Barriers to Active Listening

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

You've maybe heard the phrase, "the reason we've got two ears and one mouth is because we should listen twice as much as we speak." Active listening is an essential skill for anyone who really wants to understand how the person they are interested in thinks and feels. Not only does the process help you to gain greater insights, it shows the person who is perhaps depressed, that someone really cares about what they have to say.

Whether you're a caregiver, a friend or a professional reading this, you should be aware of a number of things that can act as barriers to active listening. You may even be unaware of them until they are pointed out. So, in this Sharepost I'm going to write about some of the more common barriers and subtle influences that can affect your capacity to listen effectively, as well as accurately interpret what is being said to you.

Day-Dreaming. Listening to someone talking about their feelings and problems isn't an easy thing to do. Matters of concern to people are frequently repeated because they are a major preoccupation. Whether or not this is happening there are many things that can intrude on the process of listening. For example, your own level of alertness, personal issues in your own life, availability of time and so on. Drifting or day-dreaming is however most likely to occur if the person speaking is delivering something of a monologue. If you're drifting it means your listening is affected. Don't be afraid to interrupt and the best way to do this is to summarise or seek clarification. For example, 'just go over that last part again', or, 'so you're saying that.'

Planning Your Next Move. If someone is talking you really shouldn't be thinking about the next question you might ask. This is actually quite difficult to control but it is absolutely fatal for active listening. Not only are you dreaming up the question but you have to keep it in memory for when the person stops talking. These are clear distractions. You may feel you can think and listen at the same time, after all, at some level you're able pick up the drift of what the person is talking about but you won't have attended properly to the more subtle aspects of facial expression, body language, pauses and so on that are so important in active listening.

Ice Breakers. You mustn't ever feel that you are adopting a superior role as the listener. When someone chooses to disclose information they place themselves in a vulnerable position. If you don't really know one another the worst time is probably at the start of the conversation. A useful ice-breaker is to make yourself more human perhaps by disclosing a little fallibility, for example, 'I can never seem to find my spectacles when I need them', or 'I'm a bit worried the room is too stuffy, what do you think?'

Fellow sufferers, taking on the role of listener can be very helpful, but never lose sight of the fact that your role is to listen. It's far too common to find people using listening as a platform for talking

Posture. Posture is important because it affects not only how the speaker perceives you but also your own ability to attend to what's being said. You may feel a slumped posture conveys an impression of being relaxed, but it may be perceived as indifference. Appearing alert actually helps feeling alert. Sit upright, hold your head up and look alert. Looking tense will make you and the person who is speaking feel tense.

Influence. Without realising it some of your own preconceptions may influence your judgement. This can happen for a number of reasons but the most common are (i) the person is saying something that makes you angry or anxious (ii) it's different to something they may have said previously and so you find yourself wondering why (iii) it conflicts with what you'd hoped or expected to hear (iv) you find it difficult to reconcile what's being said with your impression of the person.

Our judgements may be influenced by first impressions and our own prejudices and preconceptions. Putting these aside isn't always easy, but if we put ourselves out as someone who is prepared to listen, then this really needs to be part of the deal. Listening does, of course, require the other person to speak and part of the active listener's role is to use questions and phrases that help to draw the other person out. Simple things like saying, 'I see,' 'yes', or nodding as the person speaks and maintaining eye-contact, all convey a message of interest and value in what the person has to say.