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18 Barriers to listening and how to overcome them

There are so many barriers to listening! It’s amazing we can connect at all.

Recognize the barriers and you can start to overcome them. Follow the guidance in this article and you’ll make even further progress towards listening effectively.  

Technological barriers to listening

It’s rather ironic. The technology that is supposed to be keeping us connected is preventing us from listening effectively.

In their constant scramble for our attention, our devices are preventing us from focusing our attention on our dialog (and our attention is limited, take a look at these selective attention test examples for more).

  • Our phone distracts us by its very presence and reduces our ability to focus.
  • Email alerts pop on our desktop (which is often where we are having the conversation).
  • Other apps are all designed to ‘ping’ us with every incoming message.

The key here is to recognize that we can control the technology more than we first imagine. It just takes a little willpower, and a little organization. Be willing to silence your phone and put it away when you’re in conversation (see cultural barriers, below!).

Then, explore your app settings to reduce the notifications.

For example, I use Microsoft Teams. At first, I just left used the ‘factory’ settings, but it drove me crazy! I got a notification for every single item of activity within Teams. Now I have turned off all the notifications. I still have the active icon on the taskbar, that’s the only alert that I need.

Just take a little time to reconfigure your techno environment to allow you to have conversations and listen uninterrupted.

Cultural Barriers to listening

This gets more interesting. These barriers to listening could be part of company or country culture:

  • Action orientation. Some companies are ‘always on’, always rushing to the next action. This has benefits, but there are times when it’s important to slow down, listen and reflect.
  • Hierarchy. In some cultures, nobody will speak until the Big Boss has spoken. And then there is no interest in listening to anyone else.
  • Urgent vs important. To many companies focus on urgent, without stopping and listening for what’s important.

These kinds of behaviors show up in meetings. People taking calls in the meeting, or stepping out earlier into another meeting, or just not showing up at the last minute.

Pick your battles. It can be very difficult to shift culture (and very frustrating too!). Find the opportunities to make it clear that this is a time when we need to slow down, listen to each other and reflect on the path forward.  

Psychological Barriers

Psychological barriers to listening are not about your company or your culture, they’re all about you:

  • Thinking while listening. This could be thinking about the irrelevant (eg: what’s for dinner?), or simply thinking about an appropriate response. Either way, it’s not listening.
  • Judging before listening. “They’re wrong”, “I don’t care”, “They’re not important”, all judgements that switch off our listening.
  • Multitasking. We think we can, but we can’t. We can switch frequently from one thing back to another, but we can’t multitask. All the research proves this, I’m not an exception and you’re not an exception.
  • Lack of curiosity. Sometimes it’s plain and simple. The blinkers are on. You know they answers already. Nothing to discuss.
  • Stress. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that. You want to listen, but you’re too stressed. You’re under time pressure. It’s a big deal.

Try this 5-day listening plan, based on the Chinese character for listening. It will help you learn to listening holistically, using all your senses.

Personal physical Barriers

Yes, this is your responsibility too:

  • Tiredness
  • Hunger
  • Dehydration

We can’t always be at our best. There are times when we’ll be tired, dehydrated (hung over?), or otherwise less than 100%. But we can make sure that when we have important opportunities for dialog, we’re not at our worst!

Relationship Barriers

With relationship barriers to listening it’s the dynamic between yourself and the other person that is the problem:

  • Lack of trust
  • Unconscious bias
  • No common language
  • Lack of common goals

Be willing to suspend your agenda (at least while you listen!). Explore your unconscious biases. Step out of the content of the conversation and be willing to discuss how you can align around common goals.

All these actions take a commitment to building the relationship and the foundation for connecting, communicating, and collaborating with each other. It may take time, but it’s still the fastest and most effective way to make sustainable progress

Barriers to listening in conclusion

There are many barriers to listening:

  • Technological
  • Cultural
  • Psychological
  • Personal physical barriers
  • Relationship barriers

Aim to free-up a little mental bandwidth. Self-monitor. Recognize which barriers to listening are having an impact on you at an particular moment. Take action to overcome them.

Also, explore the different types of listening and how to apply them. This will help you cultivate your listening abilities and how to tune your listening to different situations.

Colin Bates

Colin Bates

I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and succeed. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog!