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What Are Some Common Barriers to Effective Listening? - HRDQ

What Are Some Common Barriers to Effective Listening?

According to a study from the University of Minnesota, people only remember about half of what was said immediately after listening to someone else talk. This information is quite concerning considering how essential communication is for success and growth in the business world.

Whether you feel like your own listening skills could be improved or that your business is suffering due to ineffective listening, understanding the common barriers to effective listening can help you make the necessary changes to improve communication.

Some obstacles that stand in the way of listening effectively are physical and environmental, while others might be psychological, emotional, or cultural.

When you're communicating in the office, several elements are all interacting– namely, the speaker, the listener, and the environment. Therefore, if miscommunication is a frequent problem, identifying where the issue stems from is the first step in creating a more productive workplace.

What Is Effective Listening?

When an individual effectively listens, they are actively absorbing the information they are receiving. In addition, they provide feedback to the person that is speaking, so they understand that they are being heard. Their body language and facial expressions show they are interested and listening.

In a busy, tech-driven world, it is more challenging than ever for people to be present enough to listen to one another.

Employee Effectively Listening to Coworker

There are countless benefits to promoting a workplace that engages in effective listening, including:

  • Being able to solve problems better
  • Improving accuracy
  • Building relationships
  • Ensuring understanding
  • Less wasted time
  • Fewer errors

Luckily, effective listening is a skill that can be developed with practice. Let's take a look at some of the common barriers to effective listening to help you overcome the obstacles that might be standing in the way of optimal communication.

For more information on vital communication skills, check out this article on the six essential types of listening skills.

What Are the Types of Ineffective Listening?

Several different types of ineffective listening are worth understanding when trying to solve communication problems in the workplace. Though ineffective listening isn't always the fault of the listener (for example, the presence of physical barriers that make it hard for them to hear what's going on,) sometimes the problem is attitudinal.

1. Evaluative listening: Sometimes, listeners put all their energy into evaluating what is being said from their point of view rather than trying to intake what is being said with an open mind.

2. Self-protective listening: It's also not uncommon for individuals to be so consumed by their personal and emotional situations that they aren't fully present when a speaker is talking. Though they might be displaying the cues of a person that is listening, they aren't really engaging with the conversation.

3. Assumptive listening: When a listener listens assumptively, it means that they assume that they understand the intention or meaning of the speaker before they have even finished making their point. Rather than actually hearing what is being said, their mind is busy trying to figure out where they think the speaker is coming from.

Group Listening to a Speaker

4. Affirmative listening: Some listeners only hear messages that they agree with and let the rest go in one ear and out the other. You might find that they agree with many of your points but seem to disregard equally valid and important points.

5. Judgmental listening: A judgmental listener has preconceived notions about the speaker and constantly criticizes what is being said.

6. Authoritative listening: Sometimes, an individual will respond to every conversation or talk as if it's an opportunity for them to give advice. They often start sentences using phrases like "You need to…" or "You should…" and act as if they know what is best in all situations.

7. Defensive listening: In other instances, people will take everything that is being communicated as a personal attack. Even when the topic doesn't have anything to do with them, they feel the need to defend themselves in nearly all interactions. These listeners also tend to struggle with exploring different points of view.

    Common Barriers to Effective Listening

    1. Physical and Environmental Barriers

    The most obvious obstacle to effective listening is anything that physically makes it difficult to hear what is being said. This might be too much distance between the speakers, excessive external noise, or physical obstructions blocking sound from traveling between individuals.

    Group Ineffectively Listening

    A person's ability to listen effectively can also be hindered by environmental factors such as temperature and lighting. For example, an uncomfortably hot room can distract someone from fully paying attention to a speaker, and a room that is too dark could leave them tired and disengaged.

    Even the way that furniture is arranged can impact a person's ability to listen. While some seating arrangements encourage listening, others discourage it and separate people.

    2. Cultural Barriers

    When people have different backgrounds religiously, ethnically, culturally, or otherwise, it can create cultural barriers that make it difficult to listen effectively.

    Culturally Diverse Team

    For example, cultural barriers can emerge when two companies are doing business together from different parts of the world. Each business might have customs and social norms informed by their respective cultural context.

    3. Emotional and Psychological Barriers

    We've already talked about external noise creating an obstacle to effective listening, but there's also something known as psychological noise

    That is the mental noise that emerges from our mood and energy level. It becomes difficult to receive and process information when you're in a more extreme mood, whether positive or negative. For example, it can be just as distracting to be madly in love as it can be to feel consumed by anger.

    Employee Facing an Emotional Barrier

    Both excited arousal and anxious arousal can negatively impact our ability to listen. An employee that is eager to start their weekend is likely not going to be fully listening to what is being said, much in the same way an employee that is worried about losing their job will struggle to listen effectively.

    The way that we think can also get in the way of actively listening. Sometimes, we are quick to judge what is being said by another person, or we feel we know what they're going to say before they say it. This can influence our ability to hear what is being communicated.

