13.6 Barriers to Effective Listening


Barriers to Effective Listening

Barriers to effective listening are present at every stage of the listening process [1]  At the receiving stage, noise can block or distort incoming stimuli. At the interpreting stage, complex or abstract information may be difficult to relate to previous experiences, making it difficult to reach understanding. At the recalling stage, natural limits to our memory and challenges to concentration can interfere with remembering. At the evaluating stage, personal biases and prejudices can lead us to block people out or assume we know what they are going to say. At the responding stage, a lack of paraphrasing and questioning skills can lead to misunderstanding. In the following section, we will explore how environmental and physical factors, cognitive and personal factors, and bad listening practices present barriers to effective listening.

Environmental, physical, and psychological barriers to listening

Environmental noise, such as lighting, temperature, and furniture affect our ability to listen. A room that is too dark can make us sleepy, just as a room that is too warm or cool can raise awareness of our physical discomfort to a point that it is distracting. Some seating arrangements facilitate listening, while others separate people. In general, listening is easier when listeners can make direct eye contact with and are in close physical proximity to a speaker. The ability to effectively see and hear a person increases people’s confidence in their abilities to receive and process information. Eye contact and physical proximity can still be affected by noise. Environmental noises such as a whirring air conditioner, barking dogs, or a ringing fire alarm can obviously interfere with listening despite direct lines of sight and well-placed furniture.

Physiological noise, like environmental noise, can interfere with our ability to process incoming information. This is considered a physical barrier to effective listening because it emanates from our physical body. Physiological noise is noise stemming from a physical illness, injury, or bodily stress. Ailments such as a cold, a broken leg, a headache, or a poison ivy outbreak can range from annoying to unbearably painful and impact our listening relative to their intensity. Another type of noise, psychological noise, bridges physical and cognitive barriers to effective listening.

Psychological noise, or noise stemming from our psychological states including moods and level of arousal, can facilitate or impede listening. Any mood or state of arousal, positive or negative, that is too far above or below our regular baseline creates a barrier to message reception and processing. The generally positive emotional state of being in love can be just as much of a barrier as feeling hatred. Excited arousal can also distract as much as anxious arousal. Stress about an upcoming events ranging from losing a job, to having surgery, to wondering about what to eat for lunch can overshadow incoming messages. Cognitive limits, a lack of listening preparation, difficult or disorganized messages, and prejudices can also interfere with listening. Whether you call it multitasking, daydreaming, glazing over, or drifting off, we all cognitively process other things while receiving messages.

Difference between speech and thought rate

Our ability to process more information than what comes from one speaker or source creates a barrier to effective listening. While people speak at a rate of 125 to 175 words per minute, we can process between 400 and 800 words per minute[2]. This gap between speech rate and thought rate gives us an opportunity to side-process any number of thoughts that can be distracting from a more important message. Because of this gap, it is impossible to give one message our “undivided attention,” but we can occupy other channels in our minds with thoughts related to the central message. For example, using some of your extra cognitive processing abilities to repeat, rephrase, or reorganize messages coming from one source allows you to use that extra capacity in a way that reinforces the primary message.

The difference between speech and thought rate connects to personal barriers to listening, as personal concerns are often the focus of competing thoughts that can take us away from listening and challenge our ability to concentrate on others’ messages. Two common barriers to concentration are self-centeredness and lack of motivation.[3] For example, when our self-consciousness is raised, we may be too busy thinking about how we look, how we’re sitting, or what others think of us to be attentive to an incoming message. Additionally, we are often challenged when presented with messages that we do not find personally relevant. In general, we employe selective attention, which refers to our tendency to pay attention to the messages that benefit us in some way and filter others out. So the student who is checking his or her Twitter feed during class may suddenly switch his or her attention back to the previously ignored professor when the following words are spoken: “This will be important for the exam.”


More Barriers

Another barrier to effective listening is a general lack of listening preparation. Unfortunately, most people have never received any formal training or instruction related to listening. Although some people think listening skills just develop over time, competent listening is difficult, and enhancing listening skills takes concerted effort. Even when listening education is available, people do not embrace it as readily as they do opportunities to enhance their speaking skills. Listening is often viewed as an annoyance or a chore, or just ignored or minimized as part of the communication process. In addition, our individualistic society values speaking more than listening, as it’s the speakers who are sometimes literally in the spotlight. Although listening competence is a crucial part of social interaction and many of us value others we perceive to be “good listeners,” listening just doesn’t get the same kind of praise, attention, instruction, or credibility as speaking. Teachers, parents, and relational partners explicitly convey the importance of listening through statements like “You better listen to me,” “Listen closely,” and “Listen up,” but these demands are rarely paired with concrete instruction. So unless you plan on taking more communication courses in the future (and I hope you do), this chapter may be the only instruction you receive on the basics of the listening process, some barriers to effective listening, and how we can increase our listening competence.

