Overcoming Listening Blocks

By Dr. Jon Warner

Being quiet while someone talks does not constitute listening. To listen on a proper attentive basis involves a real attempt to understand the other person, appreciate what is actually being communicated (in direct and indirect terms) and often to offer something in return (by way of comment, interpretation, feedback etc.). Unfortunately, many people engage in what is commonly called “pseudo-listening.” Pseudo-listening is when a person is quiet but not fully engaged in what is being said.

Examples of pseudo-listening are:

  • Feigning interest by nodding a lot (to make it look like you are listening and interested)
  • Focusing on only one or a few parts of the message and drifting off to think about those
  • Listening to interrupt or make your next comment
  • Listening to confirm or deny a previous opinion or “point-scoring” mentally as people talk
  • Half-listening while you think about another issue or try to end the conversation

If we want to avoid pseudo-listening and genuinely tune in to what other people are saying, we need to overcome a number of specific listening blocks. There are potentially many of these but let’s look at the ten most common ones that people need to be aware of:
  1. Mind Reading

    Although it is often seen to be a natural part of human nature to guess (at least a little) about what people are going to say next, or where they may be heading in a conversation, too much effort invested in trying to do this means that a listener cannot pay full attention. Those people who engage too much in mind reading pay less attention to words than to intonations and subtle cues in an effort to see through to what they believe to be the “truth.” This also includes making assumptions and guesses about what is meant, even when the words conveyed may not actually support these views.

  2. Rehearsing

    When any individual is mentally rehearsing what to say next, there is very little capacity left to listen properly. This is simply because most of our concentrated effort is on crafting what to say next or even plan several points that you want to inject into a conversation, almost no matter what the other person is saying.

  3. Filtering

    Filtering is about listening to some things and not to others. It's letting the mind wander or to lose concentration. The difficulty here is that listening becomes highly selective and the complete message cannot then be easily obtained.

  4. Pre-Judging

    Pre-judging is having a firm opinion about an individual communicating with you (either from previous meetings or as you progressively listen to him or her). These pre-judgments are typically stereotypical and general in their nature and usually allow a listener to pay less attention to what is actually being said (preferring to stay with their pre-judged view about the person and his or her opinions).

  5. Daydreaming

    Daydreaming involves letting a word or idea trigger a thought in your mind, causing you to drift off mentally and miss whatever is said next. Daydreaming is more prone to happen when a listener pre-judges another person or make little initial effort to focus or concentrate.

  6. Relating

    Relating involves taking everything that another person says and relating it back to your own experience. It’s a way of identifying with the speaker in a very personal way. While this may be appropriate in some cases, it can mean that the listener’s related experience becomes more important that the speaker’s and once again he or she may not feel properly listened to.

  7. Advising

    Many people treat most conversations as an opportunity to offer advice, whether or not it is wanted. For the most part, when individuals communicate, what they want most is to be genuinely heard and not to get advice unless it is specifically requested.

  8. Sparring

    Some individuals are somewhat competitive in conversations and can engage in unnecessary sparring with a speaker. This usually involves debating some points that are made or even arguing with the speaker. This occurs all the more when simple paraphrasing and summarizing does not take place and both parties start talking at cross-purposes.

  9. Interrupting and Derailing

    Derailing occurs when a listener interrupts a speaker or changes the topic suddenly. This has the effect of communicating to a speaker that what they are saying is not important and that they should talk about something more interesting or relevant to the listener -- never a recipe for attentive listening as far as the speaker is concerned.

  10. Placating

    Placating is simply overdoing the assenting comments and body language in a conversation. This includes too much head nodding, "uh-huhs," and “I knows,” etc. A certain amount of listening assent is always needed, but if it is overdone then real listening can suffer.

Every one of the above can and does block effective listening. However, when two or more of these are present in a conversation, the transfer of meaning becomes almost impossible. It is therefore a salient lesson for all of us who want to be better communicators.
Copyright Dr. Jon Warner. Reprinted with permission.

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