Active Listening

Being able to listen actively and effectively is not as easy as it may seem. Just like good communication, and giving and receiving feedback, it is a skill which requires practice. We are all able to list the main requirements for active listening: focus; concentration; respect; feedback; ask questions; summarise what you have understood; refrain from judgement; and perhaps most importantly, create the intention to listen fully and to understand the other person. But what are the obstacles?

The main barrier to effective listening is how easily our mind wanders and is distracted by other thoughts and other intentions. We often don’t even realise we are doing it. Just as with meditation, our mind wanders and, whenever we notice it has happened, we need to bring our attention back to the object of our focus. Consider the following situation. The boss (A) enters the office and says the following to a member of staff (B):

A: I asked you to complete the report on the quality of our service. As you remember, the main goals were to establish just how good our client service is and, using the conclusions of the report, look at ways of improving the whole process…
…all in all a job with a great deal of responsibility…
…Now, I know you haven’t heard from me on this for a week or so, mainly because of holidays…
…but the thing is, we have had a meeting with senior management and decided to bring in an outside consultant to run a thorough project…
…and we would like you to assist him, which would mean moving you off some of the other tasks you are dealing with so you can devote yourself to this…
…it’s a very important project and you will have full backing of the board and access to any resources you require…
…what do you think?

The comment is the start of a potentially very positive dialogue between two people. But only if we listen. Each one of the breaks in the flow of the above comment represents an opportunity for our thoughts to drift; the chance that our mind may tempt us down familiar pathways and away from active listening.

Each of the obstacles to active listening given below (taken from McKay, M. (2009) Messages: The Communication Skills Book) contains an example relating to the above comment and shows us how easily our mind distracts us from what is actually being said.

1. Comparing

We compare ourselves with the other person. They are better, calmer, and more eloquent. Or we are better than they are. Comparisons are a waste of time. They get us nowhere, and all the time we are missing what is being said.

B: He is always so professional, what if my work is not up to his standards. How does he do it, I’ve heard he practices his speeches in front of the mirror, maybe I should…

2. Mind Reading

We try to guess what the real message is. Is he telling me this because he wants sympathy or help or because he wants to make a point? Is he mad with me, pleased with me? What is he really thinking? As with comparing, above, this is futile and a waste of our time and energy.

B: I’m not even convinced he’s as committed to this as I am. I bet he won’t even read my report. What’s the point of even bothering with it? That’s what he’s here to tell me. This has happened before…

3. Rehearsing

We are too busy formulating our answer to hear what is being said.

B: Oh no, the report. I forgot all about it. I’m in trouble… Erm, I’ll just say that I need another day. That’s it. He’ll be okay with that. After all, I haven’t heard from him for nearly a fortnight…

4. Filtering

We are looking for a specific subject or comment which will tell us what we need to know and for the rest of the conversation we can switch off.

B: What does he want? I haven’t seen him for two weeks. I hope it’s about the report because I’ve been working very hard on it and we need to discuss… Yes, the report. Great. So I’m ready when you are because I have some interesting conclusions. Especially the one about…

5. Judging

We have already made up our mind about the person or the content of his/her communication.

B: Senior management. Typical, it’s about to be taken off me. All the work I’ve put into it and now senior management is getting involved and everything’s about to change. That’s the wrong decision, it needs to involve someone on the front line…

6. Dreaming

This is the most familiar one of all. Our mind simply wanders. It may be triggered by something we just heard or it may be simply a random thought.

B: He often does his rounds at lunchtime. Oh, I forgot to bring my lunch. I knew it! I was looking forward to that too. I’d cooked it myself. My favourite. I hope it’s still there when I get home because…

7. Identifying

We hear (or look for) a topic with which we can identify and then we tell our own story, oblivious to what we are actually being told.

B: “Holidays…” I’m off next week with my family. Can’t wait. We go there every year. Last year was particularly good because we…

8. Advising

Before the other person has finished talking we are already thinking of ways to help them with what we perceive is their problem.

B: Ah yes, our client service. Well, it’s fairly simple and revolves around people talking to each other. I know what you’re thinking; surely it can’t be that simple. Well it is. If you can just organise it so that…

9. Sparring

As with boxers in the ring, we are too focused on putting the other person down to actually listen to each other.

B: Yes, but you see, management isn’t aware of the fundamental problems of the process. It’s all about communication. I mean, where were you these last two weeks? I’ve heard nothing from you… if you weren’t so unavailable…

10. Being Right

This is self-explanatory. We always feel better when we are right, and we’ll sometimes argue unnecessarily to protect that position.

B: The conclusions will tell you everything I’ve been saying for years. What? An outside consultant? So without even seeing my report you’ve decided to… You have no idea… The report will tell you all you need to know… What could an external know about how we work…?

11. Derailing

We try to change the subject – derail the conversation – because we are bored or uncomfortable.

B: The report. Ah, yes… If I could just interrupt you for a moment? I spoke to a colleague last week whilst you were away on holiday… How was your holiday, by the way? Did you have good weather…?

12. Placating

Our focus is on agreeing with the other person. By doing this we are trying to be liked, or at least not to upset the other person.

B: Yes I understand… …of course… …holidays, yes… …an outside consultant… …important… …of course… I understand…


The above examples are an indication of how difficult it can be to remain focused on what another person is saying. If we are not careful, with all of these obstacles in our heads the most likely response to the original comment will be:

B: …what do I think of what?

As with everything else discussed in the pages of this blog, the main goal is to become aware that such distractions occur. They are a part of our unconscious behaviour and the aim is to make that unconscious behaviour conscious. In doing so, we create the conditions for change and, as a consequence, we grow.

Related posts: Why Don’t People Listen? | Listening & Appreciating | Are They Even Listening?Taking The Time To Listen | Awareness Is The Key | Be Quiet, Be Still, & Listen

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