Steve Adubato, PhD, is the anchor of several programs on PBS stations WNET and NJTV and is the author of
five books including his latest, "Lessons in Leadership" and “What Were They Thinking", which
examines crisis communication and leadership during challenging times. Steve’s "Lessons in Leadership"
video podcast with co-host Mary Gamba airs Sundays at 10:00 a.m. on News 12+. Log on to www.Stand-
Deliver.com to watch this video podcast, or subscribe to the podcast on Google Play, Apple Podcasts or
Spotify. Steve also provides executive leadership coaching for a variety of organizations both regionally and
nationally. For more information and to find other articles Steve has written on communication and
leadership in challenging times, visit www.Stand-Deliver.com
Barriers to Effective Listening
Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
For every leader, the benefits of becoming a better listener are considerable. Effective listening improves the quality of our relationships, encourages people to be more open with us and allows us to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. But the fact is, listening is really hard work. And even those of us who consciously work to improve our listening skills often fall short.
So, what makes listening so difficult? First, we have developed some bad habits. Consider growing up in a family where dinnertime was filled with spirited, sometimes contentious, discussions and debates. You may have learned to talk and express your opinions without taking into consideration that you may be talking over others in your family. In most situations, the one who talked the loudest and most persuasively was in control. What you probably didn’t learn was how to listen to another point of view. The fact is, many bad listening habits are picked up in the home.
But beyond developing bad listening habits, there are barriers that make truly effective listening so challenging. They can be psychological, environmental, personal or physical (i.e., hunger or fatigue). Consider some of the following barriers to listening that stand in the way of us really being in sync with someone:
Self-absorption. We are intrinsically self-oriented. The truth is, even the most altruistic people, at some level, are more interested in themselves than other people. We like our own opinion, our own words, and the sound of our own voice more than we do someone else’s. This is not necessarily wrong; it’s just something we have to be aware of as it gets in the way of us being a great listener.
Distractions. Whether mental, physical or environmental, distractions are a barrier to effective listening. If there are multiple conversations going on around you or if you are in a loud restaurant for example, you need to work even harder to focus in on the person’s voice and tune out the other noise. Add to that a headache or other physical or mental stressor, and important words will fall on deaf ears. The great listeners recognize these distractions and make a conscious effort to tune them out.
Impatience. Most of us are extremely impatient and we have a limited attention span. Think about how we watch TV these days, at the ready with the remote control. If a program doesn’t catch our interest in a few seconds—‘ZAP’—on to the next station. The problem comes when this mentality plays itself out in our communication with others. If someone isn’t saying something that compels us in a very powerful way—‘ZAP!’—we’re on to another station or have gone off in our mind to another place. This barrier is also compounded by social media, where everything is in smaller, digestible, 15-30 second pieces. Anything longer and our need for something more stimulating takes over.
Apathy. If you think you’re not interested in what a person has to say, you’re not going to be able to listen intently. If you feel the subject matter doesn’t pertain to you, isn’t going to help you, or is something you’ve heard a million times before, you create a mindset that won’t let the speaker’s words touch you. “Been there, done that” is how a lot of people feel and it is also a major barrier to fully concentrating and truly listening.
Inner voice. The things we say to ourselves while someone else is speaking can get in the way of really listening. Your inner voice may be saying, “Will she ever stop talking?” Or, “This is such old news; I’m wasting my time.” Or, worse, you completely zone out and are working on your mental “to do” list of anything else you believe you should be doing except being present in this conversation. You can’t possibly hear what’s being said when you’re talking to yourself.
What do you think is the biggest barrier to you being a better listener?