Coffee Conversations Ep. 14: Out of Place Behaviors When Listening

January 20, 2022
  • David VanderMolen
  • David VanderMolen
    Learning Sensei

Back in the day, a segment ran on the popular children’s television show, Sesame Street in which the narrator invited children to look at series of items displayed on the screen.

Often, it was four pieces of fruit, like three apples and one banana. They then would ask, “Which one doesn’t belong?” The outlier – the distinctive piece of fruit that’s out of place with the three round and red apples – is the yellow banana.

Now when it comes to listening, there are a number of yellow bananas that do not belong when we’re really trying to empathize with another person. Most likely, they are things that seem so natural for us to do, they don’t really seem out of place at all.

Here are four behaviors that routinely show-up in the way people practice listening that don’t belong or that are out of place in the practice of listening:

Questioning. It pulls the person who was working to solve their own problem out of their own problem-solving mode into responding to the listener’s question. As well, questioning is usually done to bring details about a person’s problem to the surface, in order to resolve the problem for the other person. This sort of behavior is out of place because it violates the Problem Owner Rule which states: “The owner of the problem is the one responsible to solve the problem.” 

Advice Giving. This may seem as if it’s right at home with listening or problem-solving, yet advice-giving is out of place too. Advice-giving is typically a subtle way of directing the conversion, setting an agenda for the other or recommending a course of action for the person with the problem so the advice-giver can in effect solve the problem. Once again, that violates the Problem Owner Rule. 

Sharing Your Own Story. This tends to accompany advice giving but is also out of place. It stops the person with the problem from sharing or working out loud their own problem. It also shifts the speaking or sharing role to the person who should be serving as a sounding board for the person experiencing a problem. When done, it is usually well-intended, yet it’s a woefully inadequate behavior that’s out of place when listening. 

Offering Reassurance. Again, seems kind or natural to do, but it’s out of place because it's not usually done to comfort the one experiencing the problem. Instead, it's a means for the listener to cope with the unwelcome emotions coming from the problem person. In effect, reassurance is often a way for the listener to put in check the emotional upheaval the problem person is expressing. Reassurance can also be deceptive at its core because one never really knows the outcome of the problem.

Apply this…

  • Of the four out of place listening behaviors (questioning, advice giving, sharing your own story, or offering reassurance), the one I tend to practice the most is...
  • If I reflect on it, I think I tend to resort to practicing this out of place behavior when I listen because I…
  • It’s likely when I practice this behavior when I listen to others, those I’m listening to will likely experience...
  • Which of the Five Listening Behaviors (attending behavior, acknowledgments, door openers, silence, or reflective listening) would be better for me to resort to when I’m listening to help others to solve their own problems?

David VanderMolen is a professor in Barry-Wehmiller University and the host of Coffee Conversations. You can find all past episodes here.


Related Posts

Need help in applying principles of Truly Human Leadership in your organization? Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute is Barry-Wehmiller's leadership consulting firm that partners with other companies to create strategic visions, engage employees, improve corporate culture and develop outstanding leaders through leadership training, assessments and workshops.

Find out more at