As I mentioned in last month’s blog, active listening is about a person’s willingness and ability to take responsibility to hear and to understand the speaker’s message. However, there are some barriers that challenge our ability to listen well, but in understanding what the barriers are, we can work to overcome them where possible.
4. Language or cultural
5. Message content
6. Physical barriers
You may be in a situation where you feel awkward and unsure of how to behave, or maybe feel out-of-place with the people around you. This sense of not ‘fitting in’ makes it hard to pay attention to what people are saying because your thoughts are more focused on how you are feeling.
This is when distractions from the environment such as light, noise (concrete driller in background), temperature, smells or the sounds of others talking, overpower your ability to focus your attention on the message. Listening can also be particularly challenging when you aren’t in the same room as those you are having a conversation with. We are all probably guilty of multi-tasking when on a phone call. Tapping away on the computer keyboard while having a conversation, does not allow for active listening.
We interpret information in various ways depending on our mood and how we feel when we are listening. If we have had a fight with a loved one, or woke up with a bad headache, our ability to listen actively can be impaired. If we are speaking with someone we don’t respect, it may be a particular challenge to listen without judging, to be patient and so on. Understanding this involves self-awareness and a realisation that perhaps certain conversations may need to be postponed until we are feeling better.
Language or cultural barriers
Technical jargon, legalese, slang and different accents can impede our ability to actively listen. When language we don’t understand is being used in a conversation, we don’t know the right questions to ask, or how to feedback through the use of rephrasing, because we don’t know what it is we are rephrasing! You need to be bold to ask the speaker to speak more slowly, or let them know you don’t understand the jargon, asking them to use plain English to help you understand.
Message content barriers
If a message or too simple or too complicated, it is easy to lose concentration and be distracted by other things. To remain an active listener, you will need to find ways to engage with a simple message, or you may miss something that you didn’t know. If the message is complex, you may need to ask more questions or be honest and explain that you don’t understand what is being said, and could they simplify it for you.
You may have poor hearing, or the speaker has a soft voice. In a one to one situation, tell the speaker you are having trouble hearing and ask if they could speak a bit louder for you.
None of these barriers are insurmountable. Being aware of the factors that may impede your ability to listen effectively is half the battle. Being honest and self-aware will also assist you in improving your listening skills.