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by Dr. Dilip Abayasekara, Ph.D., A.S. 

When I Listen, Why Don’t I Hear?
Overcoming Obstacles to Listening, Hearing, and Understanding

“Why do you say that what I think I heard you say is not what you meant?” That is what I could say to someone who says that I have failed to listen. Determined to overcome my deficiency in the listening department, I set out to analyze and overcome my shortcomings. I had the advantage of having a great role model -- my wife. People seem to gravitate toward her whenever they need someone to listen to them. This seems to be almost instinctive because I’ve seen and heard strangers share personal secrets with her. My children would easily say that she is a much better listener than I am, as evidenced by the fact that they will often breeze right past me to tell their mother what had gone on during their busy day. I suspect that many of you readers also wish that you were a better listener. 

So allow me to share my findings with you. I have been putting them to the test and believe that my ability to listen has been improving, not only at home, but also at work and in social settings. Read on to see how you might improve your listening skills.

First of all, we need to clearly understand what we mean when we say listen, hear, and understand. This is the way I define these terms:
LISTEN means that you activate your listening apparatus – your ears and mind as well as all your other senses.
HEAR means that you successfully receive the message that that was sent to you.
UNDERSTAND means that you comprehend (and interpret) accurately what you heard and observed.

Listening leads to hearing, and hearing leads to understanding. This series of events, when successfully carried out, allows you to give an appropriate response. Why do so many of us fail in this process? My observations indicate that there are five key elements that can sabotage this process. When you understand these five obstacles and take actions to overcome them, you can become an effective listener, and thereby an excellent communicator.

Five Obstacles to Listening, Hearing, and Understanding and How to Overcome Them
1. Attitude
Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone who didn’t seem to want to talk with you? It can give you an inferiority complex fast, can’t it? This is a case where the listener has a negative attitude about listening. Listening is a choice. Hearing does not happen by osmosis. If you are to truly hear what the speaker is saying, you have to pay attention to the sound, watch the person’s face and body language, and absorb the nuances of the message.

The proverbial cartoon of a domestic scene shows a husband reading the newspaper while his wife is trying to talk with him. The husband occasionally grunts to give the appearance that he is listening, but his mind is on the news of the day. There are two actions the players in this scene can take to improve the listening, hearing, and understanding. Either the husband can decide to put away the newspaper and give his full attention to his wife or the wife can decide to wait until her husband has finished reading the newspaper. When neither one of them makes the right choice, all it generates is noise, not communication!

So it is good practice when you telephone someone, to ask the person whether he or she has time to talk with you right then. This allows the receiver to make a decision – whether to ask you to call back at a more opportune time or to give their full attention to you right there. Good listening, hearing, and understanding require an attitude of focus and attention.

2. Interference
Sometimes, even when both parties have the proper attitude for good listening, hearing, and understanding to occur, they are in a setting that interferes with good communication. These interferences can distract the speaker as well as the listener. A distraction competes for the attention of one or both parties in the communication.

The interference can be something as simple as a mannerism of the speaker, or as noisy as the hoot of a train as it thunders by a nearby rail track. Interferences can never be completely eliminated, but they can usually be minimized. Ask yourself what you can do to reduce interferences when you are listening to someone. At the office, this may mean silencing the ringer tone on your phone. At home, it may mean turning off the television.

3. Assumptions
Pre-conceived notions act like a filter to what you are hearing and frequently distort the message that the speaker is sending. Sometimes we latch on to these assumptions because we want to give an answer as soon as we get a chance to speak. Other times, we may hear the first part of what the speaker says and immediately extrapolate what we heard to what we think the rest of the speaker’s message is. In so doing, we often miss the point of what the speaker is saying and therefore misunderstand the thrust of the message.

How can you overcome this obstacle? One of the best ways for me is to “empty” my mind. That means I consciously drop all pre-conceived notions and focus on receiving the message. After I receive the message, I am free to analyze it. The key is to receive the message first, so that what you analyze is the correct message and not a distorted image of it. 

The next time you watch an (American) football game or a rugby football game, watch what happens when the football is thrown to a receiver who, laboring under the assumption that he will catch the ball, moves his attention to where he wants to run before he actually catches and secures the ball. The result usually is a dropped pass. If you drop your assumptions when listening, you are not likely to drop the ball in listening, hearing, and understanding.

4. Emotions
Have you ever tried to listen to someone when you’ve been emotionally overwhelmed? If you have done so, you will know that charged emotions interfere with accurate listening. Emotions work the other way too and can cause the speaker to express things that he or she would not normally say.

In the workplace, one such example can be when a manager has to tell an employee that he is being laid off. In the home, an example could be when a father tells his daughter that she will not be allowed to date the “ruffian” with whom she is infatuated. So how does one handle emotionally charged communications? Here are some approaches:

  • If possible, give advanced warning so that the parties affected can mentally and emotionally prepare themselves.

  • Before anything definitive is said, allow the parties affected to share their stories, feelings, complaints, etc. and listen carefully and empathetically to them. As Stephen Covey states in his best selling, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” To listen empathetically does not mean that you necessarily agree with everything that is said. What it means is that you put yourself in the speaker’s shoes and see things from the speaker’s point of view.

  • If there is a great deal of emotion in a situation, don’t attempt to communicate everything at that time. While you may initiate some communication then, treat the communication as a process and not a one-time event. Carry on the communication when the emotional heat has died down. You will then find that it is easier to listen, hear, and understand.

5. Physical Problems 
Even if all four of the above conditions are met, you may not be able to satisfactorily listen, hear, and understand if there is a physical problem that interferes with good listening, hearing, and understanding. This is one reason for periodic check ups with your doctor. I recall a visit to my doctor when he found a plug of earwax in one of my ears. No wonder sounds seemed a little muffled on that side of my body! We are fortunate to be living at a time when there are sophisticated and sensitive instruments to help most people hear and see effectively, despite physical barriers.

So there you are – five problems that can be overcome to make you an excellent listener and sought after conversationalist: attitude, interference, assumptions, emotions, and physical problems. Then may be you and I can both enjoy the compliment, “Thank you for listening and understanding.”

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