Leadership Perspectives

Why we really don’t listen very well

March 19, 2013

Leaders, you know how important listening is.  And you probably know some distinctions around “active listening.”  But if you are like many leaders, you still don’t listen very well.

March is International Listening Awareness Month.  One key to better listening awareness is understanding the barriers to listening and working to overcome those barriers.

The are many Physical Barriers to listening:

  • Hearing loss.
  • Noisy environments, due to ambient noise or loud conversations.
  • Visual distractions including something outrageous or unexpected that suddenly catches our eye, or even normal events such as birds, kids or traffic outside of a window.
  • Physical discomfort or fatigue:  hunger, illness, and lack of sleep. Even bright sunlight in your face or an uncomfortable room temperature can negatively affect listening.

Most leaders are quick to recognize physical barriers and to make adjustments.  But another type of barrier – the Psychological Barrier – is much more insidious because it is so much more difficult to recognize.  There are three types:

1.  Internal Conversations

These are the unspoken conversations that play in a leader’s head.  Sometimes they relate directly to the speaker or their message, for example: “I can’t believe she is planning to wear that for the client presentation this afternoon.”  Or “I am so tired of hearing about who she is fighting with now.  Can’t she just learn to get along?”

Other internal conversations, which are equally distracting and prevent the listener from focusing on what is being said may be entirely unrelated to the speaker or their message.   For instance “I feel so rotten about that argument I had with my kid this morning.”

2.  Paradigms

Those ingrained beliefs that represent our “truth” can easily become filters for everything that we attempt to hear.  Paradigms tend to be taken for granted and can become the context for all of a leader’s listening if care is not taken.  It is critical for leaders to recognize their paradigms.  A few examples include:

“Getting everyone to comply is essential.”

“The only way to be successful is to _________.”

“Humans are essentially good.”

“People really can’t be trusted.”

“It’s important to get along at all cost.”

“Diversity is critical.”

“It is right to be conservative.”

3.  Background Stories

These are the unspoken conversations, labels, stories, history, and attitudes that precede the conversation and are in play before the conversation starts.  They serve as a filter through which listening occurs.  Background stories a may be positive or negative, and each is equally dangerous. (Positive background stories can prevent questioning.)

Both physical and psychological listening barriers can block out hearing new information and impact leaders’ decisions, relationships, and effectiveness.   If you want to be a better listener, first cultivate awareness of your physical and psychological listening barriers so that you can lessen their effect.

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