Effective listening is an art that requires much more than hearing the words coming out of someone's mouth. It involves interpreting the emotions and intentions behind those words, paying attention to body language and even intuiting what isn't being said. Active listening takes practice, particularly since there are multiple barriers to do so. Understanding these barriers is necessary in order to recognize and eliminate them as much as possible as you work toward better communication with others.
Listeners can get in their own way when trying to pay attention to what someone is saying. You might be wondering if you remembered to turn off the coffee pot, thinking about all the work you need to do or worrying about a child that is sick at home. These internal distractions can hinder effective communication. You may not be able to rid yourself of them entirely, but you may be able to minimize them. For instance, you might plan to call home to check on your child and coffeepot as soon as the conversation is over, and turn your focus back to the conversation in the meantime. Or, if the internal demands are too pressing, you might request to resume the conversation once you've dealt with them so you can focus your full attention on the conversation.
Environmental factors can negatively effect listening, too, according to the "Open Knowledge Online Guide to Public Speaking" from the American Communication Association. Distractions might include a loud conversation happening outside the room, an intriguing television program, a ringing telephone or uncomfortable temperatures. As with internal distractions, external issues can also be minimized or eliminated. You can close the door, turn off the television and phone and adjust the temperature if you are indoors and have the ability to do so. An alternate option is to have the conversation at a later, more appropriate, time or place.
Assumptions and Judgment
Bias is a looming, malicious barrier to listening effectively. For example, if someone is talking to you about cross-stitching, you might be thinking about how boring the activity must be. When an older colleague is trying to discuss ideas about computer networking, you might dismiss the proposals due to the belief that seniors just don't understand technology. While you are entitled to your opinions, they become problematic when they dissuade you from actively listening to what others have to say. Defensiveness and emotional responses can also be a barrier, according to Oregon Health and Science University. When you make preemptive assumptions about the conversation, or start out angry or upset, you often end up missing the core message the speaker is trying to convey.
Focusing on Solutions and Your Own Contribution
When listening to someone discuss a concern or problem of some kind, it is tempting to move immediately to fixing it. This urge is motivated by good intentions -- you may truly be just trying to help. The speaker, however, may not be looking for an answer, or to be fixed or rescued in any way. Being too focused on solutions can get in the way of actual listening, according to Scott Williams, from the Department of Management at Wright State University. It is possible -- probable, even -- that the speaker is not in need of answers, but simply wants to share or connect with you. Focusing on what you want to say next can also be a barrier to effective listening because you then only half pay attention to what the other person is saying as you formulate your next interjection.
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Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.