Communication is a very integral part of our daily life, with about at least 7000 words spoken a day, on average. As the means of the passing of information, to gaining it yourself, to even simple reasons like performing catharsis or as we call it, ranting, we all are prone to spend at least seventy-five minutes a day in speaking. 

But as it has been already established, speaking is in no way the only part of communication. For any conversation to be fulfilling and insightful, there has to be a sufficient amount of both the elements, speaking as well as listening. But most of us fail to acknowledge the importance of listening and keep our entire focus on speaking.

There are very few who can say they have mastered being an effective and active listener. From external to internal factors, several things are influencing our listening and stopping us from completely hearing what the person has to say.

“The art of conversation lies in listening.” 

-Malcolm Forbes.

During an online course on a particular field of psychology, the host, Kain Ramsay, so aptly stated all the many barriers that might be coming in between me and the people I am trying to listen to. He used the model of ‘Barriers to effective listening,’ given by the late American psychologist, Albert Ellis. 

Giving me immense insight on where exactly I faltered at being an effective listener, there were about eleven of these barriers, all of which I have mentioned below. Try to understand these barriers and honestly pinpoint which ones you unknowingly indulge in. Once you realise the many mistakes you have been making in listening, you’d know which are those areas that you need to grow and develop, what behaviour you need to eliminate and improve to become an effective listener. 

Listening to them and us. 

When we are listening to people speak, despite hearing their words, we might fall victim to also hearing our voice in our head along with theirs. We tend to be having a separate conversation in our head which could either be completely or vaguely related to the topic the person is talking about but it could also be about an entirely different and irrelevant subject.

In the first scenario, when our inner monologue is of the same topic as theirs, we are only interested in the conversation to present our point of views, only to showcase our thoughts and knowledge. We are filled with our thoughts and what we wish to respond instead of properly hearing and understanding them. 

While in the second scenario, where our inner monologue has nothing to do with the conversation in hand, we might even ask the speaker to stop speaking because we are not retaining even half of what they are speaking.

Attraction and over-connection.

When we find the communicator or speaker attractive, our thoughts are biased towards their words. Many times it happens that we are more engrossed in daydreaming, or their facial expressions or even something as mundane as their voice and accents. Depending on the intensity, this leads to us over-connecting with them even when their ideas are not completely at par with ours. It even happens that we tend to believe most of what they are saying even when there is no proof of their words. 

Unappealing and disconnecting.

Just as common the previous one is, so is this one. We are easily influenced by people’s looks, their outfit choices, their voice, accents and even their word choices. When we find someone unappealing according to our preferences, based on any characteristic at all, a lot of times we tend to disconnect with them. They could be presenting the most important and interesting topic to us but there is a high chance that we, judging the book by the cover, close our mind with no intention. We become prejudiced against them and hearing very less of what they have to say. We even tend to be suspicious of their words and find things hard to believe solely based on the fact that we found them unappealing. Yes, sometimes the human mind could be very shallow. But also remember, you get to control it.

‘Being right’ vs. actually listening to understand.

Just like the first listening barrier, where one is engrossed with their thoughts and what response they are waiting to say, this is very much similar. From being rigid to close-minded, the person is fully indulged in what they believe the truth or reality is. They fail to understand that different mindsets are entitled to different perspectives. They are least focused on listening to what others have to say and understanding the words as their entire focus is on proving their personal views on what they ‘know’ is right. We all know someone like that, or maybe we are that someone. 

This is one of the toughest categories of people to converse with and usually, most conversations end with no conclusion. The individual, after the conversation, is left with irritation and frustration over how the other person’s views were not like their own.

Appealing ideas over clarity.

Often it happens that the idea being presented seems so appealing to us that it impresses us in its entirety even before we get to know all of it. It happens to the best of us. Maybe it is the way the person is presenting the idea or maybe it is some other factors like the person himself. But what it leads to is us believing that we have understood something when we just find it appealing. This is that listening barrier that people in marketing use to lure many of us in buying and opting for things that are not even slightly meant for us or needed by us.