    4. Physiological Barriers

    Employee Facing a Physiological Barrier

    When we aren't feeling our best, it's hard to be fully present. If a person is suffering from an injury, an illness, or bodily stress, it can get in the way of their ability to hear and process what is being said.

    5. Language Barriers

    Another thing that can hinder the ability to listen actively is the presence of a language barrier. When two or more people are communicating, they don't speak the same native language or have distinctly different accents. Language barriers can also emerge within the same language if the parties involved are from different regions or cultures and use expressions unknown to each other.

    Group Overcoming Language Barrier

    Effectively listening when there is a language barrier isn't, by any means, impossible. However, it can take more empathy and attention to ensure that you fully understand the communication that is occurring.

    6. Making Assumptions

    Person Making Assumptions

    When we make assumptions about the speaker's intent or meaning before they have even finished their statement, we aren't practicing effective listening. A person might be biased against another individual and assume they hold certain beliefs even though they haven't gotten to know them.

    7. Too Much Information

    Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by something new and complex that you stopped being able to intake information? This situation is an example of another barrier to effective listening: information overload.

    Employee Feeling Overloaded

    If a person doesn't seem to be actively listening to you, it might not be that they are being rude. It's possible that they've reached their limit in terms of new information, and they're decreasingly able to be present and focused on what's being said.

    8. Tone of Voice

    The tone that a person uses to speak can also create barriers to effective listening. Not everyone will react the same way to different tones of voice, and two people might hear the same vocal tone in very different ways.

    Person Speaking to an Audience

    For example, one listener might find that an energetic speaker is engaging, while another might react emotionally to what they feel is a loud and angry tone.

    9. Speed of Speech

    When someone is talking too fast, it can be challenging for listeners to keep up with the conversation. Some people naturally have a fast pace of speech, while others might be talking faster than normal out of nervousness.

    Employees Speaking in a Meeting

    At the same time, a person talking too slowly can also lose their audience's attention. If they speak abnormally slow, listeners might start to disengage and no longer listen actively.

    10. Time Pressure

    When you run into someone you know, and you ask them how they've been, what do they say? Almost always, the response is: busy.

    Person Under Time Pressure

    It's common to feel like there isn't enough time in the day to get to everything that needs to be done. When we feel pressed for time, it becomes challenging to engage with what someone is saying fully. Whether you have a meeting in ten minutes or you're up against a deadline, feeling time pressure can mean that your ability to listen effectively is hindered.

    11. Interruption

    Employee Experiencing Communication Interruptions

    Both the speaker and the listeners can be responsible for creating interruptions that make it difficult to listen effectively. The listener might chime in frequently and un-empathetically when the speaker is talking, making it difficult for everyone involved to follow along and focus. The speaker could also create interruptions by allowing environmental distractions to capture their interest and take them off track.

    Signs of Ineffective Listening

    There are several signs you can look out for if you feel your employees are inattentive when you're speaking to them.

    Listening to a Speaker

    These include:

    • A disinterested posture: People that are effectively listening tend to lean slightly towards the person speaking. Someone that is leaning back, slouching, or constantly shifting their position might not be fully paying attention.
    • A lack of eye contact: This can indicate shyness, but sometimes a lack of eye contact is because the individual isn't paying attention. In many instances, someone that is engaged with what is being said will make frequent eye contact with the speaker.
    • Seeming distracted: A person doodling, fidgeting, yawning, or looking at their watch might not be fully present and listening to what is being said.
    • Not offering nonverbal cues of active listening: Effective listeners tend to nod their heads and give other nonverbal cues that they are paying attention. When someone isn't giving these cues, they might be disengaged from the conversation.

    Sometimes, listeners might appear to have a 'faraway' look, which could indicate that they are daydreaming and aren't paying attention.

    How a person responds can also indicate whether or not they are engaged in the conversation. If someone changes the topic suddenly, they may have been caught in a separate stream of thought and not listening to what is being said. A person that interrupts with advice can also suggest that they haven't been fully listening, as they may have been more focused on thinking about how to respond rather than processing the speaker's words.

    How Can You Overcome Barriers to Effective Listening?

    Improving the listening skills of your team could be as simple as making minor changes to your workspace, or it could require making changes to your communication style in the office. If you find that the communication problems in your workplace seem to be stemming from a lack of listening skills among your workers, you'll want to take a different approach.

    Effective Group Listening

    The first step to overcoming the barriers to effective listening in your office is to identify what is standing in the way of effective, productive, and efficient communication. The more you understand the impediments to active listening, the better equipped you'll be to create a workplace that excels at communication.

    Are you looking to improve your listening skills or the listening skills of your employees? Be sure to take a look at our self-assessment entitled Learning to Listen, which teaches the art of effective listening. Additionally, if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we'll be sure to get back to you within a day or two!

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    About our author

    Bradford R. Glaser

    Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.