Overcoming Internal Barriers to Listening: Part Two

Posted: May 14, 2023, 5 p.m.

Internal Barriers to Effective Listening 

When working through barriers to listening, there are many things to be mindful of. I talked about physical barriers and the importance of the right environment and understanding different listening styles, and now I want to talk about the internal barriers to effective listening. Often, these are emotionally driven barriers, but don’t stress. Understanding and awareness of barriers is part of overcoming the barriers to effective listening. Being a good listener and having effective communication is easier once you address all of the common barriers we often see and experience.

1. Aspects of Message 

One barrier to effective listening is the aspect of the message. In my first year of PhD studies we were asked to take a class outside of our major. I saw a class in the Economics department about creating policy at the link of nonprofit, for-profit and Civic governance. Having already taken two masters-level econ classes in my MBA program, I thought “I can do this!”

It only took about an hour before I realized just how naive I was—even though the professor was speaking my same language, he was putting the words together in ways that made no sense to me. It was all abstract information. I couldn't pay attention very well because it was an information overload.  

This is a prime example of the ways in which the message itself can be a barrier to effective listening. My experience with the Econ class represents the way messages involving complex concepts or irregular language can be nearly impossible to comprehend. This might be because jargon or slang is being used, or new concepts are unfamiliar. Of course, there can be actual language barriers too that work as cognitive barriers. 

First, acknowledge that you're not getting the message. It's up to you as the listener to make sure that the speaker knows that you aren't getting the message because even good speakers have trouble gauging at times. Next, ask more questions, ask them to repeat things, or ask them to speak more slowly. Whatever the case, it is equally your responsibility to make sure you are getting the full message and able to process information that comes with it. 

While that professor and I were both speaking English, there was still a language barrier because of the technical words he used. This can happen when a speaker or listener is also a non-native speaker, or if there are cultural differences that may interrupt the aspect of the message or the context. The good thing is that if you are having a hard time understanding the language used, you can ask for clarification.

Another way messages can lead to confusion is when there are just too many steps involved. Have you ever had someone give you directions and the steps were really involved? By the time they get to step 9 or 10, you’re finding it hard to remember the first steps and listening has become difficult. Your brain only has so much capacity for complex directions—at a certain point, it just stops retaining the message when there’s too much information at once. If environmental noise interrupts listening because of that external noise, then think of having too many steps as internal noise. Your brain can not compute and ultimately shuts down the incoming information and “internal” noise.

When you acknowledge to yourself that you are not getting the message, put your ego aside and ask for help in understanding the message. When in doubt, ask questions and keep the lines of communication open. You will avoid potential mistakes and your team will appreciate you taking the time to actually get the message. Asking clarifying questions is an important way to boost your communication skills and become a more active listener.

2. Biases 

When it comes to effective listening, one of the hardest barriers to overcome is ingrained biases. Even though I have trained myself and others on listening, leadership, and management for a long time, I still catch myself assuming I know what someone's going to say before they say it because of past experiences. We all do it, and when we do, we can not only miss the actual message, but actually disenfranchise our team members.   

Biases affect you in a couple ways, so if you’re trying to be a better listener you need to get comfortable addressing your biases. There are a few things you can look out for:

One of the most common ways that biases present barriers in leadership is when an employee comes to you to report on something. What often happens is the managers or leaders assume that the employee wants a problem solved, rather than just wanting to present an update. So when the manager assumes a problem exists and offers a solution to it,  the team member not only feels that the manager was not listening, but now they have a problem they didn’t have before. 

So avoid this by simply asking if they are reporting or looking for help. Go one step further and ask questions that keep the ball in their court. Things like “what are your next steps, are there things I can help you with, what are the options?”etc. This shows them you are listening and offers them support without putting your potential biases in play.

More difficult to address are the biases that are held deep down about any number of things.  The annoying thing about these ingrained biases is that when you go into listening encounters, your subconscious actually listens for things that support your underlying biases and previous experiences.

Whether that's listening to a speech, a presentation, or even a discussion, everyone has hidden biases that can guide assumptions on what the person's going to say, and what their underlying intentions are. Two people can listen to one speaker and get entirely different messages based on their biases guiding their listening and point of view. 

This is harder to overcome. You have to really think about where you're drawing your conclusions from. Your past experience? Or the incoming information? Then look at what's actually being said to make sure that you aren't allowing your personal biases to guide your thoughts.

The most effective way to overcome both of these types of biases is to hunt for negative evidence. It can be easy to listen for things that support your already held beliefs and personal values, but if you can listen instead for things that go against those beliefs, you may get a better understanding. It can be difficult but listening for things that prove you wrong makes you a better listener.

Remember that biases guide your assumptions, so the next time you have a conversation with an employee, see if you make any assumptions. Listen to the words they are saying. Did you miss something or add something? Do you have an open mind? What did you assume would happen? Did it go that way?  When you recognize your biases, you can start to put them aside. When you can do that, your team will see you as more supportive, more fair, and more informed. When you’re not looking to constantly affirm your biases, you are able to listen better, and improve those active listening skills.

3. Emotional Reactivity 

Years ago, I had to close down one of my restaurants due to a number of factors. I had brought the team together to talk to them about it and made a crucial mistake: They knew things weren't great, but they had no idea we were closing down.

To make my messaging worse, I started the business meeting off with the news of our closing then followed up with how I was going to take care of the team and make sure they were employed in my other spaces. The problem was that most of the group only caught half of the message – they didn't listen to any of the details after “we’re closing.” They missed some very important information because I tipped off an emotional reaction that made it difficult for them to continue listening effectively. 

Emotional reactivity is any feeling that clouds our listening in significant ways. So emotional reactivity is not always based on negative emotions, it can be positively based as well. 

Last summer I was talking to my kids about a bunch of things we had to get done in the coming week. But I started the conversation by talking about an upcoming trip to their favorite theme park. Well I should have stopped talking right there and saved my breath because my kids didn’t listen to anything after that—they were just too excited to give me their full attention. 

I want to help you identify a couple of ways this can happen to you and some ways you can avoid emotionally reactive listening. 

The first thing you want to do is be aware of the things that might be emotional triggers. These might be things you're scared of, aspects of self-esteem, things that you're worried about, or  things you're excited about.  When you're aware of these in yourself, you’re better able to recognize the emotions when they start to creep in. Then you can take the necessary steps (like breathing or taking a walk) to mitigate the effect these emotions could have on your ability to listen. 

Second, you want to withhold evaluation. This can require quite a bit of self-control, but practice staying neutral and listening for main points. Listen for other aspects of the message, like facts or numbers, rather than listening to your own emotional reaction. Focus on the facts. 

Finally, you can acknowledge to the speaker what your emotional reaction is. Sometimes, that may sound like,  “Listen, I need to step away from this for a little bit, I am getting angry or upset or excited and I want to be able to focus” or “can we revisit this later?” Acknowledging your emotions is healthy—letting them overtake you and derail communication is not. 

If you can make sure that you keep your emotions from clotting your listening, you're going to be able to receive messages more effectively. And getting the message is, of course, the point of being an effective listener!  

There will always be barriers to listening. But we have so many tools to overcome these barriers. Body language, environment, a negative attitude, different cultures, a lack of common experiences, emotional triggers, confusion, we can bridge the gap to any barriers we face. The first step is always to look for possible barriers or find the breakdown in communication that may already exist. Acknowledging when these internal barriers come up for you is an important step to eliminating the barriers to effective listening.

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