Effective listening 1

Overcoming the Obstacles to Effective Listening

In any customer service training or consulting context, effective listening is a main and very important topic. In this digital age, with the abundance of devices and their distractions, attention and listening is becoming more of a challenge.

One of a customer’s main sources of frustration and reason for having a complaint, is when they feel a company representative or manager is not listening to them. We can all probably remember times when we have not been listened to or given the attention we need. This is very aggravating and can definitely give the impression that a company or its representative does not care. 


Listening is a very fundamental part of communication, so it is important for any one in a customer or client-facing role to try to avoid ineffective listening. The same goes for internal communication between co-workers in a business or organization.

Even good listeners can evaluate or filter what is being said before fully understanding what a customer or co-worker is trying to communicate.  This could result in mistaken assumptions or wrong conclusions. This, combined with other types of ineffective listening, could lead to serious misunderstandings and a possible breakdown in communication.

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

– M. Scott Peck

Common Obstacles to Effective Listening

There are many things that get in the way of listening and you should be aware of these distractors, many of which are simply bad habits that just require some will-power and attention to overcome.

Here are a few examples of obstacles to sincere listening:

  • Distractions: Having a TV or radio on or smartphone in hand while talking, talking on the phone while talking to someone in the same room, talking on a cell phone while driving (which is also unsafe), walking, eating or loud noise in the background while talking on the phone, are all distractors that will prevent effective listening.
  • Looking, not listening. Paying more attention to someone’s physical appearance than to what they are saying.
  • Lack of verbal ques. If we are met by silence or lack of a verbal response – even just a simple “Yes” or ” I understand”  – can feel like talking to a wall!
  • Boredom. Lack of interest in the topic/issue being discussed.
  • Lack of Empathy.  It can be difficult to switch the attention from ‘I’ or ‘me’ to ‘them’ or ‘you’ but is a very important part of sincere listening. 
  • Prejudice and stereo-typing. Some are still biased by race, gender, age, religion, accent or past negative experiences, which can come in the way of listening.
  • Impressions. We sometimes judge people, concluding they are either too intelligent or too uninformed, or in other ways not deserving of our attention, so we may feel there is no point listening to what they have to say.
  • Preoccupation. When we have a lot on our minds, it’s not easy listen. This is particularly true when we feel stressed or worried about something. If possible, put the conversation off until your mind is clearer. 
  • Changing the subject: Diverting or bringing up a matter not related to the conversation can be a real conversation stopper.
  • Interrupting:  Interrupting is impolite, especially early in a conversation. Avoid injecting an opinion or offering advice before fully understanding the problem or concern.
  • Physical needs. Tiredness, hunger or thirst, or the need for a restroom break can really get in the way of effective, patient listening!
  • Opinions or closed mind. Preconceived notions or biases can really block the flow of a conversation. We do not have to agree but we should listen and attempt to understand. Hear them out before formulating a response!

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey

Non-Verbal Examples of Ineffective Listening

Some non-verbal signs of inattention while listening include:

  • Lack of eye contact can give the impression of lack of engagement and interest in the conversation.
  • Body language: A slouched or poor posture, leaning back or frequently shifting positions are all negative signals and give the impression that proper attention and respect is not being given. 
  • Restlessness – fidgeting, doodling, looking at a watch or smartphone, yawning.

There are of course many more examples you could come up with of ineffective listening, but we have highlighted the well-known barriers. The point is to amplify our level of self- awareness, so as to not give the impression of not listening or only partially listening.

Our next article will go in more depth into effective, proactive listening, so stay tuned!

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