Bad messages and/or speakers also present a barrier to effective listening. Sometimes our trouble listening originates in the sender. In terms of message construction, poorly structured messages or messages that are too vague, too jargon filled, or too simple can present listening difficulties. In terms of speakers’ delivery, verbal fillers, monotone voices, distracting movements, or a disheveled appearance can inhibit our ability to cognitively process a message[4].  Listening also becomes difficult when a speaker tries to present too much information. Information overload is a common barrier to effective listening that good speakers can help mitigate by building redundancy into their speeches and providing concrete examples of new information to help audience members interpret and understand the key ideas.

Prejudice as a barrier to listening

Oscar Wilde said, “Listening is a very dangerous thing. If one listens one may be convinced.” Unfortunately, some of our default ways of processing information and perceiving others lead us to rigid ways of thinking. When we engage in prejudiced listening, we are usually trying to preserve our ways of thinking and avoid being convinced of something different. This type of prejudice is a barrier to effective listening, because when we prejudge a person based on his or her identity or ideas, we usually stop listening in an active and/or ethical way.

We exhibit prejudice in our listening in several ways, some of which are more obvious than others. For example, we may claim to be in a hurry and only selectively address the parts of a message that we agree with or that aren’t controversial. We can also operate from a state of denial where we avoid a subject or person altogether so that our views are not challenged. Prejudices that are based on a person’s identity, such as race, age, occupation, or appearance, may lead us to assume that we know what he or she will say, essentially closing down the listening process. Keeping an open mind and engaging in perception checking can help us identify prejudiced listening and hopefully shift into more competent listening practices.

Inattentional blindness as a barrier to listening

Do you regularly spot editing errors in movies? Can you multitask effectively, texting while talking with your friends or watching television? Are you fully aware of your surroundings? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re not alone. And, you’re most likely wrong.

More than 50 years ago, experimental psychologists began documenting the many ways that our perception of the world is limited, not by our eyes and ears, but by our minds. We appear able to process only one stream of information at a time, effectively filtering other information from awareness. To a large extent, we perceive only that which receives the focus of our cognitive efforts: our attention.

Imagine the following task, known as dichotic listening (e.g., Cherry, 1953; Moray, 1959; Treisman, 1960): You put on a set of headphones that play two completely different speech streams, one to your left ear and one to your right ear. Your task is to repeat each syllable spoken into your left ear as quickly and accurately as possible, mimicking each sound as you hear it. When performing this attention-demanding task, you won’t notice if the speaker in your right ear switches to a different language or is replaced by a different speaker with a similar voice. You won’t notice if the content of their speech becomes nonsensical. In effect, you are deaf to the substance of the ignored speech. But, that is not because of the limits of your auditory senses. It is a form of cognitive deafness, due to the nature of focused, selective attention. Even if the speaker on your right headphone says your name, you will notice it only about one-third of the time[5] And, at least by some accounts, you only notice it that often because you still devote some of your limited attention to the ignored speech stream[6]. In this task, you will tend to notice only large physical changes (e.g., a switch from a male to a female speaker), but not substantive ones, except in rare cases.

This selective listing task highlights the power of attention to filter extraneous information from awareness while letting in only those elements of our world that we want to hear. Focused attention is crucial to our powers of observation, making it possible for us to zero in on what we want to see or hear while filtering out irrelevant distractions. But, it has consequences as well: We can miss what would otherwise be obvious and important signals.

The same pattern holds for vision. In a groundbreaking series of studies in the 1970s and early 1980s, Neisser and his colleagues devised a visual analogue of the dichotic listening task[7]. Their subjects viewed a video of two distinct, but partially transparent and overlapping, events. For example, one event might involve two people playing a hand-clapping game and the other might show people passing a ball. Because the two events were partially transparent and overlapping, both produced sensory signals on the retina regardless of which event received the participant’s attention. When participants were asked to monitor one of the events by counting the number of times the actors performed an action (e.g., hand clapping or completed passes), they often failed to notice unexpected events in the ignored video stream (e.g., the hand-clapping players stopping their game and shaking hands). As for dichotic listening, the participants were unaware of events happening outside the focus of their attention, even when looking right at them. They could tell that other “stuff” was happening on the screen, but many were unaware of the meaning or substance of that stuff.

Have you ever been paying attention to something so closely you missed another event in the background? Or have you ever been so used to seeing something a certain way that when it changed, you didn’t even notice it had?

