Barriers to Effective Listening

See also: Top Tips for Effective Listening

Most of us would like to think that we are good listeners. In other words, we believe that we hear what someone is saying and are able to take it in and interpret it correctly, before responding appropriately.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that most of us overestimate our abilities in this area.

Research shows that we generally only listen with about 25% efficiency. This means that about three-quarters of spoken communication is lost on the average person. Instead of giving the speaker our full attention, we may be formulating a reply, or making a judgement about what they are saying, or even being distracted by what we’re going to have for dinner. This ineffective listening leads to misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication.

This page describes types of ineffective listening. It also examines some of the barriers and bad habits of listening, enabling you to address and correct them. It will help you to learn to listen more effectively, and therefore to improve the quality of your professional and personal life.

Types of Ineffective Listening

All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Just like happiness (or happy families), effective listening is fairly easy to describe. Our page on Effective Listening provides a model that is generally applicable to most situations. However, there are many, many different ways to listen ineffectively, and a huge number of barriers that may prevent or hinder listening.

However, we can also identify some particular categories of ineffective listening. John Stoker, an author and communications teachers, has identified seven different types. They are:

1. Evaluative listening

Evaluative listeners spend all their time evaluating what you are saying, and making judgements about it. You can spot an evaluative listener, because they will always respond with either agreement or disagreement (or possibly both, in the form of ‘yes, but…’).

The big problem with these listeners is that they are hearing everything from their own point of view. Everything is passed through a prism of their own experiences and opinions. This means that they often miss critical information simply because it does not fit with their view of the world.

The other problem is that speaker and listener can get into a negative spiral of argument and counter-argument. Instead of building on each other’s communication, they are engaged in knocking it down.

2. Assumptive listening

Assumptive listeners make assumptions about the speaker’s meaning or intention—and usually before the speaker has finished.

They may therefore finish other people’s sentences, or jump in with a response before the speaker has really finished. Engaging with an assumptive listener is hard work, because you constantly have to go back and explain your meaning again because they have interpreted it incorrectly.

3. Self-protective listening

Here, the listener is so wrapped up in their own situation and/or emotional response to it that they simply have no brain-space to hear or concentrate on anything else.

In other words, they are NOT really listening at all, and they are certainly not engaging with what anyone else says. It is a moot point whether this should actually be described as ‘listening’ at all—except that these listeners will often be nodding and smiling, and generally looking like they are engaging with what is being said. However, when they come to respond, it will be obvious that they have not really heard or taken on board anything that is said.

These listeners often simply repeat their negative stories over and over again—and with increasing levels of negative emotion. The only way out is to break the spiral (see box).

A way out

Self-protective listeners may need help to break out of their ‘vicious spiral’. Transactional analysis offers some clues about how to do this, suggesting that they may be in ‘Child’ mode. This makes them turn inward, and want to avoid anything that might be threatening, like other ideas.

To help them, you will have to ‘hook’ their Child with sympathy, then find a way to engage the Adult.

There is more about this in our page on Transactional Analysis.

4. Judgemental listening

Judgemental listeners will constantly criticise what speakers are saying. This type of listening is similar to evaluative listening, but usually with more negativity and less opportunity to respond. These listeners often have preconceived ideas about the speaker (for example, bias or prejudice based on how they look, or their background). This may prevent them from considering the speaker’s ideas with an open mind.

This type of listening tends to result in the speaker shutting down, and refusing to provide anymore information. Being constantly criticised quickly becomes unpleasant.

5. Affirmative listening

Affirmative listening is more or less the polar opposite of judgemental listening. Affirmative listeners only ‘hear’ messages with which they agree. They therefore only listen for points that they can support, and not those that show different opinions.

Having an affirmative listener is at first quite pleasant. They tend to agree with you, which is nice. However, after a while, you realise that they only agree with some points—and possibly not very important ones—but refuse to engage with anything else.

The problem here is that these people only listen for themselves. They want their opinion to be validated—and have no real interest in anyone else. This quickly gets one-sided and tiresome, especially if you are genuinely interested in a debate that explores different perspectives.

6. Defensive listening

A defensive listener takes everything that is said as a personal attack.

These people therefore feel the need to defend themselves against everything, and to justify everything that they say. They often use the phrase ‘Yes, but…’, because they have no interest in building on any other communication—only to justify themselves. They also find it hard to explore other points of view, because anything different is a threat.

7. Authoritative listening

Authoritative listeners listen solely in order to advise. They always know best, and are always ready to tell you what to do.

You can often spot authoritative listeners by the use of the words ‘You should…’ or ‘You need…’ in their sentences.

A Common Thread?

You may have spotted that all these types of ineffective listening are related to the listener’s attitude. They may perceive a problem with the speaker, or simply have a ‘mental block’ about the subject.

Whatever the cause, their pattern of thinking is not conducive to genuine, effective listening.

It is affecting how they relate to other people, and the messages that they hear in other people’s communication. These attitudes may have many causes, such as

  • Preconceived ideas or bias

    These mean that you are not open to other people’s ideas and opinions. Biases may be personal or cultural. For example, in some cultures, ideas are only considered acceptable from those in senior positions (and you may be interested in our page on Intercultural Awareness for more examples like this). You may not trust the speaker on a personal level, and therefore find it hard to be open to their ideas on an intellectual level.

  • Previous experiences

    These may affect your expectations about people and/or topics or situations. We are all influenced by previous experiences in life. We respond to people based on personal appearance, how initial introductions or welcomes were received and/or previous interpersonal encounters. This may affect how you approach an individual. You may also find that someone says something that reminds you of a previous experience, and you start to think about that instead of listening. The key here is to consider whether your previous experience is going to be helpful—and if not, set it aside.

  • Having a closed mind.

    We all have ideals and values that we believe to be correct. It can therefore be difficult to listen to contradictory views. However, the key to effective listening and interpersonal skills more generally is the ability to open your mind, and take time to understand why others think about things differently to you—and then use this information to gain a better understanding of the speaker.

Common Physical Barriers to Listening

These types of ineffective listening generally relate to patterns of thinking. However, there may also be physical barriers to listening.

These affect your physical ability to concentrate on a speaker and/or to hear their words or message. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Too much noise around you. It can be hard to listen effectively if there is too much background noise. This can happen at a party, or in a crowded room, for example, but may also include having the television on in the background.

  • Trying to listen to more than one conversation at a time. There is some overlap here with background noise, because it could include having the television or radio on while attempting to listen to somebody talk, being on the phone to one person and talking to another person in the same room, or simply trying to talk to two people at once.

  • You are distracted by something else in your environment. Sadly, our brains are fairly fickle things, and easily distracted. A movement out of the window, or a stray thought, can derail listening. Your smartphone showing you a notification can be a major distraction—which is why it is advisable to put it away if someone wants to speak to you. Many people also find that they can distract themselves, for example, by doodling, or fiddling with something. However, for others, this can be a way of helping them to focus by distracting their hands, but not their brains.

  • You find the communicator attractive or unattractive and you pay more attention to how you feel about them and their physical appearance than to what they are saying. This can also apply when someone has an accent: you may find yourself listening to the cadence, and not the words or meaning.

  • You are not interested in the topic/issue being discussed and become bored. This rapidly leads to you becoming distracted and ceasing to pay attention.

  • Feeling unwell or tired, hungry, thirsty or needing to use the toilet, too hot or too cold. Physical discomfort is a huge distraction. It is almost impossible to concentrate effectively when you feel uncomfortable in some way.

  • Being stressed about something else that is happening in your life. When you have a lot going on in your life, it is much harder to calm your internal dialogue and simply listen to someone else.

  • Being on the phone rather than speaking face-to-face. A considerable amount of communication is in body language and facial expression. You therefore have to concentrate much harder on the phone, to fully ‘hear’ the speaker’s message. When you are speaking on the phone, it may be helpful to emphasise your tone of voice more, to ensure that your message is clearly heard.

  • If you don’t really understand what someone is saying, perhaps because of their choice of words, or because they have a strong accent. Under these circumstances, it is tempting to just ‘switch off’. However, instead, you should try to listen harder, and ask for clarification if you don’t understand.

Signs of Ineffective Listening

Signs of possible inattention while listening include:

  • Lack of eye contact with the speaker. Listeners who are engaged with the speaker tend to give eye contact. Lack of eye contact can, however, also be a sign of shyness.

  • An inappropriate posture, such as slouching, leaning back or ‘swinging’ on a chair, leaning forward onto a desk or table and/or a constantly shifting posture. People who are paying attention tend to lean slightly towards the speaker.

  • Being distracted - fidgeting, doodling, looking at a watch, yawning.

  • Inappropriate expressions and lack of head nods. Often when a listener is engaged with a speaker, they nod their head. This is usually an almost subconscious way of encouraging the speaker and showing attention. Lack of head nods can mean the opposite: that listening is not happening. The same can be true of facial expressions. Attentive listeners use smiles as feedback mechanisms and to show attention.

  • Having a ‘faraway’ look may be a sign that someone is daydreaming.

However, it is important to be aware that these do not always follow. For example, sometimes people with specific learning difficulties such as autism may find it harder to maintain eye contact. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may use doodling or ‘fidget toys’ as a way to help them to concentrate.

You may also detect ineffective listening in other ways, and especially in how someone responds.

For example, a sudden change in topic is likely to be a sign of inattention. When a listener is distracted, they may suddenly think about something else that is not related to the topic of the speaker and attempt to change the conversation to their new topic. Jumping in with advice is also often a sign that someone is not properly listening, because it means that they have been thinking about how to respond, rather than taking the message on board.

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In Conclusion

Ineffective listening is very common. However, this does not mean that we should not all try to improve our listening skills.

You can probably think of examples when you have listened ineffectively or not been listened to over the last 24 hours. You can probably recognise the frustration and irritation of knowing that the person you are talking to is not listening to you.

Listening is fundamental to communication. We could all usefully spend time improving our listening skills.