What stops me listening?

Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

Last month I shared five key impacts of listening to others. It seems that many individuals and organisations see the benefits of listening more. I am encouraged by others declaring their desire to improve their listening skills. By their own admission, listening to another person – free from interruption and judgement – can be hard to master. It’s true, in a world full of distraction and constant interruptions, listening requires effort, discipline and practice.

So let’s take a look at some of the enemies of listening and some practical principles you can adopt to mitigate them.


Noise can break into our listening from a number of directions: 

  • Physical noise from our environment. The phone buzzing, the notification ping. People speaking loudly, even if in a different room, when you are all working or studying from home.
  • Psychological noise. The noise in our own heads. The internal thoughts we have in response to what we have just heard. Or our own wandering thoughts – ‘I completely forgot to get supper out of the freezer’ – will stop us really listening to another.
  • Physiological noise. Our own body grumbling through hunger or thirst. Feeling cold or too hot will distract us from listening well. 
  • Semantic noise. The internal noise of our confusion when we don’t understand the word choice of a speaker or what they mean. In these moments our attention is on our struggle to understand, rather than what the speaker is saying.

Attention span

The biology of listening reveals that we listen at over 400 words per minute. However, we speak, on average, at 125 words per minute. In that space, our mind can shift away from listening and wander, jump to conclusions, make assumptions and attend to other topics. 

Our own biases, conscious or unconscious

We might have a bias against the speaker, not liking their tone or style of communicating. Or we may have a bias against the topic or content. We may dislike or disagree with the message they are presenting. Our biases towards others, or the topics they raise, can interfere just as much with our listening. When we like what we are hearing we can be quick to leap to agreement, without listening to what makes the speaker’s thinking unique. The challenge is that we often overlook our biases or don’t stop to question them. 

What can we do to overcome these enemies of listening? Here are seven practical principles that can strengthen your impact on your business and personal relationships as you deepen your listening skills:

  1. Don’t interrupt. When we interrupt someone, it is as if we have just hijacked their thinking. You never know what someone is about to think or say. Resist the urge to jump in with your thoughts before they have finished. 
  2. Quieten your own mind. Clear your mind of any distracting thoughts, for example how you might deal with the situation, or simply wondering what you’ll make for dinner tonight!
  3. Be at ease, free from urgency. Relax, smile and let the speaker know that you are interested in what they have to say. Keep your eyes on the eyes of the speaker. Keep your nodding to a minimum, so it does not confuse the speaker. It can convey the message that you want them to hurry up, or even limit their ideas by giving them the sense that you ‘approve’ of how they are thinking.
  4. Eliminate distractions. Give your full attention to the speaker. Close down the laptop and turn your mobile phone to silent. Ideally, remove all distractions from sight.
  5. Keen an open mind. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Be empathetic and look at the issues from their perspective.
  6. Use silence. Resist the urge to fill the space because of your own discomfort. It takes time for others to formulate their thoughts and express their feelings – give them the time and space to do so.
  7. Be objective. Be aware of your own personal biases. Notice how they can influence your openness to what you are hearing. Acknowledge the diversity of thinking of the speaker. 

I offer these thoughts at a time when great listening has never been more important – nor more difficult. For many of us, working from home and meeting online, the enemies of listening are crowding into our everyday lives. It’s too easy to develop habits and coping strategies that accommodate, rather than challenge, these enemies.

The seven practical principles I offer can break these habits. These simple steps can help us strengthen our determination to being a great listener, at a time when those around us need it most.

The enemies of listening – our external and internal distractions – will remain with us. But we can choose how we deal with them and recommit to overcoming them.

Thanks for listening.

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Photo on Unsplash by Brian Wangenheim

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