Barriers to Effective Listening

In the listening process there are things that interfere with or get in the way of effective listening. We call these situational thoughts and actions barriers to listening. In any situation, barriers prevent effective communication. These barriers can be within ourselves (psychological), in the communication situation or environment (such as noise or other distractions), or they can be learned from our social or cultural associations and influences (like reactions to stereotypical labels or ethnocentric rituals).

We need to understand what the barriers are to good listening skills. Then, we can identify ways to improve those skills.

Let us see why we do not listen well and what are the barriers and how can we overcome these to become a good listener.

In today’s world people are very busy, which is the major reason why people do not listen well. There is so much work and distraction in one’s life that affects the listening capabilities of an individual.

When we leave home for work our mind is full of today’s to-do list, what are our daily tasks, what work is pending from tomorrow, which meeting I have to attend, which one to skip J. Similarly when we leave for home from work, we are still thinking of work or some other personal activity which we have missed to complete.

In the morning we get up to a new day but it is the same story as yesterday.

Now let us look at some of the barriers to listening

  • We can think faster than a speaker can talk, and jump to conclusions
  • We are distracted and allow our minds to wander
  • We lose patience, and decide we are not interested
  • We overreact to what’s said and respond emotionally
  • We interrupt
  • Forming a judgment or evaluation before we understand what is being said, or ‘jumping to conclusions’.
  • Hearing what we want to hear.
  • Tuning out a point of view that differs from our own.
  • Formulating and rehearsing our response.
  • Being inattentive – thinking about something else entirely.
  • Having a closed mind- you do not want to hear what the person has to say.
  • Feeling anxious or self-conscious.
  • Judging the person, either positively or negatively.
  • Subjective biases based on ignorance or prejudice.
  • Cultural issues, e.g. listening to the differences in pronunciation of a different accent, rather than the content of the message.
  • Excessive and incessant talking or interrupting.

Other barriers include use of “absolutes” and “limits”:

Thinking or speaking absolutes:

“It will never work”

“We always do it that way”

Setting limits:

“We tried it that way once!”

It is important that such barriers to listening are recognized and dealt with. With developing awareness, we can have more control over those barriers that are internal to ourselves, and can adopt and use more helpful listening behaviors.

Now let us look at some of the simple steps to become a better listener

Be patient for the entire message

Be aware of speech cues (who, what, where, when, why, how)

Listen for ideas, not just facts (stories, reasons, goals help us remember facts)


–      “So, you’re saying that. . .”

–      “If I understand correctly, you said. . .”


–      “What do you mean when you say. . .?”

–      “Have you really spent. . .?”


–      Look at the speaker and nod

–      Occasionally say, “hmmm” or “oh, right”


This allows you to give your undivided attention to the other person. You may give some non-verbal cues that you are hearing, such as nodding your head, smiling, opening or closing your eyes. This method is especially useful when people come to you with strong feelings, either positive or negative. Their first need is simply to share the feelings and to have someone listen.


–      “Tell me more”

–      “Would you like to talk about it?”

–      “Want to have lunch and talk?”

It is estimated that we use only about 25 percent of our listening capacity. Here are three tips to help you increase your ability to listen by 50 percent:

–      Look at the speaker (benefit = 15 percent)

–      Ask questions (benefit = 15 percent)

–      Take notes (benefit = 20 percent)

Improvement occurs only if you practice these good listening skills. Try one of them for about three months. It takes at least that long to create a new habit. If you are a good list taker already, then practice asking questions to clarify what you hear. Avoid trying to implement all three tips at the same time. Success with one new habit will encourage you to try others.


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