A few years ago I worked with a man named Martin. He was a condescending know-it-all and I avoided him whenever I could. As soon as I saw him walking toward me, I could feel myself getting annoyed. Any time he spoke to me, all I could think was, “Who does he think he is telling me what to do? I wish he would just shut up.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t just ignore Martin because I needed information from him to do my job. So I decided to try an experiment. When Martin approached me, I conjured up the image of my best friend and pretended that she was the one speaking to me instead of him. Immediately I lowered my psychological listening barrier and the negative thoughts in my head drifted away. From then on, I was able to set aside my feelings about Martin and truly listen to him.
Every day we face barriers to listening; from our own egos to construction noise. Although we can’t eliminate all listening barriers, we can certainly take steps to eliminate the ones we can and work around those we can’t. However, the first step is identifying what barriers exist.
There are three basic categories of listening barriers. Psychological barriers are made up of your own thought processes and emotions. Physical barriers are those barriers related to your body, such as hearing loss, or even a speaker’s speech impediment. Environmental barriers are those external to you, such as other conversations or the aforementioned construction noise.
Although we can’t eliminate all listening barriers, good listeners take steps to eliminate the ones they can and work around those they can’t. Here are five ways you minimize the impact of listening barriers.
1. Ensure you’re ready to listen. If you’re angry, frustrated, or preoccupied, you’re unlikely to listen well. To listen, you need to be in the right frame of mind. If you’re having a bad day (or bad moment) ask the speaker to wait until you’re able to really listen. If that’s not an option, take a deep breath and mentally “let go” of what’s bothering you, telling yourself, “I need to let X go for now so I can really listen to Y.”
2. Choose the best possible listening environment. If your office is loud and you’re trying to talk to a customer on the phone, ask the customer if she minds holding so you can move to a quiet place where you can hear. If an employee stops you in the hallway to discuss a personal issue, ask him to accompany you to your office so you can talk privately. Taking control of the listening environment will ensure a better outcome for both of you.
3. Minimize distractions. One of the number one complaints employees have about their supervisors is that they SAY they’re listening, but they’re doing other things at the same time. If you say “yes” to listening, you must say “no” to everything else. No answering the phone. No checking email. No continuing to type up that report. Shut off the phone ringer, close the computer, and step away from the keyboard and really listen.
4. Don’t prejudge the message. Prejudging involves thinking ahead of the speaker and predicting what he or she will say next. One example of prejudging is interrupting and try to complete the speaker’s thoughts. Here’s what I mean:
Amy: “I was thinking maybe we should reconsider those vacation dates, I. . .”
LeRoy: “We should probably wait until August?”
Amy: “No, what I was going to say was. . .”
LeRoy: “We should fly out on Saturday instead?”
Amy: “Would you like to keep guessing or would you like me to tell you what I was going to say?”
Another type of prejudging is when the listener basically stops listening, assuming where the conversation is going, and spends the time formulating his or her response. You can tell when a listener does this because he or she blurts out the answer to your question or comment immediately after you finish speaking.
5. Focus on demonstrating proper listening body language. You can tell me you’re listening as much as you want, but until I can “see” that you’re listening, I won’t believe it.
Yes, I know, if you have your back turned to a speaker, you can still hear the speaker’s words. However, a large portion of what someone is communicating will come from his or her body language. If you’re facing the speaker and using good eye contact, you can “listen” to what the speaker’s body language is telling you.
For example, if you were giving instructions to an employee and asked if she understood what needed to be done, the employee might say, “yes,” but if her face looks concerned or doubtful, what her face is telling you is more important than her words. She doesn’t want to admit she is unsure, but her face gives her away. When body language contradict the verbal message, the body language tells the truth. A good response might be, “I appreciate your willingness to take on this project, but I’m sensing some concern. Let’s go back over the steps once again.”
Finally, using good listening body language communicates to the speaker that you are truly interested in what he or she is saying. Facing the speaker, leaning slightly in, and using facial expressions the demonstrate understanding, give the speaker a “warm fuzzy,” that you’re really listening.
For more information on improving your listening skills, check out my previous blog posts on listening: