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Why We Aren't Good Listners


          There are many factors inhibiting our listening skills. The first step is to recognize why we may not be good listeners. By understanding that, we can formulate a path to becoming better, more skilled listeners. 

Psychological Barriers

          These are psychological or internal barriers (our attitudes toward the speaker, situation, topic) we have put in place in our minds preventing us from understanding the full message. They occur in how we process information internally. 
With effort, skill, training, and practice, we may be able to control these barriers. 

Example: As a listener, you never really liked a particular subject in school because it brought up difficult memories from your childhood. Therefore, you don’t listen well in the class, resulting in not doing well on an exam. You will have to set aside the feelings and memories to do well in the class. 

Message Overload

          This occurs when too much information is coming at you in one moment. You may not be able to separate and decipher it. You may think everything you are hearing is important, but it may not be. Too much information may not just be the verbal information but also an abundance of non-verbal information. All of this information impacts your ability to process it as you hear it. 

Example: Listening to a lecture. You are trying to pick up the main ideas of the lecture, but there is so much material that the speaker is disorganized in their messages, and you aren’t sure of what is really important for you to focus on as you listen. There is just too much information to comprehend.  


          Preoccupation is when your intentional focus is taken away from the listening moment by something or someone else. It could be something that happened to you earlier in the day reentering your brain to take your focus away from the present moment. This may contribute to you not being able to focus on the message and pick it up correctly.

Examples: A test, an argument with your significant other, the fact you can’t remember if you locked the door when you left, or that you have to finish two projects that day or you are hungry. 

Rapid Thought

          Thinking too much. There is too much going on in your head to listen to the message well. Or you think you already know what the speaker is going to say, so you focus on your response, not their actual message. These make it difficult to pick up the message well. This is similar to preoccupation; however, it is a whirlwind of thoughts rather than one persistent preoccupying thought. 

Example: In a discussion on a potentially difficult or volatile topic, you think you know what the speaker is going to say so you have already thought ahead to the end of their message. But you may be inaccurate. Or going over and over a situation in your head with that is taking away from you really focusing on the message. There is a continuous loop of information coming at you in your brain. 

Faulty Assumptions

           This is when you have already made a decision or assumption about the speaker or their message before it is finished (or sometimes before they have even begun). You may be thinking one way and assign meaning to it based on your frame of reference without analyzing all the facts or information as presented. The saying may be true: “when you assume, you make an a** out of ‘u’ and me.” 

Example: “I’ve heard this message over and over, and it has no importance to me at all.” Or, “I’ve heard all about this person, and they are really ignorant on this topic.”

Fear of Appearing Ignorant

          None of us like to feel stupid or ignorant about something. We tend to shy away from things if we feel they might make us appear that way. This is true in listening, too. When we haven’t heard all of the message, or we don’t understand the message, or we simply don’t have all the information necessary for a response, we may prefer to just not answer or tune in at all. This factor inhibits our ability to receive all the information correctly.

Example: You aren’t sure of what they are talking about, so you decide to not respond or pay attention.


          Don’t let your ego get in the way of listening. Egocentrism is when we listen for only what we feel is important to us or for what is relevant to us. We may not be cognizant of the effect of the message on the bigger picture or world around us. It really is “only about us” and how the message affects us. 

Example: You didn’t realize the effect of a certain action or message on others because it really didn’t affect you. 


          Only hearing what we want to hear or think we want to hear while not listening to the rest of the information is selective listening. Similar to egocentrism, this factor inhibits listeners from having the full story.

Example: At a doctor’s appointment, a person may only hear the good part of a diagnosis while avoiding the bad part. 

Pseudo Listening (Faking It)

          Giving the appearance of listening while directing your attention elsewhere is an inhibiting factor. “Pseudo listening” involves giving “attentive” non-verbal signals while ignoring the message.

Example: During a discussion with your significant other, saying “yes, uh-huh, oh I see, sure,” but when asked what they just said, you really can’t remember it because you weren’t focused on them or their message. You just gave the appearance you were attentive and listening. 

Physiological Barriers

          These are physical barriers or hindrances of an external nature that inhibit our ability to listen. They may be physical to the listener or the speaker and may be outside of their control. As a speaker, it is nearly impossible to know whether an audience has any physical barriers. We must be aware that physical barriers can exist and do our best to understand and work with these factors to help messages be transmitted correctly. 

Example: A listener may have hearing problems limiting the sounds they are able to physically hear. 

Example: A speaker may not be able to project their voice due to a physical condition, making it is difficult for the audience to listen to the message.

Environmental Barriers

          These barriers are external and may be out of the control of both the speaker and the listener. They occur situationally, limiting the focus toward the message being relayed. Physical distractions such as construction work, room temperature, uncomfortable furniture, overcrowding, and brightness are examples of environmental barriers inhibiting successful listening. Additionally, communication channel noises are environmental barriers where there is a breakdown of the physical transmission of the message. These include a broken microphone, limited amplification of the speaker, and poor lighting in the venue. 

Example: An external barrier may be that a listener is unable to hear the speaker’s message due to the noise from the hallway or the construction going on in the next room or the microphone stops working in the middle of the presentation.

Lack of Training

          Not knowing the importance or benefits of good listening. We are not taught to be better listeners. As you become aware of the importance of good listening and have opportunities to practice your listening skills, you begin to become better listeners. 

Example: You weren’t taught about listening prior to now, so you didn’t have the knowledge to realize its importance or how to do it well. 

Review Questions

1) What are some barriers that inhibit you when listening? 

2) When a person isn't sure what someone is talking about, the barrier they are experiencing is what?

3) When someone is appearing to be attentive but not comprehending a message they are doing what?

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