Dark Side Active Listening

Disclaimer: we don’t endorse any of this.

Following my post about active listening a few weeks back, JTA and I have been discussing the potential of what we’re calling Dark Side Active Listening – that is; the use (misuse?) of the skills taught by practitioners of active listening for the purpose of upsetting, infuriating, disorienting, or simply gaining the upper hand over other people. Here’s some of the things we talked about:

Mishearing And Misunderstanding

Do not underestimate the power of strategically failing to hear what somebody is saying to you. The favourite trick of schoolchildren (“Do you hear something? No, there’s nobody here.” while some poor tormented kid shouts “I’m here, you poo-heads!”) can be reinvented – with a marginally more refined edge – into something truly bitter and twisted. In particular, this is useful when dealing with somebody who has quite blatantly rehearsed quite carefully what they plan to say to you. For example:

Boss: We need to talk about your punctuality. Come to my office, now.
Darksider: (waits a few seconds, looking right back at the boss; then, finally:) I’m sorry, what?
Boss: (momentarily thrown by this change in the script) I said… umm… come to my office. Er… yeah.

The result is much the same – the darksider is in trouble for being consistently late – but the feelings of the boss are significantly different. By having their script, so carefully rehearsed in their mind, thrown off course so expertly, they’re no longer as confident in their own authority.

The key to successful strategic mishearing is in the pause – by waiting for a few seconds… long enough that if you were actually “listening” you’d have been using the time to let what they said sink in – before responding. This time gives the speaker the opportunity for their brain to turn the page in their subconscious script and get ready for their next line (unless, of course, they’re a lightsider and they understand that if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next then you’re not truly listening… but if they’ve taken the time to rehearse in their mind what they’re going to say, they’re probably not lightsiding anyway).

Misunderstanding is also a valuable tool, and with far more applications. At it’s simplest level, misunderstanding can be used to deliberately raise temperature and infuriate the other person, like this:

Them: I need you to get the May forecasts to me by the end of this month!
Darksider: Won’t it be a bit late to use a forecast by then?
Them: What?
Darksider: By the end of May, the May forecasts will be out of date.
Them: No: this month.
Darksider: I already gave you this month’s forecasts. Last month.
Them: No… I need you to get May’s forecasts to me by the end of this month.
Darksider: Let me get this straight: you don’t want this month’s forecast at all, now?
Them: (explodes)

In everyday life, our conversations are full of assumptions: particularly assumptions about one another’s understanding of the topics we cover. By deliberately failing to make use of the knowledge we have and requiring that everything be explained in full (and, ideally, in triplicate), we can annoy other people quite a lot. For information on the benefits of winding other people up, see the section on temperature, below.

Perhaps a more sneaky use of misunderstanding comes from making a deliberate assumption about the inferred meaning of what somebody said, and then acting upon it without clarification. This is easy to do: just start taking everything metaphorical (e.g. “give me a bell”) literally (e.g. delivering a bell to the speaker), and everything literal (e.g. “don’t leave through the fire escape any more”) metaphorically (“he can’t have meant that – what would we do if there was a fire – let’s just keep using it” or imprecisely (“oh; you meant this fire escape?”), or just forget (“oh yeah; you did say something about that, didn’t you?”).

Asking Questions

If they’re trying to raise the temperature, a darksider will ask questions to clarify information and encourage the speaker to carry on talking, just like a lightsider. The difference is in the kinds of questions that they ask. These include:

Run-On Questions

Ask questions that are impossible to answer simply, especially when time is short. For example, instead of asking “Will you have that finished by tomorrow?”, ask “Will you have that finished? Or won’t you? By tomorrow?” Suddenly, a question which could be answered with a simple affirmative or negative must be debated, as the victim’s brain struggles to work out how many questions they were actually asked, and how their answer will be interpreted (particularly thanks to the negation, “…or won’t you…”: more on negatives later). Plus, asking multiple questions at the same time means that you’ve given yourself lots of opportunities to deliberately misunderstand whatever answer they give (by assuming that their answer was to one of your other questions, leading to further temperature rises.


Use of negativity can quickly be used to put across anything from simple lack of concern to abject disapproval. “Aren’t you going to finish your dinner?” carries the implication that the speaker would be displeased with a negative answer, as opposed to “Are you going…” (although tone of voice can make a big difference to the implied subtle meaning, in either case).

Here’s a tip for if you really want to start an argument: when combining deliberate misunderstanding tricks with negatively-worded questions, don’t immediately pounce on the opportunity (e.g. “Yes? You mean, yes, you aren’t going to finish your dinner?” or “No? You’re not going to finish your dinner?”) but instead wait until further in the conversation before using their misinterpreted answer as an argument against them. By this time, they’re likely to be confused by your comprehension of their meaning but less able than you (having kept your plans in the front of your mind) to backtrack and correct themselves. Better yet, people will usually take responsibility for the misunderstanding, thinking that it was their fault in the first place.

