Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Hurdles to Effective Listening (and what to do about it)

Volume: January 2013

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com


“Don’t listen to what I say, hear what I mean,” was uttered to me many years ago during a discussion with an ex-girlfriend. That wonderful phrase has not only become the title of one of my most popular training sessions, but it also highlights an important truth. People want to be understood. In many cases we need to listen first in order to have the opportunity to be understood. Once we effectively listen, we can then craft messages in a proper context. This leads to solid, mutual understanding. Unfortunately, many professionals have poor listening habits. Often times leaders experience hurdles that crush their ability to listen effectively. With this in mind, the following is a list of the top listening hurdles, as well as some thoughts on how to overcome poor listening habits.


  1. Lack of Focus. Sometimes, do you find yourself not truly listening, but rather thinking? If so, you are not alone. Many of us are forming our responses while we are listening to someone talk, as opposed to paying attention to the entire message that is being shared. This is probably the biggest hurdle to effective listening.

    What to do about it: Commit yourself to the mindset that listening is important and worthy of effort. Realize that hearing is one thing, but actual listening is another – and it is difficult. It takes focus and effort to be a good listener. Dedicate yourself to being the best listener you can be. 


  3. Distractions and Multi-Tasking. Surroundings, outside noises, movement, and other people’s non-verbal behavior – can all create distractions that undermine good listening. Sometimes we create our own distractions by multi-tasking. For example, how often do you continue to type on your keyboard after someone has entered your workspace and started a conversation? 

    What to do about it: Seek to give people your full attention. Look up or turn away from anything you may have been doing. If possible, avoid having objects such as desks, stacks of papers, or bottles of water between you and the speaker. Squarely face the other person to demonstrate you are listening. 


    With regard to multi-tasking, recent studies have shown that it is often counter-productive. Our brains are wired to complete one task at a time. As such, when we multi-task we are prone to increase errors, as well as waste time while we reboot while moving from one incomplete task to another. Do yourself a favor and single-task as much as possible, while minimizing distractions in the process.


  5. Untethered Emotions. Sometimes we allow ourselves to react emotionally rather than logically to what is being said during a conversation. We may allow our emotions to boil up, or find ourselves having thoughts like the following:
    • “I know where this is going”
    • “Well, I've heard all this before”
    • “Oh I don’t want to lose this thought” 

    When we allow our emotions to take over we tend to interrupt. And interrupting others during conversation is a big listening faux pas.

    What to do about it: Be on the lookout for listening traps by understanding why they occur.

    Reason 1:  You are smart. That’s right. You frequently know what others are going to say before they say it. You inner mind screams at you, “Okay, you’ve got it. Respond.” Solution: remain calm. Let others finish. It shows respect and they might say something that you did not expect.

    Reason 2:  You are experienced. You have probably had many similar conversations to the one in which you are involved. Solution: sometimes naiveté trumps experience – and this is one of those occasions. Seek to relax and pretend that this is the first time you have been involved in this type of conversation.

    Reason 3:  You are passionate. As such, you are anxious to move into solution mode. Tactic: seek to temper solution anxiety. Getting to the solution quickly is not the time saver you think it is.


  6. Getting Stuck. In other words, getting caught in one element of the conversation and rooting there, as opposed to moving on and listening to the speaker’s remaining thoughts.

    What to do about it: Listen for major themes and ideas. Do not get mired in minor facts or statistics that are merely a supplement to the major points of the conversation. This will take practice. Over time you will efficiently pick out main ideas and leave minor elements in their proper place.  


  7. Not Showing Understanding. Sometimes the speaker is waiting for you to respond to what they are saying. They are thirsting to know if they have been clear in their communication. At times like these, we need to be active in our listening and respond in a fashion that puts the speaker at ease. Not letting the other person know that you get what they are talking about can create frustration and mixed-feelings.

    What to do about it: Seek to periodically paraphrase what the other person said in order to show your understanding of their message. In addition, be aware of your body language. Keep your arms uncrossed, tune in to your facial expression, maintain good eye contact, and keep a non-confrontational posture. If seated, be relaxed, but engaged. 


Bottom Line: It is your responsibility to listen effectively. Seek to avoid listening hurdles as you implement steps to effective listening. Let’s make 2013 the year of listening. In the process, we will understand each other infinitely better and achieve more as a result! 



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