Barriers to Effective Listening
This past weekend I facilitated a family conference for successful succession planning where one of the participants said to me, “When you are facilitating, you are with us – it’s like there is no one else that exists”. I started thinking about how important it is to be fully present when we’re listening and what gets in the way of active listening.
In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock says”….we literally hear only what we listen for. Listening for potential requires a willingness to identify and put aside mental states that could cloud our ability to listen openly. A Quiet Leader does a critical thing-they listen for people’s potential. When a Quiet Leader listens, they listen to people and believe in others completely. They encourage and support others in being the best they can be, just in how they listen, without saying a word.”
Are you listening effectively?
Most of us do this–while we’re listening, we’re planning our response. This behaviour doesn’t give us the opportunity to be fully present to what the other person is saying. Also, we’re in love with our own ideas and show up with preconceived notions about situations, putting up a barrier to our ability to consider new ideas.
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The Art of Listening
Mastering the art of listening is a crucial component of effective leadership—a good leader understands people want and need to be heard. The best leaders are open to hearing what others have to say and understanding they are the not the only ones with the answers.
Common Barriers to Effective Listening
The next time you’re in an important conversation with someone, pay attention to see if you’re engaging in these common barriers to effective listening:
1. Are you showing up with predetermined attitudes and assumptions about the other person or the subject matter being discussed?
New shared meaning and understanding can be created by good conversations, but only if the participants are open to consider those new possibilities. Many of us use conversation to reiterate our own positions with the result that little is gained.
TIP: Try this—join a conversation with an open mind and desire to learn something new by listening without curiousity or bias.
2. Are you so preoccupied with your own thoughts that you are unable to listen attentively?
Sometimes we are so distracted by other situations unrelated to the topic of conversation, or we’re so busy formulating our response, we miss what’s said. Focusing attention on the other person’s words isn’t always easy.
TIP: The part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, used to plan complex cognitive tasks, make decisions and choose proper social behaviour, is easily overwhelmed. Our brains can only process about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any one time, making it impossible to pay attention to several things simultaneously. To listen actively and push aside distracting thoughts requires discipline and training.
3. Are you busy completing the other person’s thoughts and jumping to conclusions?
Often we hear something and think, “Oh, I know where she is going with this.” We attribute ideas, motivations, and intentions to others that may not be true, leading to misunderstandings. This happens most often if we have known the other people participating in the conversation for a long time; we think we know what they are going to say.
TIP: Active listening requires patience. Let others finish what they are going to say and don’t make assumptions.
4. Are you engaged in selective listening?
Sometimes we listen only to what we want to hear. We like to be right and we don’t feel comfortable when something contradicts our belief systems. It’s easier for us to ignore information that isn’t consistent with what we believe. The downside to this is that we then don’t learn from others and can’t effectively collaborate.
TIP: To overcome selective listening, try paraphrasing or mirroring back what you heard to make sure you understand the other person’s point of view. To practice this, engage in conversations with people who you know you disagree with and learn to respectfully discuss your disagreements. Encourage diverse opinions with the plan of considering them thoroughly and learning from others.
5. Are you paying enough attention to body language and other forms of communication such as rate of speech, emphasis, tone and intonation?
What’s being said is only a small part of communication. Body language, how fast someone is speaking and tone give clues to their emotions, feelings and stress levels which can provide important information that isn’t being expressed in words.
TIP: Try focusing on what’s not being said. Active listening includes being a good observer.
6. Are you in too much of a hurry to listen effectively?
We’re all busy and want to get on with our own business, so we’ don’t take the time to listen and can’t wait for the other person to finish what they’re saying. People are able to sense when you don’t really want to listen and this behaviour can create barriers.
TIP: If you’re always trying to control the pace of the conversation, try to intentionally slow yourself down or suggest a better time to talk. A conversation shouldn’t be a race.
In Five Steps to Start and Make Business Work, Richard Branson says, “As a leader you have to be a really good listener. You need to know your own mind but there is no point in imposing your views on others without some debate. No one has a monopoly on good ideas or good advice. Get out there, listen to people, draw people out, and learn from them.”
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