To test the power of selective attention to induce failures of awareness, Neisser and colleagues [8] designed a variant of this task in which participants watched a video of two teams of players, one wearing white shirts and one wearing black shirts. Subjects were asked to press a key whenever the players in white successfully passed a ball, but to ignore the players in black. As for the other videos, the teams were filmed separately and then superimposed so that they literally occupied the same space (they were partially transparent). Partway through the video, a person wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella strolled through the scene. People were so intently focused on spotting passes that they often missed the “umbrella woman.” (Pro tip: If you look closely at the video, you’ll see that Ulric Neisser plays on both the black and white teams.)

These surprising findings were well known in the field, but for decades, researchers dismissed their implications because the displays had such an odd, ghostly appearance. Of course, we would notice if the displays were fully opaque and vivid rather than partly transparent and grainy. Surprisingly, no studies were built on Neisser’s method for nearly 20 years. Inspired by these counterintuitive findings and after discussing them with Neisser himself, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons revisited them in the late 1990s [9]. They replicated Neisser’s work, again finding that many people missed the umbrella woman when all of the actors in the video were partially transparent and occupying the same space. But, we added another wrinkle: a version of the video in which all of the actions of both teams of players were choreographed and filmed with a single camera. The players moved in and around each other and were fully visible. In the most dramatic version, we had a woman in a gorilla suit walk into the scene, stop to face the camera, thump her chest, and then walk off the other side after nine seconds on screen. Fully half the observers missed the gorilla when counting passes by the team in white.

This phenomenon is now known as inattentional blindness, the surprising failure to notice an unexpected object or event when attention is focused on something else [10]. The past 15 years has seen a surge of interest in such failures of awareness, and we now have a better handle on the factors that cause people to miss unexpected events as well as the range of situations in which inattentional blindness occurs. People are much more likely to notice unexpected objects that share features with the attended items in a display.[11] For example, if you count passes by the players wearing black, you are more likely to notice the gorilla than if you count passes by the players wearing white because the color of the gorilla more closely matches that of the black-shirted players[12]. However, even unique items can go unnoticed. In one task, people monitored black shapes and ignored white shapes that moved around a computer window.[13] Approximately 30 percent of them failed to detect the bright red cross traversing the display, even though it was the only colored item and was visible for five seconds. The more effort a cognitive task requires the more likely it becomes that you’ll miss noticing something significant.

Inattentional blindness is not just a laboratory curiosity—it also occurs in the real world and under more natural conditions. In a dramatic illustration of cell phone–induced inattentional blindness, Ira Hymen observed that people talking on a cell phone as they walked across a college campus were less likely than other pedestrians to notice a unicycling clown who rode across their path.

Recently, the study of this sort of awareness failure has returned to its roots in studies of listening, with studies documenting inattentional deafness: When listening to a set of spatially localized conversations over headphones, people often fail to notice the voice of a person walking through the scene repeatedly stating “I am a gorilla”[14]. Under conditions of focused attention, we see and hear far less of the unattended information than we might expect[15].

What makes these findings interesting and important is that they run counter to our intuitions. Most people are confident they would notice the chest-thumping gorilla. In fact, nearly 90%believe they would spot the gorilla[16], and in a national survey, 78% agreed with the statement, “People generally notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else”[17]. Similarly, people are convinced that they would spot errors in movies or changes to a conversation partner[18]. We think we see and remember far more of our surroundings than we actually do. Most of the time, we are happily unaware of what we have missed, but we are fully aware of those elements of a scene that we have noticed. Consequently, if we assume our experiences are representative of the state of the world, we will conclude that we notice unexpected events. We don’t easily think about what we’re missing.

Material in this chapter has been adapted from “A Primer on Communication Studies” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA3.0

Material in this chapter has been adapted from “Psychology As A Social Science: Failure of Awareness” by Daniel Simons is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

  1. (Hargie, 2011).
  2. (Hargie, 2011)
  3. (Brownell, Wolvin & Coakley, 1993)
  4. (Hargie, 2011)
  5. (Conway, Cowan, Bunting, 2001).
  6. (Cherry, 1953)
  7. (Neisser & Becklen, 1975)
  8. (Neisser, 1979)
  9. (Simons & Chabris, 1999)
  10. (Mack & Rock, 1998)
  11. (Most, Simons, Scholl, Jimenez, Clifford, & Chabris, 2001).
  12. (Simons & Chabris, 1999)
  13. (Most, Simons, Scholl, Jimenez, Clifford, & Chabris, 2001).
  14. (Dalton & Fraenkel, 2012)
  15. (Macdonald & Lavie, 2011; Wayand, Levin, & Varakin, 2005)
  16. (Levin & Angelone, 2008)
  17. (Simons & Chabris, 2010)
  18. (Levin & Angelone, 2008)


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