Barriers to Effective Listening and How to Overcome Them : Part One

Posted: April 26, 2023, 9 a.m.

Barriers to Effective Listening and How to Overcome Them 

When working with people to become better listeners one of the first things I have to help them overcome is getting rid of the biggest barriers to effective listening. It sounds silly and it sounds simple, but it’s not just physical barriers that get in our way. There are a number of things that can interrupt us from getting the message, so I want to talk you through the major barriers to effective listening and how you can overcome them. The first two I’ll talk about are more external: your environment, and both parties’ listening styles.


One of the first things you have to take care of is generally the first thing that gets overlooked:  environmental noises. This can be trucks going by, sirens, loud music. It can also just be a noisy space. I'll have clients sometimes say they like to take important conversations to places like a coffee shop, but the thing about most coffee shops is that you really can't get the message fully because they're filled with physiological noise. Which is not to be confused with psychological noise when the thoughts in our mind take over and crowd out the incoming messages. This all leads to information overload.

The first step to being a better listener is to have the conversation somewhere that you can hear and that you limit external noise. 

Distractions can interrupt good listening. Apart from any type of noise, distractions are anything your brain wants to pay attention to—a TV above your shoulder, something interesting going on across the street, anything that you have a hard time not looking at. When something pull’s your attention away, you’re just not focusing on listening anymore. 

If you are like me, you need to be aware of your environment and work to remove the excess noise and distractions. If you have TVs or radios in your office or in their office, turn them off. If there's something going on that might distract you, move to another location. Just make sure you're in a place that you can focus on them and that they can focus on you. Undivided attention is the best way to listen, with no environmental factors interrupting you.

The other piece of environmental barriers are interruptions from others. When you are interrupted, it breaks the flow of listening. When you get a phone call, or someone pops their head in your office to ask a quick question, or even when your cell phone buzzes, you are going to lose focus on the other person. This can lead to bodily stress and cognitive barriers – imagine your employee is trying to share information with you and you keep getting distracted or interrupted. That can agitate fellow listeners and lead to a breakdown in communication.

It’s  important to set the stage of the listening process for no interruptions. This might be going to a conference room, closing your door, telling people you need uninterrupted time, and turning your phone not just to silent, but off. These things are going to make sure that small interruptions don't derail your conversation otherwise important information can get lost and frustrations can grow.

It is your job to listen, but you just can’t when there are environmental barriers. So make sure you can listen well by anticipating external barriers and removing them before they derail you.  Not only will your team thank you, you’ll also deliver your intended message more effectively to your audience members.

Different Listening Styles 

I’ll share some previous experiences to highlight the second barrier to effective listening: I was coaching this guy once who said that his team had given him feedback that he was a bad listener but he insisted that he was listening. So I observed how he worked with his team. When one of his team members came in to report to him on something, and as the employee started talking, my client started staring off into space with his back partially turned to the employee. The employee gave me a questioning look and it took all my will not to just shrug.  By the time the manager finally focused on the employee, the employee was checked out! He hadn’t felt listened to, so he wasn’t incentivized to listen in return. As a manager or leader, you want people’s confidence in your listening abilities to be high.

Afterwards I asked my client what he was doing and he said “oh, that’s how I listen. It's how I focus on what they're saying. I can really pay attention that way.” 

What often gets missed, and what my client struggled to see, is that being good listeners is as much about getting the message as it is about making sure the giver feels listened to. A common problem when people don't feel like you're listening to them, they struggle to listen in return. Just like we have different points of view, we can have different listening styles too. We all process information differently, especially when it might be more abstract information.

There are two sides to this that I want to help you master: 

First, don’t shut off when you feel “unheard.” Keep an open mind. I don’t want you to fall into the trap that this employee did. The manager responded with some really great advice, but the employee missed it because he stopped listening and then missed so much information that would have been valuable to him. So you need to recognize that not everyone is going to have the same level of listening skills as you do. You can’t force other people to be better listeners. All you can do is focus on your own listening, so even when faced with somebody that doesn't seem to be listening you can recognize that perhaps it's a different listening style. Don't let their listening style negatively affect your listening style and point of view. 

In fact, you can help them become better listeners by asking them questions in the process.  Oftentimes you can get them to start engaging more directly in listening. Just as good speakers engage their listeners, good listeners can influence less-focused listeners.

The other side of this coin is making sure that you're presenting as an active listener. Research shows that when people feel like you're listening to them they're more likely to listen to you and are more likely to engage in effective listening in return. So look like you are listening! Make direct eye contact, face your body toward them, don’t fidget with your hands or tap your foot. Nod and say things like “yes, I see that, I understand” to signify that you are listening. Be aware of your facial expressions. Playing the role of “the active listener” will go a long way in effective communication. 

Active listening, regardless of how the other person is acting, establishes you as a fair and steady leader. It also serves as a model for other team members to emulate. Work past these 5 common barriers and be the listener you want others to be—you can’t make them change, but you can be a shining example. 

Listening styles,  physical body language, facial expressions, and the chosen environment are all physical factors that interrupt listening. Once you take away these present barriers, your listening skills become more effective. 

In my next article I will talk about three internal barriers to listening to overcome. Stay tuned!

Watch the Listen To Lead workshop series or Contact Us to learn more about how you can become a more effective listener.