How Experience Turns Us Into Poor Listeners


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We’ve all been frustrated when someone wasn’t listening. 

Perhaps it was your boss, a co-worker, or even a friend. The really aggravating times are when a customer service rep doesn’t listen. After all, isn’t that their job?

In customer service, experience is one of the surprising culprits.

A natural instinct designed to make us more efficient actually hurts our listening skills. The problem is made even worse the more experience we acquire. 

The Pattern Recognition Instinct

Our brains are wired to look for familiar patterns. Here’s an explanation from my book, Service Failure:

This capability allows us to make quick sense of large amounts of data without getting bogged down in the details. It’s an ability that comes in handy in many ways, such as determining if something is safe or dangerous, recognizing people we know, or even when reading.

You may have seen this example:

People can easliy raed misspleled wrods as long as all the lettres are there and the fisrt and lsat letters are in the corerct position.

Crazy, right?

The challenge is the pattern recognition instinct can kick in at inopportune times. It’s like when you type an unusual word on your phone and autocorrect keeps changing it. You’re thinking, “No! I know what I’m typing! Stop!” 

A customer who asks a question that sounds like one you’ve heard before can instinctively trigger the same response. 

Your brain automatically stops listening and says, “I know the answer!”

In a perfect world, this makes you a mind reader. Some companies even advertise this as a special advantage. A recent AT&T commercial provides a great example.

The problem is that mind reading isn’t usually what happens. What usually happens is bad:

  • You interrupt the customer.
  • You misunderstand the customer.
  • You become convinced you understand even when you don’t.

Experience Makes It Worse

Weak patterns are easier to overcome than strong ones.

Maybe you’ve heard a story once. It’s easy to listen intently the next time you hear a story that starts out sounding the same.

But try listening to the same story one hundred times. A thousand times. Maybe more. 

That’s a pretty tough pattern to break. The pattern is reinforced when you stop listening and get it right anyway. 

Your brain says, “Ah ha! I really am a mind reader.” 

The most experienced customer service employees really do develop skills that seem like mind reading. It’s pretty fantastic. That is, until is backfires and they miss a key piece of the customer’s story.

Some experienced employees still dig in their heels. There’s pride that comes with that experience. A little voice inside their brain tells them they can’t be wrong (even though they are).

The result? Less listening.

Building New Instincts

Overcoming this natural instinct takes effort.

Start by being intentional. Make a concerted effort to give customers your full attention. 

It’s also helpful to employ specific listening techniques:

  • Deliberately suspend judgement
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Paraphrase to confirm understanding

You can learn more by watching this video on overcoming listening barriers. There’s even a scene at 1:22 in the video that shows what happens when the pattern recognition instinct gets it wrong.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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