Top 3 Barriers to Effective Listening and How to Overcome Them

Proverbs 18:13 – He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.

While we may understand why speaking before listening—giving our opinion without first gathering the facts—is folly, it is interesting that the ancient writer would suggest that speaking before listening is shameful. Why is neglecting to listen shameful? Conversely, how does listening to a person bestow honor?

Top 3 Obstacles to Listening

1. Over-assessment of Skills

In one study, a group of managers were asked to rate their listening skills. No manager rated herself or himself as poor or very poor. Over 90 percent placed themselves in the good or very good category. When employees were asked to rate the listening skills of these same managers, the most common response was weak.

How would you evaluate your listening skills (poor, average, above average, or superior)? How would your spouse evaluate you as a listener?

2. Prejudgment

A Baptist said of an Episcopalian, “I cannot hear you because of what I expect you to say.” The difficulty with having reoccurring conversations with your friend, family member or spouse is that you start to think you know everything that person is about to say. Heading into the conversation you are convinced you already know his or her position, and you’ve already decided he or she is wrong.

What topic in a particular relationship do you think you prejudge your friend, co-worker or spouse before the conversation even starts? Is there a topic you feel prejudged by that person?

3. Ambushing

Sometimes we enter a conversation simply with the goal of winning the argument. Ambushing involves gathering information that will later be used to attack the speaker. Far from not listening, ambushers are often very adept at listening and asking carefully designed questions that will lead a person into a trap.

Do I listen to understand or do I gather information to use against people? Do people feel safe sharing information with me?

Listening Well

Listening effectively is not easy. Some of the following suggestions may help you move past obstacles and become more attentive.

Perspective-taking

Perspective-taking is the attempt to see the world through the eyes of another. We temporarily set aside our own views to understand how a person views reality and us within his or her reality.

Think back to a recent disagreement or conversation with your friend, co-worker or spouse. Can you describe the conversation from his or her point of view? If that person heard your description, how satisfied would he or she be? As you describe your his or her point of view, how does your tone come across (sarcastic, condescending or respectful)?

Asking Questions

One of the key mistakes we make is to merely trade conclusions with each other—not ask how we arrived at the conclusion. During a conversation it is crucial to ask what led the other person to arrive at a certain belief or conviction.

For example, in marriage, select a specific topic (the budget, kid’s schedule, church involvement) and ask your spouse:

  • “When did you first start to think this way about this particular issue?”
  • “What individuals or books have shaped your thinking the most on this issue?”
  • “What experiences—such as how your parents spent money—have helped you clarify your thinking?”

“When we love another,” notes psychologist M. Scott Peck, “we give him or her our attention.” The first step in trying to understand a person is to suppress our desire to persuade or correct, and just listen. When we take time to focus on another person’s views, we not only participate in rich conversations, but we express love to another. 


Tim Muehlhoff

Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.


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