Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

November 2003
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Barriers to Listening #2

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Few people are good at listening. In our last Letter, we began to look at some of the reasons why this is so. Here are more barriers to effective listening::

4. Filters. These are the various internal “lenses” we have, and through which we filter and interpret everything we see and hear. The following are some common human filters:
Images past and future.
Past experience.
Although all of us possess these internal lenses, we are often blind to them. We do not realize how much they “color” what we hear and how we respond.

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. (Prov. 18:2)

Being aware of these filtering lenses is a significant step in becoming a better listener.

5. Habits. There are many internal habits that prevent us from effective listening. For example:
Not hearing things out, but jumping in before the other person is finished.
The mind wandering to things that are more relevant or interesting to you.
Not being open to the subject matter if its value is not immediately apparent to you.
Becoming defensive when the subject is negative towards you.
Not valuing a conversation that you did not initiate.
Trying to do other things while you listen – “multi-tasking.”
Thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next, instead of giving your full attention to the speaker.
Judging the speaker and not giving him a chance to change your mind.
Turning off, if the speaker’s voice, manner or physical appearance is unpleasant.
Yielding to emotions regarding the subject and so not being able to calmly consider what is said.
Trying so hard to look interested and to otherwise please the speaker that you don’t hear his words.
In your mind, adding to or taking away from the speaker’s words – hearing what you want to hear.
6. Misconceptions. One major barrier to effective listening is the myth that speaking represents power. In our culture, the one who speaks is seen as the active and powerful one, while listening signifies weakness and compliance.In reality, effective listening is active and influential. The good listener can actually direct the conversation by his sensitive and well-placed responses:

The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out. (Prov. 20:5)

The effective listener will find himself well-positioned to:

Cheer up anxious hearts (Prov. 12:25).
Sustain the weary (Is. 50:4).
Bring healing (Prov. 12:18; 16:24).
Turn away wrath (Prov. 15:1).
Build others up (Eph. 4:29).
Such powerful words can only be spoken after effective listening.
7. External distractions. In addition to the all the internal distractions mentioned above, there are also many significant external distractions that affect our ability to listen effectively. For example:
Barriers such as desks or physical distance between speaker and listener.
Faulty acoustics, making it difficult to hear.
The accent of the speaker.
Time of day. At certain times we have less energy than at others.
Personal problems. Someone who is consumed with his own personal issues will not have much energy left for actively listening to another.
Distractions such as noise, other people, activities, animals, traffic, machinery, views of outside scenery, etc.
Interruptions such as phone calls.
Time pressures such as deadlines.
For effective listening to be possible, such distractions need to be minimized.
8. The use of “trigger” words. Certain words or ideas carry lots of emotion, and their use has the tendency to shut down the communication process. These words or phrases can express accusation, hurt, offense, insult, distrust, cynicism, sarcasm, scorn, judgmentalism, rejection, etc., and they can vary from person to person and from relationship to relationship. We must be careful that we:
Do not use such words or ideas ourselves when we speak.
Do not react or resist when someone speaking to us uses such words. We must stay cool and try to discern the underlying idea the speaker is trying to express.
9. Insufficient attention to nonverbal communication. Much of our communication is delivered nonverbally. Even when an individual is not talking, he is still communicating in some manner.Here are the three main ways that communication takes place, along with their relative impacts:
Words: 7%.
Vocal (tone of voice): 38%.
Body language (facial expressions, posture, gestures, eye contact): 55%.
The exact figures here are not the point, but the general direction is significant. Nonverbal communication is extremely important and must be considered in the listening process.Think of the times people have influenced you simply by the way they looked at you. They didn’t even need to say a word! Face color changes as people talk about things that affect them emotionally. Movements of the lips, mouth, cheek muscles and eyebrows reveal what is going on inside the speaker – not to mention the movements or posture of the rest of the body, including the hands and the feet.

A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart – he always stirs up dissension. (Prov. 6:12-14)

A great range of emotions and attitudes can be revealed through body language.

In addition, the speaker’s tone can often convey more meaning than his words. So the effective listener must pay attention to the pitch, rate, timbre and subtle variations in the tone of the speaker’s voice.

The reality is that a person cannot help but communicate. Though he may decide to stop talking, it is impossible for him to stop communicating. The reading of nonverbal communication, therefore, is one of the most significant skills of effective listening.

To check your listening effectiveness please use our Listening Effectiveness Inventory.

Our next Leadership Letter will examine specific ways that we can improve our listening.

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