Why Smart People Are Such Poor Listeners

By Thomas J. Lee

At this very moment, you are reading this, and therefore you are bright.

I'm not being sarcastic, and I'm not being fulsome. It's true. If you're reading a blog like this, chances are that you're suffering from a condition known as above-average intelligence.

Okay, now that's a little over the top, I admit.


Still, there's some truth to it. Smart people have a lot of advantages, but they also have a couple of large disadvantages. One big disadvantage is the inability to listen as well as people of average or even below-average intelligence can listen.

That's right. It may come as a shock, so I will repeat it for emphasis: The smarter you are, the more difficulty you probably have listening to other people.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you're leaping to the conclusion that you are the exception, then you're very likely a worse listener than your peers.

Why are smart people poor listeners?

Well, by definition, intelligent people absorb information fast. Researchers have found that intelligent people think at the rate of 500 to 700 words per minute. Even fast talkers speak at only 175 to 200 words per minute.

That's a lot of time—at least 36 of every 60 seconds—for you to be mentally doing other things while people leisurely finish their own sentences.

What are you doing for those 36-plus seconds of every minute? Lots of things.

You're thinking about the agenda for tomorrow's meeting. You're sorting through candidates for the staff vacancy. You're remembering to get arugula at the fresh market. You're debating which movie to see tonight. You're wondering why this person is taking forever to make a simple point.

Most of all, you're deciding what to say in response.

Bright people also tend to make judgments—lots of them, in rapid fire. So as another person is talking, you are making judgments about her intelligence, her knowledge, her diction, and maybe a few other things we won't go into here.

Finally, smart people are typically busy people. You probably have a lot of issues and decisions you need to address. It is tempting to think through these things whenever you have a few seconds.

Given the ubiquity of smart phones, you may also be itching to send someone a text message or to scroll through your email or to check weather.com. You may even think you can multitask successfully. Hey, we're all a little delusional.

The big problem with all this is that people do notice it. At this very moment some of them are silently complaining to themselves that you don't listen. They may even be complaining aloud to one another. From that, they easily conclude that you don't care about their ideas. 

Now if you're as smart as you think you are, you'll identify listening skills as an opportunity for self-improvement, and you will do something about it. There are lots of resources out there: books, tapes, videos, coaching. Our Master Class is one of many; we describe four levels of good listening, and we set forth an eight-step process for what we term affirmative listening.

The important thing is to do something. Otherwise people will get the sense that you think you already know everything, and you and I already know that isn't the case. We do, don't we?