Distractions as Roadblocks to Listening

Assess your listening skills

Good listeners are made, not born. Your skills will improve with practice and, with effort, you can become an exceptional listener. To assess your listening skills, ask yourself these five questions:

  • Am I listening for long enough?
  • Am I giving the speaker my full attention?
  • Am I making appropriate eye contact and expressing interest through my body language?
  • Am I showing interest and empathy?
  • Am I asking questions to learn more and improve my understanding of what's said?

Benefits of listening effectively

Once you have a sense of your current listening skills, you need to understand what stops you from listening – your roadblocks. Typical roadblocks include

  • distractions – Distractions are internal or external stimuli that take your attention away from the speaker.
  • emotions – Emotions can get in your way when you're supposed to be listening. You start listening to confirm your own feelings and you get sidetracked by your inner dialog.
  • certain types of speech – Certain types of speech also put listening at risk. Saying the wrong thing can shut people down, hurt their feelings, or make them defensive.

Roadblocks make it hard to be attentive and supportive, and to convey genuine interest. Once you know how to avoid roadblocks, you'll reap the benefits of listening effectively. Benefits include:

  • less misunderstanding – When you listen well – without being distracted, reacting emotionally, or saying the wrong thing – you have a better chance of hearing what's being said.
  • conveying a nonjudgmental attitude – If you listen effectively, you'll be perceived as nonjudgmental. This creates a safe space in which others feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
  • internal opinions not getting in the way – When you listen effectively, your internal opinions and communication won't keep you from hearing what's really being said.
  • more easily reading speakers' emotions – Listening effectively enables you to reach a deeper understanding of what the speaker is saying and why they are saying it.

Identifying distraction types

All types of distractions, depending on their source, can be categorized as

  • internal – Distractions arise within your mind and body. Emotions can distract you. For example, if it's your first day at work, your anxiety and excitement may prevent you from hearing what people are telling you. Similarly, pain and discomfort can make it hard to concentrate. Fatigue, worry, personal issues, and other thoughts, feelings, and internal states can easily distract you.
  • external – External distractions, such as loud noises and continuous interruptions, arise from your surroundings and from other people. Anything that attracts your gaze can divert your attention. You may also be distracted by the speaker's mannerisms or speech patterns.

Identifying distraction sources and costs

List your distractions and their triggers. Once you know what distracts you, you can assess the impact and cost of these distractions on your ability to listen. Some distractions are uncommon or affect you only slightly. Some may occur more frequently or affect you more significantly.

You now need to examine the negative impact and cost of each type of distraction. It's helpful to remember what happened when you were distracted in the past and identify what some of the consequences were. You may be surprised at how far-reaching these are.

Once you've reviewed your past mistakes, it's helpful to rank your distractions according to how common they are and which have the greatest impact.

Plans to avoid distractions

It isn't feasible to eliminate all potential distractions because it's impossible to exercise full control over your environment. However, you can plan to overcome internal and external distractions, and to minimize their impact.

Internal distractions – listening actively

The best approach for overcoming internal distractions is to listen actively. Many internal distractions arise because people process information about four times faster than they speak. Their minds have extra time to fill when they listen and they may wander.

To listen actively, use this extra time to engage with what is being said. Review information and try to obtain an in-depth understanding of what is being communicated. Also, remind yourself to keep listening whenever your mind wanders.

Many people find it helpful to take notes. Asking questions and summarizing what you hear is also helpful.

External distractions – planning where and when

You won't be able to plan for or control certain types of external distractions. However, you can plan where and when to listen to someone and switch off or distance yourself from external distractions that you can't control.

Some external distractions are predictable, and it's possible to prevent or minimize their impact. If you can't prevent external distractions, try to control your responses to them. Ignore them and focus on listening proactively.

Many strategies can help you to focus on listening. Engage with the content and how it's relevant to you without getting too involved in your own opinions and feelings. Use the extra time that listening affords you to review, interpret, and memorize what you're hearing. And finally, use notes, summaries, and questions to capture information accurately.

Before you begin improving your listening skills, assess how well you listen now, noting your strengths and weaknesses.

You can learn to be a good listener by controlling the roadblocks to effective listening. By doing this, you'll better understand what people are saying and how they feel. You'll convey a nonjudgmental attitude and be more objective.

A key roadblock to listening is distractions, which can be either internal or external. To minimize and control distractions, you need to identify them, assess the negative impact and cost of each one, and plan how to overcome them.

You overcome distractions by being proactive. Plan to remove predictable distractions, and minimize the effect of unpredictable or internal distractions by actively engaging with what you hear and keeping your emotions in check.