Common Listening Misconceptions

See Also: Ineffective Listening.

We are all capable of listening effectively in different situations and to different people.  Listening effectively is, however, an active process - something that we have to do consciously and something that takes practice.

There are some common misconceptions or myths about listening which can influence how we feel and in turn make the listening process less effective.   It is important, when developing our listening skills, to understand what the myths of listening are so that they can be dismissed and enable our comprehension of listening to be more accurate.

This page explains, and gives examples of, six of the most common misconceptions about listening.

Misconception One:

It’s Difficult to Learn How to Listen

The first misconception about listening is that the skills involved are difficult to learn.  We all learn to listen from an early age and spend a lot of our time listening (see our Listening Skills page for more information).  How well we listen depends on the circumstances of the communication, our motivation to listen and our personality.  Listening becomes so natural that we can develop bad habits and become blasé about the process.

The skills needed for effective listening are not difficult to learn - the key to developing your listening skills is practice and consistently applying good listening skills across all communication situations.  It is worth the effort to learn and practise how to listen. Employers rate effective listening very highly, particularly in management and leadership roles.  You are likely to see benefits in your social and personal life too – effective listening leads to a deeper understanding and you are likely to develop stronger and more meaningful relationships with others.

Misconception Two:

I’m a Good Listener

Generally people overestimate their own listening abilities and underestimate the listening abilities of others.  In other words, we tend to think that we are better listeners than other people.  This means that other people tend to think that they are better listeners than you.  Effective listening can only be measured by the understanding that you gain – this will inevitably vary for different situations and for different people.

Good listening is not a skill that we are born with, it is not a natural gift.  Without practice and training we are unlikely to be particularly effective listeners.  Believing that you are a better listener that others is unlikely to be true unless you have taken the time to learn and practise your listening skills over a period of time.

Misconception Three:

Intelligent People are Better Listeners

There is no link between traditional measures of cognitive ability, intelligence – (IQ), and how well we listen.  Although being bright and having a good vocabulary may make it easier to process information and gain understanding, these qualities do not necessarily make clever people better listeners.  For example, very intelligent people may be more likely to get bored with a conversation and ‘tune out’, thinking about other things and therefore not listening.

People with higher emotional intelligence (EQ), on the other hand, are more likely to be better listeners.  Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to assess, identify and manage their emotions and the emotions of others.  Emotional Intelligence is the measure of a person’s likelihood to consider the emotional needs of others – assessment of such needs often comes about through good listening. 

See our page:  Emotional Intelligence for more information.

Reading is often associated with intelligence and with building vocabulary – the term ‘being well-read’ usually implies knowledge and intelligence.  You may assume that people who read more will, in turn, be better listeners - reading is, after all, a similar process to listening in that reading involves interpreting written words into meaning, just as we process spoken words when listening.  Reading does not guarantee understanding - it is possible to read passively, often for relaxation, and actively (or critically) when we are trying to learn something or follow instructions.  

Some people absorb and process information better through the written word and some through conversation and other verbal interactions.

See our page: Critical Reading for more information.

Misconception Four:

Hearing is the same as Listening

Having good hearing does not make you an effective listener. It is perfectly possible to have good hearing - but poor listening skills.  Good hearing enables you to hear and interpret sound, but listening is a lot more than simply hearing.  Effective listening means focusing on the meaning of the words that you hear and putting them into context to gain an understanding.

Good listeners also read the non-verbal signals sent from the speaker.  Their tone of voice, their gestures and general body-language, effective listening is not wholly dependent on our ability to hear, but includes other senses and cognitive processes.

Hearing is a passive process - like breathing - we do it without thinking.  Listening, however, is a learnt skill and an active process.  Our brains have to work harder to process the information that we hear and see in order to understand the meaning of the message.  Understanding is the goal of listening.

Misconception Five:

We Listen Better As We Get Older

People do not automatically become better listeners as they get older - without practice and consciously thinking about listening there is no reason why listening will improve, it may actually get worse.

As we go through life, gaining experience and understanding of the world around us our capacity for listening is likely to improve.  Whether we utilise this capacity and actually listen more effectively depends on our personalities, the particular situation and avoiding any bad habits we may have picked up on the way.

It is easy to pick up bad habits for listening – in much the same way as it is to pick up bad habits for other skills that we use frequently.  When we learn to drive, for example, we are taught to use our mirrors, to signal and to keep both hands on the steering wheel – in the 10 to 2 position.  As confidence improves people tend to pick up bad habits – they are less likely to concentrate fully on their driving, the process becomes ‘automatic’.

There are many bad habits or barriers to effective listening, including:

  • Selective Listening – only listening to the parts of the dialogue that appear to have particular relevance.
  • Formulating a Response – thinking of something to say and interrupting the speaker with your own thoughts, finishing other people’s sentences.
  • Making Assumptions – assuming you know what somebody is going to say based on preconceived ideas, bias, stereotyping and previous experiences.

See our page: Ineffective Listening for more about bad habits, barriers and signs of ineffective listening.

Misconception Six:

Gender Affects Listening Ability

Generally, and without trying to stereotype, men and women value communication differently.  Women tend to place a higher value on connection, cooperation and emotional messages, whereas men are generally more concerned with facts and may be uncomfortable talking about and listening to personal or emotional subjects.

This doesn't mean that women are better listeners than men, or vice-versa, but that there may be differences in the ways in which messages are interpreted.  During a conversation men and women are likely to ask different types of questions of the speaker to clarify the message – their final interpretation of the conversation may, therefore, be different.

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