Stupid Questions

Playing stupid, forgetful, or over-curious is a great way to annoy somebody. Here’s an example:

Them: I need you to get the May forecasts to me by the end of this month!
Darksider: Where will I find them?
Them: You have to make them up, first!
Darksider: Make them up?
Them: Yes, using the spreadsheet tool I showed you the other week! Don’t you remember?
Darksider: (shakes head)
Them: Look, just click “Generate New Forecast,” then… (continues demonstration)
Darksider: (later) Oh; that tool. Yeah; I know how to use that tool.
Them: (sighs) So when can you get me the forecasts?
Darksider: (later) What forecasts?
Them: (explodes)

Perhaps the cruellest trick in this category is to pretend that you don’t know anything and require clarification on every single point, only later to explain that you were pretty sure you had it pegged to begin with, but you needed to be sure. Then tell them that they needn’t have gone into so much detail.

Body Language

Just like in regular active listening, dark side active listening requires careful attention to body language. In particular, you must remain, or appear to remain, absolutely calm and relaxed at all times. Retaining a calm, composed exterior while deliberately winding somebody up can easily work to infuriate them even more, and this is a fundamental point in winning arguments using temperature, as discussed below.

Good body language can make a huge difference to a dark side effort. Paying absolute attention to a long-winded explanation but, right at the last minute – being “distracted” by something in the outside environment, can be a wonderful way to help justify your need for the reiteration of the topic.

You can send brilliant mixed messages by gently nodding while you say “No” and shaking your head when you say “Yes”. An inattentive listener will listen to what you say but will feel uneasy by their subconscious association of your body language with the opposite response to the one they’re hearing, like something is “out of place”. To really disorient somebody, try occasionally flicking your eyes up to look over their shoulder or at a point squarely in the middle of their chest, throughout the conversation, then look at them quizically if they turn to investigate, as if you’d never made the gesture in the first place. To help justify repetition, appear to be concentrating when discussing unimportant matters, as if making a mental note of every word, but then appear bored and uninterested when the important stuff comes up.

Another sneaky trick to throw people off-topic is to repeat the last few words of every sentence they say. Some people have a habit of this anyway, and they’ve probably dealt with it before, but the twist is this: later, start paraphrasing from time to time, so you’re no longer echoing them, but saying the same meaning as their last few words in a different way. Then, work your way up to saying different things at the end of each of their sentences, completely unrelated things: your shopping list, football scores, what you did on each day of the week last week – anything. By easing into it, it may be some time before they interrupt you and stop you, at which point play ignorant and go back to just parroting them again. Nothing disrupts the flow of conversation like unpredictability.

Try experimenting with eye contact: how about breaking eye contact whenever they make it, or trying to outstare them while they’re talking. Think about personal space: I’d recommend standing just far enough away from them that another person could pass in-between you, so that if anybody does walk your way, you can step back and gesture for them to walk through the middle of your conversation: you come across as polite, and, if you’ve been playing the other tricks in this article right, they berate themselves for being incensed by this.


The fundamental aim of the majority of these tricks is to raise “temperature”, the meaning of which is discussed in the previous article. Why? Because this is an easy way to gain a moral victory in an otherwise unwinnable (or not-worth-bothering-with) argument. Piss the other person off enough while keeping your cool and you take the moral high ground, and they come off thinking that they’re somehow the “bad guy” for not being able to deal with you like an adult. And in the end, isn’t that what arguing is all about.

Closing Words

Hope you enjoyed reading that; it’s been sitting on the back-burner for ages and I’d never got around to finishing it. Obviously I don’t endorse doing any of these things, and I’d certainly say that you should never do any of them to anybody you want to be friends with, ever. I just wanted to share with you the idea that the application (and mis-application) of active listening techniques could be “used for evil as well as for good”… like everything else, for that matter.


  1. I like it. This part:

    You can send brilliant mixed messages by gently nodding while you say “No” and shaking your head when you say “Yes”.

    …is quite commonly seen in politicians’ speeches.

    Interviewer: “So, Mr Prime Minister – do you believe that the party is doing all it can to combat the problem of homelessness?”
    PM: [shakes head] “Yes, absolutely.”

    Permission to link, sir?

  2. Dan Q Dan Q says:

    Thanks for your feedback.

    Everything on my blog is “free” (as in both speech and beer): anybody can link to any of it or use anything I write without even asking my permission, unless I explicitly state otherwise – go ahead and link.

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