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4.3: Barriers to Effective Listening

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    We get in our own way when it comes to effective listening. While listening may be the communication skill we use foremost in formal education environments, it is taught the least (Brownell, 1996). To better learn to listen it is first important to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses as listeners.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Effective Listening


    Anticipating, or thinking about what the listener is likely to say, can detract from listening in several ways. On one hand, the listener might find the speaker is taking too long to make a point and try to anticipate what the final conclusion is going to be. While doing this, the listener has stopped actively listening to the speaker.

    A listener who knows too much, or thinks they do, listens poorly. The only answer is humility, and recognizing there is always something new to be learned. Anticipating what we will say in response to the speaker is another detractor to effective listening.

    Listening Profile

    The questions below correspond to each of the six listening components in HURIER: Hearing, Understanding, Remembering, Interpreting, Evaluating, and Responding. Before answering the questions, first guess which of the six you will do best at. In which area will you likely score lowest? Now respond to the following prompts gauging your listening behavior on a five-point scale (1 = almost never, 2 = infrequently, 3 = sometimes, 4 = often, 5 = almost always).

    _____1. I am constantly aware that people and circumstances change over time.

    _____2. I take into account the speaker’s personal and cultural perspective when listening to him or her.

    _____3. I pay attention to the important things going on around me.

    _____4. I accurately hear what is said to me.

    _____5. I understand the speaker’s vocabulary and recognize that my understanding of a work is likely to be somewhat.

    _____6. I adapt my response according to the needs of the particular situation.

    _____7. I weigh all evidence before making a decision.

    _____8. I take time to analyze the validity of my partner’s reasoning before arriving at my own conclusion.

    _____9. I can recall what I have heard, even when in stressful situations.

    _____10. I enter communication situations with a positive attitude.

    _____11. I ask relevant questions and restate my perceptions to make sure I have understood the speaker correctly.

    _____12. I provide clear and direct feedback to others.

    _____13. I do not let my emotions interfere with my listening or decision-making.

    _____14. I remember how the speaker’s facial expressions, body posture, and other nonverbal behaviors relate to the verbal message.

    _____15. I overcome distractions such as the conversation of others, background noises, and telephones, when someone is speaking.

    _____16. I distinguish between main ideas and supporting evidence when I listen.

    _____17. I am sensitive to the speaker’s tone in communication situations.

    _____18. I listen to and accurately remember what is said, even when I strongly disagree with the speaker’s viewpoint.

    Add your scores for 4 + 10 + 15. This is your hearing total.

    Add your scores for 5 + 11 + 16. This is your understanding total. Add your scores for 1 + 7 + 8. This is your evaluating total.

    Add your scores for 3 + 9 + 18. This is your remembering total. Add your scores for 2 + 14 + 17. This is your interpreting total. Add your scores for 6 + 12 + 13. This is your responding total.

    In which skill area do you score highest? Which is your lowest? How would these listening behaviors affect your interactions with peers, parents, instructors, or professional coworkers?


    Jumping to conclusions about the speaker is another barrier to effective listening. Perhaps you’ve been in the audience when a speaker makes a small mistake; maybe it’s mispronouncing a word or misstating the hometown of your favorite athlete. An effective listener will overlook this minor gaffe and continue to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. A listener looking for an excuse not to give their full attention to the speaker will instead take this momentary lapse as proof of flaws in all the person has said and will go on to say.

    This same listener might also judge the speaker based on superficialities. Focusing on delivery or personal appearance—a squeaky voice, a ketchup stain on a white shirt, mismatched socks, a bad haircut, or a proclaimed love for a band that no one of any worth could ever profess to like—might help the ineffective listener justify a choice to stop listening. Still, this is always a choice. The effective listener will instead accept that people may have their own individual foibles, but they can still be good speakers and valuable sources of insight or information.

    Reacting Emotionally

    When the speaker says an emotional trigger, it can be even more difficult to listen effectively. A guest speaker on campus begins with a personal story about the loss of a parent, and instead of listening you become caught up grieving a family member of your own. Or, a presenter takes a stance on drug use, abortion, euthanasia, religion, or even the best topping for a pizza that you simply can’t agree with. You begin formulating a heated response to the speaker’s perspective, or searing questions you might ask to show the holes in the speaker’s argument. Yet, you’ve allowed your emotional response to the speaker interfere with your ability to listen effectively.

    Bore (n): A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

    ~ Ambrose Bierce

    Contributors and Attributions

    4.3: Barriers to Effective Listening is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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