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Barriers to Good Listening

Are you a good listener? Most Americans are poor listeners. Litfin explains that we are an EYE-oriented culture rather than EAR-oriented. Americans prefer visual input, especially young people who have grown up with electronic technology. The people in cultures where there is no written language or high incidences of illiteracy are EAR-oriented. In our culture, we say, “Can I have a copy of that?” or “I need to see it in writing.” We prefer “reading and storage” over “listening well and remembering.”[1] We must work harder on listening when it doesn’t come as naturally. Attention and listening skills are better in cultures that must depend on hearing and memory for information.

Common barriers to good listening include the following:[2]

  1. passive listening – Many people are lazy listeners. Listening is active, involving interaction of the listener and speaker in the process.
  2. interrupting – Many listeners are impatient to wait for the comment to end and eager to speak themselves. Conversation requires give and take; listening, then speaking.
  3. assumptions – People have a tendency to jump to a conclusion before a speaker finishes a thought. Making a wrong assumption is like jumping to a confusion!
  4. self-focus – In this “me–generation,” people are more interested in what they have to say than what others are saying. Listening requires focus on the speaker, not on self.
  5. past intrusion – Previous experiences or past failures may influence a listener. A good listener must be “in the moment” in order to understand the speaker.
  6. distraction – Drifting thoughts and poor attention hinder good listening. Distractions can be internal or external. Listeners must focus on the words being spoken in order to listen completely and correctly.
  7. defensiveness – Listeners may react strongly when they disagree or have another opinion. This verbal response has been described as duelogue vs. dialogue. Duelogue implies two people fighting with words as their weapons.[3]

Identifying one’s personal barriers to good listening is an important move in controlling these hindrances so listening may improve. Knowing personal weaknesses in listening is the first step toward improving listening skills.

Distraction is probably my biggest barrier to good listening. I am highly distracted internally by thoughts of everything I have to do. I am distracted externally by sights and sounds around me. When my husband and I go out to dinner, my natural desire is to face everyone and everything in the restaurant because of my curiosity. But to give Chuck my undivided attention, I must sit facing him–and maybe the wall–to tune out the distractions around me.

The Bible teaches about the importance of listening and warns against hasty speech. In James 1:19, the apostle admonishes: “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Commentary in the Life Application Bible for this verse includes an exercise for overcoming barriers to good listening. “Put a mental stopwatch on your conversations and keep track of how much you talk and how much you listen. In your conversations, do others feel that their viewpoints and ideas have been valued?”[4] Effective communicators break down personal barriers to listening in order to build up people while focusing on their messages. Have you been able to identify your own barriers to good listening? How can you become a more effective communicator by being a better listener?

            [1] Litfin, Public Speaking, 42.

            [2] Gronbeck et al., Principles of Speech Communication, 36-37.

            [3] “Duelogue,” (cited 3 March 2013) (Clarity Digital Group LLC, 2013).

            [4] Tyndale House, Life Application Bible: New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1987), 604.

Short on Ears and Long on Mouth


Listening is a higher level skill than hearing. It is difficult especially when done well. It is a psychological process which requires perception and understanding. It is reaction to sound and hearing with thoughtful attention, attaching meaning to what is heard. It is a skill one learns. People learn to “tune in” or “tune out” – we hear many things but we listen to few.

Because listening varies with the different situations, there are four types of listening: (1) empathetic; (2) informative; (3) evaluative; and (4) appreciative. Sometimes a listener must empathize with the speaker to understand and offer moral support and concern. Other times, a listener wants to gain information and seek knowledge for the purpose of learning. The listener may evaluate or critique a message in order to confront or challenge. Or, the listener may simply seek enjoyment or entertainment with no interest in information or evaluation. The type of listening will affect the manner of listening!

Listening is important! Some people are naturally good listeners, though most are better talkers. It has been said that God gave us one mouth and two ears so that we could listen twice as much! Iconic western movie star John Wayne put it this way: “You’re short on ears and long on mouth.” People do seem to enjoy hearing themselves speak more than listening to others. Carpenters have a rule; measure twice, cut once. That principle could apply to listening and talking!

Consider these various reasons why people should listen:

1. Listen to acquire facts – gather information and gain knowledge.

2. Listen to analyze facts and ideas – determine the nature of the information.

3. Listen to evaluate facts and ideas – determine the significance and worth of the information.

4. Listen for entertainment – enjoy, relax or be encouraged!

5. Listen for inspiration – feel reassured and have hope!

6. Listen to improve your communication – learn from others.

7. Listen to show concern and interest – strengthen relationships and demonstrate empathy.

Listening is one of the greatest gifts one can give! It is also a discipline we must all develop.