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Barriers to Good Listening
The first step in any process of change is to become aware of what you are presently doing. You are probably not aware of the barriers you habitually put up to block good communication. Look over the list below and identify any barriers that you use.
Evaluating and judging. Are you so busy criticizing what the other person is saying that you don’t hear them? There is nothing wrong with using discrimination, but it is more helpful to defer judgment until you fully understand what the other person is talking about.
Interrupting. When you don’t allow the other person to complete a thought, you are not listening. Many people interrupt because they are impatient. If you find yourself losing the train of a conversation because the other is talking excessively, ask for a summary and then continue to listen.
Jumping to conclusions. It is easy to mentally fill in the details of what another person is saying and then to assume you have understood them. People often take everything they hear personally, which is one of the main reasons for misunderstandings that lead to breakdowns in relationships. You can remedy that tendency by checking out your assumptions first.
Selective listening. People tend to hear what they expect to hear, need to hear, or want to hear and block out the rest. For example, if you have been feeling a lack of confidence in yourself lately, you might hear everything that is said to you through a filter of “I’m no good.” Or you might tune out everything that is critical, unpleasant, or negative because it is too threatening to hear right now. Keep in mind that everybody uses some form of selective listening. Get to know your form of selectivity and observe your tendency to block listening with it.
Advising. You may think that you have to answer every question asked and solve every problem. Not true. The other person may simply be thinking aloud, asking rhetorical questions, or just looking for a supportive presence. In fact, as you share your advice, you may actually be disregarding what the other person is saying. Let others specifically ask for help or advice. Otherwise, just listen and be there. One valuable way to encourage people to solve their own problems is to ask how they would advise a friend with a similar problem.
Lack of attention. Do you let your mind wander frequently in conversations, giving in to other external noises and distractions or to your own daydreams or plans? Often it is helpful to be up front about it—admit your temporary lack of attention to the person speaking; explain that you are sleepy, anxious, or whatever. If boredom is the problem, though, remember that the more involved you become in the conversation, the less boring it may be. Ask questions. Ask for examples. Summarize what you hear the other person saying. If all else fails, tell the other person honestly that you need to leave or get back to what you were doing. Good listening need not be a matter of silent endurance. Good listening is an active process.
Toward Dynamic Listening
Consider which of the listening barriers cited above you practice. When do you most frequently use them? With whom? Why? Choose one listening block that you would like to chip away. Who would you like to practice better listening with? Under what circumstances?
Determine to watch yourself throughout your next interaction with that person, noticing how easily you fall into your habitual patterns of passivity or nonlistening and/or how well you implement your new active listening behavior. Make a tally sheet for yourself of how many times in that conversation you blocked communication, and how many times you broke through the block with active listening. Write about your experience to help clarify it for yourself.
Remember, you cannot change another person, but the quality of your relationship can be improved if you practice active listening.
Reprinted with permission from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, and Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. www.tenspeed.com
About the Author:
John W. Travis, MD, MPH completed his medical degree at Tufts University in 1969, and a preventive medicine residency at Johns Hopkins University in 1973. In 1975, he opened the world’s first wellness center, the Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, California. His work attracted national attention, culminating in an appearance on 60 Minutes with Dan Rather in 1979.
In 1979, the Wellness Center was transformed into a non-profit educational corporation dedicated to transforming the medical culture from its focus on doctor-as-unassailable-expert to a partnership with healers. John continues to lecture and give workshops around the world to help professionals develop the techniques and processes pioneered by the Wellness Resource Center staff.
In 1991, John changed the focus of his work to infant wellness and became a co-founder of Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children (www.aTLC.org), which fosters individual and planetary wellness through changing how babies are born and treated in their early years.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #19.
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