Remembering over-applying.

When we are trying to learn something, from a musical instrument to public speaking, we are told to do this and do that, to not do this and not do that. To become better and develop in any area at all, the tricks and techniques we get are completely essential. But majority times we tend to try to remember what is being told to us instead of applying it to practice. And as can anyone easily guess, applying is a way more effective way of learning compared to just remembering. Though we might, with time, go and bring those things in practice, realising our mistake early and if we start applying what was told instantly, we are bound to learn anything in a shorter period compared to the other way around. 

Sympathising vs. Empathising.

When people are sharing their feelings and thoughts with us, there is a very minimal chance that they are looking for someone to feel bad for them or show pity. They are just looking for someone who would listen to them with no judgement and opinions. When one shows sympathy, though their intentions might be good, they are in one way letting their judgements govern their behaviour and also how they feel about the thoughts being shared with them.

What people are looking for is someone who would put aside their biases, prejudices and pity and simply listen and at the very best, try to understand what they are saying or going through. Most of us tend to ‘sympathise’ with someone’s suffering and this only makes them feel worse than they did before they shared their thoughts with us. But at the same time, when we ‘empathise’ with someone’s suffering, we are letting them feel that they are not alone, that they have a space to speak and not worry about judgement and sometimes, this is exactly what a person needs.

Prejudices and preferences over learning.

We all are governed by things we prefer and things we tend to run away from. These preferences and prejudices many times become a big barrier to our listening and thus flawed learning. From the person speaking to the subject being spoken on, we tend to be influenced by a lot of external factors that creates a big barrier between us and the process of effective listening. We all must have at least experienced this once in our school or college life, where it was either the dislike of a teacher or a subject that even made normal words difficult to comprehend, let alone be remembered. 

Expectations vs. Reality. 

It often happens that we go into conversation with preconceived notions of what would the conversation consist of. We assume and predict what the interaction is going to go like and often this leads us to fall victim to what is called ‘selective hearing.’ We continuously look for words and sentences that prove our assumptions right and overlook anything else that has been spoken. 

For instance, if one already dislikes the other individual, they are going to constantly look for faults in their speech, from grammar to logic. And though this does state that the person would be being attentive and listening to all the words, the understanding and retention of the conversation would be very minimal. And what little they did understand and retained would have a lot to do with ‘selective hearing’ than it would have to do with effective listening.

External factors.

From how is the weather to the dogs barking, several factors would try to steal the attention of a person while in a conversation. When during a conversation, people look in a different direction or try to listen to other conversations or activity around, they are giving in to external distractions. This makes the other person keep intimate information from you even when initially they intended to tell you everything. Moreover, it limits our listening and is the most obvious and common of all listening barriers. 

Perspective Vs. Reality.

Another common barrier, this one has been the reason behind numerous arguments and conflicts and the end of several relations. Along with selective hearing, we tend to add layers and meaning to what is being said. Instead of trying to start from a blank slate, we come to the conversation accompanied by our past experiences and our mindset. From our perspective, based on their tone and words, we add unnecessary layers and meaning to their words and hear only what we ‘think’ they are saying instead of what they are saying. We tend to read too much into it, overcomplicating ideas and bringing to existence the thoughts that were not even expressed. This is when we are more focused on assigning meaning to their words instead of listening to what they have to say. This leads to several miscommunication issues which results in arguments that could have been avoided if this listening barrier wasn’t present.

Effective listening is a necessity for constructive communication, which in turn is necessary for keeping a relationship strong and stable. Once you try to acknowledge which of these barriers you have been accustomed to regularly, and once you start trying to call out yourself on your malpractice and begin making an effort to eliminate or reduce these behaviours, you are going to see monumental differences in your relations. And maybe, you’d be shocked by all the amount of things you weren’t listening to before.