Emotions as Barriers to Listening
Negative and positive emotions
You're wired to listen selectively for the information you expect or want. As a result, your emotions affect how and what you hear. This applies to negative emotions – for example, when you're down, you hear the blues, and when you feel threatened, you're more likely to hear attacks. But it also applies to positive emotions, like happiness and enthusiasm.
Negative emotions such as sadness, anger, or personal dislike filter what you hear so that it matches your mood. They can even distract you from listening at all. Your conversation partners read your emotional reactions – in your face and body language – and feel ill at ease if you're negative. They may censor themselves or battle to communicate key information. Misunderstandings, lost opportunities, and communication breakdowns occur.
Good feelings can generate carelessness. Being optimistic, excited, or favorably inclined toward a speaker can make you go along with whatever you hear. You may lose focus, neglect details, or stop thinking analytically. In short, you may stop listening effectively.
Staying neutral or failing to register emotion will not remove these roadblocks to effective listening. Typically, staying neutral devolves into apathy. When you stop putting energy into listening, you stop caring about what you hear. You no longer listen attentively.
If you don't know what your emotional triggers are, you're powerless over your reactions to them. When you list your triggers, you become aware of them. It's a good idea to list them again in a few months' time and notice new triggers as they arise.
To exert control over your emotions when listening, you need to be aware of emotional triggers, identify the purpose of the communication, and withhold emotional judgment.
Each participant brings different intentions to the interaction. Consider your own motivations as a listener and identify the speaker's purposes. Think about the different needs and wants driving the communication. Ask yourself what your purpose for listening is. When you pay attention to your inner dialog, you may notice multiple motivations, some of which are productive and others that are less so.
While in the grip of strong emotion, you're likely to have a more personal agenda than you do when calm. For example, if you're feeling angry or defensive, perhaps you're actually waiting for the speaker to slip up so you can win the argument. If you feel positive toward the speaker, you may be hoping not to hear flaws in the ideas presented.
Once you're clear about your motivation as a listener, you can investigate the speaker's purpose.
- Your motivation – Strong emotions can cause a knee-jerk reaction, making you irrational and unreasonable. You lose sight of what you and the speaker are really trying to accomplish. As soon as you become aware of what your own purposes are, you're able to set your emotionally driven motivations aside in favor of more practical goals, such as grasping new information or critically engaging with what you're hearing.
- The speaker's purposes – Thinking about other people's purposes helps you distinguish and understand the different expectations and feelings at play. Being more receptive to the messages people send gives you better insight into their needs and wants. Setting yourself the goal of identifying the speaker's intentions automatically engages you in effective listening.
When your buttons are pushed, it's easy to make a snap emotional judgment. This can cause you to listen selectively to confirm the judgment you've made, or to stop listening altogether. To listen effectively, you need to withhold emotional judgments and replace them with
- patience – To withhold judgement, you need to curb your automatic emotional reaction, stay open-minded and receptive, and hear the full message before you form an opinion. Be patient about accepting other people for who they are. Tolerate their foibles by reminding yourself they probably have perfectly good reasons for feeling, acting, and speaking as they do.
- empathy – Practice listening empathetically by approaching things from the speaker's perspective. When your emotional judgments are negative, try to focus on the positive purposes the person may have for delivering the message. When your emotional judgments are positive, remind yourself that the person speaking is also human and can make mistakes. Empathy makes you easy to confide in. It's central to listening effectively because it brings depth and insight to your understanding of what is being said.
- curiosity – Emotional judgments often revolve around differences or similarities of opinion, personality, and expression. Try to replace both antipathy and favoritism with curiosity. Trying to understand other people's perspectives is an important part of effective listening. Try to learn from the speaker. Cultivate a sincere interest in the speaker's opinion and search for what is intriguing and valuable about what this person has to say.
To listen effectively, you need to listen with curiosity and patience – and empathize with what others are saying rather than judging them for what they say.
Negative and positive emotions – as well as a lack of emotion – can act as roadblocks to effective listening. They can cause you to listen selectively or prevent you from listening at all.
To restore control of your emotions, you need to identify your emotional reactions and their triggers. Next you need to identify your own purposes in communicating and to try to determine what the speaker's purposes are.
The final step in controlling your emotions is to withhold judgment. Wait to hear the full message conveyed before forming an opinion and be tolerant, empathetic, and curious about what the speaker has to say.