The 5 Most Common Barriers to Effective Listening and How to Overcome Them
Recently, a friend of mine had the opportunity to go to an interactive workshop/training session that I would love to have been able to go to.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible, so I told her that I would get all the good bits from her afterwards.

A few days after the session, I managed to catch up with her. Eager to hear what she’d learnt, I asked about the main issues that had been discussed.

I was staggered! She could only really tell me 2 or 3 really vague things that had been covered.

My friend had not really been paying attention properly, and had not been making notes.

Perhaps she had expected more in the way of handouts or something, and was lazily relying on that, but she clearly hadn’t been listening properly!

And this is a common problem. For both people in their private lives, and in work environments. Good communication is an essential to life!

Poor listening skills could be costing your business more money than you think. A lack of communication, whether between two people, different departments or with clients, will adversely impact your productivity and can damage your reputation – and your bottom line!

In addition to hurting your core business, poor communication can often result in conflicts and misunderstandings between colleagues, and can tank your team morale.

Low morale? Low productivity, high turnover and a general feeling of malaise amongst your team.

So, it's important to do a regular ‘health check’ on your listening skills, and one of the best ways to do this is by assessing some of the most common barriers to effective listening. (Another, once you've read this article, could be to take our free communications questionnaire, which gives you personalised feedback. That can be found here.)

Once you have identified how you react to these barriers, you can identify the best ways to overcome them in your business and personal life.

5 Barriers to effective listening

1. Being preoccupied and distracted

When you’re preoccupied, your mind wanders. While you think you look engaged, you’re actually ‘faking attention.’ You can hear what the other party is saying, but you’re not really taking anything in. You might think they have no idea that you are not absorbing what they are saying, people are quite perceptive and can usually tell exactly what is going on.

There are plenty of factors that can cause us to be distracted or preoccupied, including:
  • Phones and devices - You don’t have to feel too guilty if you suffer from occasional bouts of distraction – we’ve all paid way too much attention to our phone or email than is appropriate. However, when you are supposed to be listening to a speaker or attending a class, you are missing out on important information that you will likely need down the line.
  • Your emotions – Are you going through a break-up or ruminating about a fight you had with a loved one? Maybe you’re worried about money, and you can’t stop thinking about your finances? Maybe you are so excited during your last day at work before a holiday that you can’t concentrate? All of these emotional states can tank your listening skills.
  • Visual distractions – When you are trying to have an important conversation in a pub, can you stop yourself from glancing at the telly? If you’re anything like the rest of us, the answer is: probably not. Visual distractions can suck your attention away from the task at hand.

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2. Communicating in a noisy environment

“Sure, I heard exactly what you said – was that, ‘purple monkey dishwasher?’

It is impossible to truly listen effectively when you can’t actually hear what is going on. The nuance gets lost, and it become very easy to mishear what someone is trying to tell you.

If you find yourself struggling and straining to hear the words the other party is speaking, it’s likely that you're also going to misinterpret their body language. You're struggling to understand them, and it all just seems so difficult. At some point it just becomes easier to tune out what they are saying, and that results in conflict and miscommunications.


3. Your personal mind set

Conversations don’t exist in a vacuum. When you are communicating with another person, a whole world of personal emotions and bias are at play. Do you like the person? Do you have preconceived ideas about what they are sharing? Do they remind you of another person you didn’t get along with?

Our own mind set can be one of the biggest barriers to effective listening. Here are just a few of the factors that can play into our personal attitudes and judgements.
  • Prejudice – Our own prejudice against certain groups is nothing to be proud of, but refusing to admit we hold said prejudices is even worse. In fact, when I went to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles a few years ago, they have two doors. One is labelled Prejudiced, and the other Not Prejudiced. Except that the Not Prejudiced door is not a door at all. They force you to go through the one marked prejudiced, to illustrate that every single person has prejudices to some extent. Our own unconscious prejudices can mean that we don’t give certain people the attention they deserve when they are speaking.
  • Bias  - Though similar to prejudice, bias can be a little more broad. If you know someone has voted for a political party you don’t like, or you have heard they are a fan of a rival sport team, it can be easy to hold bias against what they have to say.
  • Jealousy – Did Ms. X or Mr. Y get the promotion you were after? Have they just landed a big contract or made a big sale? It can be easy to let our own little green monster stand in the way of effective listening when we are seething with envy.
  • Boredom – None of us are perfect, and sometimes we get bored at the most inappropriate times! Boredom with the topic at hand can certainly cause your mind to wander and your listening skills to go down the drain.

4. Interrupting the other person

Nothing makes a speaker feel more disrespected than being constantly being interrupted. Of course, a conversation is usually a ‘2 way street,’ and you are meant to share your own thoughts and opinions.  The problem starts when you accidentally monopolise the conversation and constantly interject your own opinions.

When you do interject too much, you start missing the nuance of what is being said, leading to mistakes. You’ll also be sending the message that you don’t care much about what they have to say – this cause conflict.

Are you just waiting for the speaker to stop talking?

Sometimes a conversation is so exciting and interesting that you simply feel like you can’t wait to share your ideas! Maybe you're worried about forgetting your point, or you think your example is better than the one currently being shared. Either way, it can cause you to jump into the conversation at every opportunity. You’re not listening fully, you’re actually just waiting for the other party to stop talking. You're not hearing everything that they have to say.

Fight the urge to over-empathise by sharing your own experiences

Interrupting someone is not always a negative or selfish instinct. In fact, it can actually be a sign that your compassion and empathy is working in overdrive! You are so eager to show camaraderie and let the other person know you empathise that you interrupt them to share your own experiences.

This can be especially problematic when the topic is sensitive or hard to approach. While you might be genuinely trying to boost their morale and show them that you understand their issue, you can accidentally come across as try to ‘steal their thunder’ and one up them. As they bristle, they might get defensive, preventing them from sharing the information that you need.

You need to learn how to share your own experiences in a sensitive, timely, and appropriate manner that will do more good than harm.

5. Your physical state

Just as with any task, you physical state plays an important role in your ability to listen effectively and absorb information. If you are feeling uneasy in your own skin, you are far more likely to be fidgety, agitated and ‘all over the place’ mentally.

Here are just a few of the physical issues that can negatively affect your listening skills:
  • Hunger
  • Tiredness
  • Physical pain
  • Depression/Anxiety
  • Being too hot or too cold
  • Sitting on an uncomfortable surface

If you are dealing with any of the above, your attention is already divided and listening will be that extra bit harder.

Now, I’m not sure where my friend went wrong. She’s not normally like that, and so it seems to have been out of the ordinary for her. Which is just the point, even good listeners sometimes listen badly, for different reasons.

I’m sure that next time, she’ll be listening a whole lot better. And if you follow these tips, you can do too!

And, if you found the above points helpful, consider hosting a staff meeting to discuss how you can all benefit from this information. An organisation that values listening is an organisation on the right track.

P.S. I mentioned up at the top that we have a free test that you can take to check your own communication skills. In case you forgot about that as you read the rest of the article, I remind you it can be found here.

Want to Communicate More Effectively?

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Expert trainers who will make your learning experience engaging, interesting and enjoyable.


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Could you mention any other common barriers to effective listening and how we can overcome them? Make sure to leave a comment below with your ideas.