Listening may be affected by several barriers that impede proper communication.
Ignorance and Delusion
The first barrier to active listening is simply not realizing that it isn't taking place. Most of us can get through life adequately without developing our listening skills, mostly because we fail to classify listening as a skill to start with and because most everyone else is in the same state of ignorance. It is very easy to then delude yourself into thinking that listening just involves allowing another person to speak in your presence. Even when you are the one talking and faced with a lousy listener, it still may not dawn on you that you are every bit as bad at listening as they are. Only when faced with a truly gifted listener – one who actively listens – that we may become aware of how lacking we are by comparison.
The possible result of actively listening to another person may be that you become embroiled in their situation somehow. People who share problems often do so because they seek advice, but they may also want the listener to become more deeply involved. Where this is obvious from the outset, the listener may be reluctant to become implicated and may therefore willfully fail to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear.
Bias and Prejudice
The listener's interpretation of what they are hearing may cause them to respond negatively to the speaker. They either assume that they know the situation because they have been faced with a similar one in the past or allow their preconceptions to color the way they respond. In the first case, the listener does not properly listen to the facts because they already think they know the full story. This means they might belittle the problem or offer a response that does not meet the listener's needs. In the second case, the listener negatively judges the speaker because the speaker's opinions or beliefs run counter to their own.
The listener may not be interested in what the speaker is saying. This may be because they find the subject dull because they feel it is too far beyond their experience to comment on, or because their lack of knowledge causes them to dismiss the severity of the problem. All these will cause the listener to switch off to a certain extent.
Status of the Speaker
The listener's opinion of the speaker, as a person, may influence the extent to which they are happy to pay attention and give their time. This may be based on simple like and dislike or on status. The former situation may cause the listener to hang on every word or positively resent the imposition. The latter case may also produce these same results: a low-status speaker's thoughts may be deemed unworthy. Those of a high-status individual may provoke rapt attention because the listener feels honored to have been included or consulted.
How the Listener is Feeling
Even if it is in your job description to listen to other people, your ability to listen to them actively can easily be affected by how you are feeling at that moment. We all know how this goes. If you're not careful, your emotions can dictate your whole day. This mainly includes how you respond to people who want to bend your ear with their problems. If you are in a good mood, you feel loving and giving and able to offer your best advice based on your analysis of what you have just actively listened to. If your mood sucks, the very notion that someone wants to burden you with their thoughts, let alone their problems, makes you resentful. So, you fake it and pretend to pay attention and be interested, wasting everyone's time.
Time and Place
These are the physical factors that influence whether you are willing or able to listen to what you are being told actively. If you have limited time to listen, you may be so concerned with time constraints that you cannot concentrate sufficiently to listen. The truth is that even five minutes of active listening may prove a golden time for the speaker, but it may not be possible with a clock-watching listener.
Location can also be a problem. Having a heart-to-heart in the street next to a mechanical digger in full swing will never be conducive to active listening. Equally, trying to talk about a delicate matter with someone who is hard of hearing and who won't wear an aid in the middle of a crowded restaurant is doomed to failure. These may be extreme examples, but they highlight the importance of choosing the right time and place. As a listener, it is far better to be honest, and schedule a more appropriate time and place than to succumb to the pressure to listen now and then not listen at all.
This post is part two of a three-part series on Active Listening. Next week we will discuss improving your listening.
Did you find this post helpful in understanding why you may be missing out on parts of a conversation?