Think of the last time someone asked you a question, and you proceeded to respond with a simple, “I don’t know.”

Of course, in an ideal situation, you would have been able to reply with something a little more thoughtful than those three words. But, at the moment, it was the best you could do — you legitimately didn’t have a better answer to offer.

Now, did your conversational partner simply accept your response and move on? Or, did he or she proceed to ask various follow-up questions in an effort to pull an actual answer out of you — even though you had already made it clear you didn’t have further information?

If you’re gritting your teeth, clenching your fists, and thinking, “The second one. Definitely the second one,” you’re not alone. In fact, that means you’ve just experienced a communication faux pas that we all commit — often without even realizing it.

The Mistake

Asking questions and then completely disregarding (or even ignoring) the answer we’re given is a conversational trap we all seem to fall into from time to time.

It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? After all, you pose questions in order to get an answer. So, why on earth would you ask something and then fail to actually listen to the response? It’s counterproductive.

But, alas, it’s something you’ll see happen time and time again — even in a professional setting.

This can take shape in a relatively simple context, such as the “I don’t know” example above, or even an acquaintance asking a polite, “How are you?” and then charging ahead with his own statements without even pausing to hear an actual reply.

Or, it can be much more involved — such as a colleague who has asked for the same information in three separate meetings, because she keeps neglecting to actually absorb the answer when it’s offered.

Why It Happens

Needless to say, this communication faux pas can really get under people’s skin. But, as crazy as it might make you, chances are high that you’ve made the very same mistake yourself — plenty of times.

Why? Well, it likely all comes down to the level of distraction we all experience on a daily basis.

Today, there’s no denying that we’re all over-stimulated. Our brains often resemble internet browser windows with far too many tabs open at one time.

We “listen” while we scroll through our phone notifications. We “listen” while reading emails and cleaning out our in-boxes. We “listen” while mentally making our grocery lists.

And, while that half-hearted attempt allows us to be just tuned in enough with the conversation to ask questions, we’re often not actually actively engaged in listening to the answer that follows.

It comes as no surprise, then, that most people only remember a measly 17-25% of the things they listen to.

How to Fix It

Alright, so you know that this habit doesn’t make you a strong conversationalist. But, how do you stop it?

Well, the solution is really as simple as being conscious of those distractions, tuning them out, and giving your conversational partner the full attention that he or she deserves.

Put your phone down. Look away from your computer or your notes when someone else is speaking. Do your best to stay focused on the discussion you’re having right at that moment — instead of simultaneously brainstorming tomorrow’s to-do list.

You’ll be surprised at how much of an impact being intentional with your listening can have.

And, if you manage to slip up, zone out, and miss the answer to a question you just haphazardly asked? Don’t be afraid to apologize immediately and ask again.

In the end, that’s much better than sweeping your blunder under the rug and only pretending you understood the answer.