Barriers to Good Listening

Before we get into specifics about Listening as a Full Contact Sport, it would be good to talk about some of the barriers to listening well. Knowing what gets in the way of listening will make the specific skills we talk about in later posts more clear. It will also help us develop the habit of good listening. What are some of the things that make good Listening a challenge?

The Speed of Speech vs. the Speed of Thought

You and I can think faster than someone else can speak. Most of us speak at the rate of about 125 words per minute. However, we have the mental capacity to understand someone speaking at 800 – 1,000 words per minute (if that were possible). Watch the video below and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t know how fast the guy in the commercial was talking, but I’m sure you were able to catch what he said. So you see that you can think much faster than anyone can talk.This difference between speaking speed and thought speed means that, when we listen to the average speaker, we’re using less than 20 percent of our mental capacity. We still have 80 percent with which to do something else . I like to call this “Bonus Brain Time.” Typically, our minds wander. Like the graphic for this post, the person we’re talking to may be talking about work, but we’re thinking about dinner! You can still hear what s/he is saying and kind of get it. But, “kind of” isn’t super-power listening. Not harnessing Bonus Brain Time to your listening advantage is one of the biggest culprits in poor listening.

On the other hand, developing the ability to focus that Bonus Brain Time on enhanced listening will rocket you toward super-power listener status.

Words Evaporate Quickly

Another challenge to good listening is that words are not concrete. Hearing is the most ephemeral of the senses. Once a word is spoken, there’s nothing to hang on to. The spoken word vanishes. I know you’ve had the same experience I have. You’re listening to someone (kind of). You’re mind wanders for what seems like just a second. You catch yourself and realize you just missed something they said that seems important. You try to remember what it was, but it’s gone. You can’t find it anywhere. You’re too embarrassed to admit you weren’t paying attention and just hope you missing that bit won’t damage the relationship.

Evaporating words is one reason we want to harness that Bonus Brain Time mentioned above. Keeping focused on the speaker will help prevent this. Another tip is to take notes. Though not practical for many conversations, it is one tool in your listening toolbox that can be helpful in many circumstances.


“Self-Centered” means to be preoccupied with oneself and one’s own affairs. Often when we are in conversation our focus is us. What do I want to gain from this discussion? What do I want to say next? How can I prove my point? Again, this speaks to how we use our Bonus Brain Time. If my focus in our conversation is me, what are the chances I’ll ever reach super-power listening skills?

Now, there is a difference between being self-centered and being self-aware, a huge difference. Self awareness is linked to “Meta-cognition” which is something we’ll talk more about in a later post. Basically it means “Thinking about our thinking.” For our topic we could say it means, “Thinking about our listening as we’re doing it.” This self-awareness is a powerful tool for developing our listening skills. Self-Centeredness is the opposite.

Some other barriers to good listening include:

Prejudice – If we have preconceived ideas about the other person, their motives, position on a topic, or anything else, it will inhibit our ability to listen to them.

Stress – is like static in our brain and blocks out other people.

Anger – is similar to stress in its effect. When we’re angry, even if it’s not with the person who is speaking, the emotion blocks our ability to listen.

Distractions – seems pretty basic, but background noise, cell phones, TV, etc are kryptonite to super-power listening.

There are many other possible barriers to listening. How many can you think of? Understanding what can prevent good listening goes a long way in helping us get better at it – if we take steps to remove those barriers.

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