pour ce partage. Il a été très utile pour moi. Surtout le point 1. Car je crois que c’est le noeud de tout problème. Merci encore.

  5. Debbie

    Sadly a lot of people do not listen to understand. They only listen to respond.

  6. Tom B

    At risk, I’ll put another thought out there
    Perhaps the friend is sending a subtle message. Perhaps the speaker is needy and the friend can’t fill that need.

  7. Hopelessly Human

    Thank you Melissa and Tom for noting their is another side to the story. I have two people in my life that I love with all my heart but they seem to feel a need to express everything that pops into their heads. I am tempted to hold up fingers for the number of times they have told me the same story. Call it selfish but there are times when I’d prefer to focus on something other than what they are saying.

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