The Five Barriers to Effective Listening

Frank Racioppi
Sep 3, 2017 · 6 min read

In today’s society, talking garners attention, praise and admiration while ably demonstrating a person’s intrinsic leadership skills. In fact, however, it may be listening that functions as the most critical communication skill.

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Whenever people talk about having “excellent communication skills,” they often focus on their ability to talk and be understood. But, in reality, the most difficult — and arguably the most important — communications skill is listening.

For many, listening and hearing are synonymous. According to Madelyn Burley-Allen, the author of Listening: The Forgotten Skill, listening involves a more sophisticated mental process than hearing.

“Listening demands energy and discipline,” writes Burley-Allen. “Listening is a learned skill. The first step is to realize that effective listening is an active, not a passive, process.”

Although we give little attention to our listening skills, the irony is that we absorb more information from the external world from listening than we do from reading and writing combined.

Here are five barriers to effective listening

1.We receive no formal training in listening

Sure, we have a lifetime of listening to draw upon as a learning experience, but there are no formal training classes for listening. At school, we learn how to read and write and even speak, but listening is a skill we are just expected to pick up.

Consider that we take reading in one form or another as a class in elementary, middle and high schools, either called Basic Language or English Composition. We learn to write in the beginning of our elementary school career and then have writing throughout middle and high school and even college.

2. Speaking as a skill is seen as more important than listening

When we think of charismatic leaders we think of great speakers — Lincoln at Gettysburg, FDR on the day after Pearl Harbor, or JFK’s inaugural address.

When we speak, we make things happen, impress people with our skills and motivate others to action.

Consider, however, that Lincoln was also known as a skilled listener and in Team Of Rivals, the 2005 book by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln’s cabinet and how Lincoln chose key men with different perspectives so he could listen to the diversity of views and make a balanced decision.

Even in the entertainment industry, listening — while playing second fiddle to speaking — demonstrates its importance. For example, Johnny Carson, the 30-year host of The Tonight Show, was a very funny man, but his longevity was also influenced by how he listened to his guests and then asked questions or fed them straight lines to enhance their performance on the show.

3. Filters keep us from listening without bias

Filters impede listening through a variety of ways, including dislike of the person we are listening to or their message, which we disagree with. For example, confirmation bias is a well-known phenomena in which people block out information that does not synchronize with their current world view.

Witness the political conservative that watches only Fox News for all their daily information on the world or the liberal who will exclusively check out MSNBC.

We filter out information we disagree with by either avoiding it or when we are confronted with it, we simply stop listening to its meaning.

Numerous studies reveal that we listen more effectively to people we care about — that includes teenagers listening to their parents — than we do to people we either dislike or disagree with.

4. Effective listening takes a lot of mental effort

Most of us think of listening as something we do automatically like breathing or seeing. But actively listening takes real effort to interpret what a person is saying and the undercurrent of meaning in their words. For most people, listening is just recording the words actually being said without diving down for the deeper meaning of what is being said.

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In daily life, people drift in and out of listening during a conversation, thinking about their trip to the supermarket later on, only to return to the conversation long enough to respond with a “ahh” or “oh, really.”

Some conversations are perfunctory, such as greeting people at work where you exchange platitudes or just “happy chatter” with a friend over the phone.

The danger is that we treat all conversations as casual and do not exert the effort necessary to truly listen to another person, such as a teenage son, struggling to tell you about his grades.

5. Thinking about what you will say next instead of listening

The holy grail of not listening is thinking about how you will respond in a conversation instead of listening to the other person.

This setting for listening is the default one for most people and we see it happen every day without giving it a second thought.

But have you ever witnessed a conversation between people in which each person is more worried about responding than listening to what is being said? It is indeed painful and there seems to be little hope that understanding and consensus will result from the discussion. Witness TV political talk shows where guests from the opposite political spectrum are more interested in scoring debate points supporting their ideology than hearing valid points from the other side.

Therefore, it is relatively easy to see how the world is full of misunderstanding. People don’t listen.

The five styles of listening

Like any skill, we all develop strategies for listening that mesh with our personality and world view. These coping mechanisms often are successful enough for us to get by, but inadequate enough so that we suffer from our lack of true skill.

People employ listening styles to navigate conversations, but quite often these styles are counterproductive and frustrating for others in the conversation.

Here are the five styles of listener:

1. The Fraud — The most common type of listener, unfortunately, is the fraud listener, who simply pretends to listen. Some frauds use head nods and eye contact to entice the speaker into believing they are listening. Often, the fraud listener will even memorize a fact or two and repeat them back to you to convince you that they are indeed listening intently.

Of course, they may not even know what you are saying as you are speaking and most of the time they will forgotten almost all of what you said or meant within minutes of the conversation’s end.

2. The Interrupter — Yes, they are listening and you can tell that because they are constantly interrupting to get across a point they feel is essential to the conversation. Interrupters are adept at thinking about what they want to say while you are speaking and as soon as that thought is fully formed in their head, they interrupt.

3. The Charmer — These people are also listening but just to the words and not to the meaning because they are too busy trying to charm the speaker by demonstrating they are locked in to listening. This group is more concerned on how you, the speaker, will think about them than what you are saying.

Impressing you with some key paraphased statement and smiling and nodding are signs that they wholeheartedly agree with you, even if they are not entirely sure what you mean.

4. Self-Absorbed — When you are talking to these people, what’s going through their mind is, “How do I look? Am I acting like I’m listening? Does the speaker think I’m smart? Self-absorbed listeners are simply preoccupied with their internal state.

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5. Rational — Yes, they listen intently and that is a positive development, but this style only hears the rational and factual parts of your speech. This group is analyzing what is being said and very busy categorizing the speaker’s words and filing them in the appropriate mental area, rather than sensing the undercurrent of emotion that may be the more important premise for speaking.

Just like our belief in our driving skill, we think that most of us are “above average” listeners. The sad truth is that these five styles make up a significant majority of listeners.

Finally, some of our greatest leaders known ostensibly for their leaderships skills were, in fact, superb listeners. For example, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were famous for listening intently and assessing ideas and concepts while cabinet heads battled it out.

As talk show host Larry King once said, “Every day I realize that nothing I say will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I have to listen.”

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