Listen Without Prejudice

Unconscious Bias - Listening

3 Unconscious Biases That Prevent Leaders from Truly Listening to Understand

Unconscious Biases
This article highlights the key biases leaders need to be aware of, while building their skills and intentions on listening.

Last time, I wrote on Unconscious Biases, I had hundreds of responses to my blog asking for more. Today I am going to share the 3 unconscious biases that prevent leaders from truly listening to understand. 

Listening vs. Understanding

Before we get to it, first let me share a little about what I mean by listening versus listening to understand. Whilst listening, we are gathering all kinds of intel. What the person is sharing – be it a story, a challenge, a doubt, a grievance, a problem, an idea or even a solution. We call this the content of the conversation. Be it as it may, professional have, over the years, been exposed to all kinds of ‘active listening’ skills. In that, they are encouraged to nod, maintain eye contact, and even paraphrase what has been heard. All that is well, up to a point. Why then, do we still struggle to be genuinely understood by people around us? When people talk to us, they share more than just words and eye contact. They share their values, beliefs, emotions and feelings about the subject at hand. We call this the context of the conversation.

My belief has been that when you truly deep dive into both the content and the context of what the person is saying, you end up understanding rather than just listening. This article addresses the 3 most common unconscious biases that act on people, especially leaders, whilst listening. These unconscious biases play an active and subtle role in preventing us from listening. Each of us has a ‘Duck’ that acts as a version of us and this so called ‘duck’ resides in our minds. It constantly quacks and in doing so, it unconsciously steers us to do things without us even realizing. People who master this ‘Duck’, practice what we call ‘mindfulness’ – being present in the here and now and being acutely aware of what’s happening to them and the people they are interacting with. This ‘Duck’ is also the epicenter of our unconscious biases. In his mega bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow the author, Daniel Kahneman, world-famous psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a ground-breaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. System 1 is where the ‘Duck’ resides.


Confirmation is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior cognition, beliefs or values. It is an important type of cognitive bias that has a significant effect on the way leaders end up listening. Instead of listening to the opposing side and considering all of the facts in a logical and rational manner, people tend simply to look for things that reinforce what they already think is true.

For example, people generally prefer to spend more time listening to things which supports their own stance on that subject, while neglecting information that contradicts it. In the world if financial investments, investors rely more strongly on information which confirms their pre-existing beliefs with regard to the value of certain stocks – any new or contradicting ideas may rapidly be ignored or shunned.

Note: though evidence of the confirmation bias has appeared in psychological literature throughout history, the term ‘confirmation bias’ was first used in a 1977 paper on the topic.

Ways to overcome Confirmation Bias whilst listening

Look for ways to challenge what you think you listen to. Seek out more information from the person talking to you. Ask questions and be curious. Be open to challenging your own dogmas.


I like to use the phrase ‘Me Too’ when it comes to this bias. When people talk to us, our system 1 quickly looks for similarities in what they are saying to match our own experiences. This is called Relating. There is nothing wrong with Relating, in fact, it’s an important aspect  of empathy. However, when relating shifts focus from the speaker and bring the spotlight on you, the leader, the purpose of listening is defeated. Imagine a conversation between John and Jane.

John: I had such a terrible day at the office, my boss really seems to be quite impatient at times when it comes to demanding work.

Jane: Oh, that terrible, John. In fact, my boss is even worse. There was this one time….

And the conversation is no longer about John and his experience anymore; instead, it’s now become about  what Jane and her experience.

When this form of bias creeps in whilst listening, as a leader, your people shut down after a while and walk away feeling ‘not listened to’.

Ways to overcome Relating whilst listening

Whilst listening as leaders, you may often come across ideas from your people that you have already had first-hand experience on. Being patient and listening to them fully and with ‘presence’ then, means you giving up on relating and staying with the person. Checking in with them about how they are feeling (context) and trying to genuinely understand where they are coming from will leave you people feeling both ‘understood’ and also empowered to go back with their own ideas of how to work around the issues or challenges they may be faced with.


Anchoring is a cognitive bias where an individual depends too heavily on an initial piece of information offered to make subsequent judgments during decision making. Once the value of this anchor is set, all future negotiations, arguments, estimates, etc. are discussed in relation to the anchor. Anchoring bias occurs when people rely too much on pre-existing information or the first information they find when making decisions. For example, if you first see a T-shirt that costs $100 – then see a second one that costs $20 – you’re prone to see the second shirt as cheap.

So, what does this have to do with how we listen? Well, quite much.

When leaders are required to make decisions, carefully considering facts and facets to derive options is step one of the process. While listening to various people’s opinions and ideas be careful about what anchors first.

For example, the head of HR and procurement attend a meeting with a vendor-partner after discussing a number that they would be willing to pay for a project at hand. In the first round of the mediation, the other side has the first opportunity to offer a number. Its opening demand is ridiculously high and nowhere near what the HR and procurement heads had discussed. What is everyone in the room to do with that very large number? The HR and procurement heads may start to worry that this opening number will influence the mediation. And the research on cognitive bias confirms that the HR and procurement heads are right to worry. The “anchoring effect” will tend to pull negotiations toward the number that any side puts out as the first “anchor.”

Ways to overcome Anchoring Bias whilst listening

Fight the anchor by asking for time to reconsider. Look for industry benchmarks before reconvening. Purposefully brainstorm all arguments against the anchor. Kahneman points out that this strategy is helpful for managing one’s own thoughts about a potential anchor. Reduce distractions and go back to basics – look at your own numbers to start with and take it from there. Listen to get full information about the justification for high numbers and learn about smaller components that contributed toward arriving at the larger number.


Because listening involves perception and is so intertwined with thinking, it is vulnerable to cognitive bias. By understanding these biases and how they affect perceptions and their thinking, leaders can take counteract the effects of these biases and also build their Emotional Quotient. Mastering unconscious biases by making them conscious biases is the first step toward listening with intent. Once the unconscious part becomes conscious, the rest becomes a matter of practice and skill-building, not to mention a great way to also build organisational culture.



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