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Better Listening Skills Now

Teflon Listening


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		  Teflon Listening   

“It it looks like listening, if it acts like listening, if it  sounds like listening, why then, it must be listening.”  That ain't necessarily so.   

Pretending to Listen   

A listener can be looking at the speaker, nodding from time to time,  and uttering well-timed “uh-huhs” during the talk, all this – but no real  listening is happening. That is, no real taking in and considering what  was said. Instead, the words are being gracefully deflected, just like a  Teflon surface, by an adept management of appearances.   

In my conversation seminars, I often give participants the  following exercise: I ask person “A” in each trio to step outside  the room and recall a thrilling travel experience so that they can  present it in a lively way to the other two persons in their trio.  When “A's” are gone, I instruct persons “B” to appear to be very  involved – leaning forward, being attentive, nodding, etc. I tell  them that while they are doing this, think of something else,  perhaps a grocery list or a planned activity. I then instruct “C's”  to listen intently so that they could summarize what was said,  but not to engage in the usual “listening behaviors.” Instead,  look away and be silent.   

Then the “A's” return and tell their travel stories to “B” and  “C”. After they have finished their brief stories, I ask them to  identify who was the better listener. Invariably, they choose  the “B's”, the ones that only appeared to be listening. (I then ask  “B's” to recall details of what was said, but usually they are  unable to do so.) When we ask the “C's” – the one who appeared  NOT to be listening – to recall the details, they can usually do  this with ease.   

What is going on here? Well, simply put: It is possible to  adopt a set of observable behaviors that are polite and discreet  but do not include the principal element of effective listening --  the clear intention to understand what the speaker meant.   

Why Listeners May Not Pay Attention   

Sometimes this deflective “Teflon” listening may be caused  by a speaker who presents in a way so dull, so flat, and so routine  that listeners pay little heed. The speaker has already signaled  that “what I say is not valuable or important.” In marketing  terms, the speaker's message lacks “stickiness.”   

More usual, I think, is the “pretend” listener who is not much  interested in the ideas of others. Instead, this self-absorbed person  is preparing remarks, or judging and invalidating what was said,  or even “shuttling” elsewhere, pre-occupied and thinking about  other matters. “Getting through” to such persons is difficult. They  are so full of their own ideas, judgements, and pre-occupations,  their minds have no room for the thoughts of others.   

Day-dreaming and sleepy students are examples of Teflon  listening. Perhaps they are overloaded with too much information  from a series of complex lectures. Or they are sleep-deprived  and weary. (A professor friend who had taught at a Chinese  university told me that his students in the back rows could actually  sleep with their eyes open so looked attentive!)   

A minister I know has a very engaging manner, but he seems  to absorb little of – or consider seriously – what is said to him.  Loquacious and excited to share his own ideas, he tends to  deflect the thoughts of most others while preparing to inject  his own remarks. I think he is unaware that others notice this.  But they do.   

How to Improve Another's Listening   

One way to influence the Teflon listeners to pay attention  is to ask “What do you understand me to be saying?” when you  have finished talking. You can do this very tactfully and in a  pleasant tone. Often these non-listeners will be alerted that  they'll be found to be dissembling if they don't pay attention.  Knowing they might be questioned on what was said often  encourages others to listen more carefully.  


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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