Q. Explain the different barriers to listening. List the differences between discriminative listening and comprehension listening.
Listening is not easy and there are a number of obstacles that stand in the way of effective listening, both within and outside the workplace. These barriers may be categorized as follows:
- Physiological Barriers
This was discussed earlier under the barriers to communication. Some people may have genuine hearing problems or deficiencies that prevent them from listening properly. Once detected, they can generally be treated. Other people may have difficulty in processing information, or memory related problems which make them poor listeners. Another physiological barrier is rapid thought. Listeners have the ability to process information at the rate of approximately 500 words per minute, whereas speakers talk at around 125 words per minute. Since listeners are left with a lot of spare time, their attention may not be focused on what the speaker is saying, but may wander elsewhere.
- Physical Barriers
These refer to distractions in the environment such as the sound of an air conditioner, cigarette smoke, or an overheated room, which interfere with the listening process. They could also be in the form of information overload. For example, if you are in a meeting with your manager and the phone rings and your mobile beeps at the same time to let you know that you have a message; it is very hard to listen carefully to what is being said.
- Attitudinal Barriers
Pre-occupation with personal or work related problems can make it difficult to focus one’s attention completely on what a speaker is saying, even if what is being said is of prime importance. Another common attitudinal barrier is egocentrism, or the belief that you are more knowledgeable than the speaker and that you have nothing new to learn from his ideas. People with this kind of closed minded attitude make very poor listeners.
- Wrong Assumptions
The success of communication depends on both the sender and the receiver, as we have seen in an earlier unit. It is wrong to assume that communication is the sole responsibility of the sender or the speaker and that listeners have no role to play. Such an assumption can be a big barrier to listening. For example, a brilliant speech or presentation, however well delivered, is wasted if the receiver is not listening at the other end. Listeners have as much responsibility as speakers to make the communication successful, by paying attention, seeking clarifications and giving feedback.
Another wrong assumption is to think that listening is a passive activity, in which a listener merely absorbs the thoughts of the speaker. On the contrary, real listening or active listening is hard work – it requires speaking sometimes to ask questions, agree or disagree with the speaker, give feedback, etc.
Yet another barrier of this type is to assume that speakers are more powerful than listeners. Speakers are seen as being in command of things, whereas listeners are seen to be weak and lacking authority. According to communication experts however, the reverse is true. Listeners are as important and as powerful as speakers. In fact David J. Schwartz, writer and management professor, emphasizes the importance of listening by saying “Big people monopolize the listening. Small people monopolize the talking.”
- Cultural Barriers
Accents can be barriers to listening, since they interfere with the ability to understand the meaning of words that are pronounced differently. The problem of different accents arises not only between cultures, but also within a culture. For example, in a country like India where there is enormous cultural diversity, accents may differ even between different regions and states.
Another type of cultural barrier is differing cultural values. The importance attached to listening and speaking differs in western and oriental cultures. Generally, Orientals regard listening and silence as almost a virtue, whereas Westerners attach greater importance to speaking. Therefore this would interfere with the listening process, when two people from these two different cultures communicate.
- Gender Barriers
Communication research has shown that gender can be a barrier to listening. Studies have revealed that men and women listen very differently and for different purposes. Women are more likely to listen for the emotions behind a speaker’s words, while men listen more for the facts and the content.
A salesperson giving a demonstration of a new type of office equipment may be asked by two colleagues if the equipment will work without any problems and respond by saying “Sure.” A male user may take his answer at face value, whereas a female user may detect some hesitation in his voice. This is because the male user listens for the content of the message, whereas the female user listens for the tone of the message.
- Lack of Training
Listening is not an inborn skill. People are not born good listeners. They have to develop the art of listening through practice and training. Lack of training in listening skills is an important barrier to listening, especially in the Indian context.
Lee Iacocca, former Chairman of the Chrysler Corporation in the US, was one of the first to recognize the need for organized training programs in listening skills. Today, many organizations both in India and abroad incorporate listening skills in their training programs.
- Bad Listening Habits
Most people are very average listeners who have developed poor listening habits that are hard to shed and that act as barriers to listening. For example, some people have the habit of “faking” attention or trying to look like a listener, in order to impress the speaker and to assure him that they are paying attention. Others may tend to listen to each and every fact and, as a result, miss out on the main point. Yet another habit is to avoid difficult listening and to tune off deliberately, if the subject is too technical or difficult to understand. Sometimes, the subject itself may be dismissed as uninteresting, because the listener does not want to listen.
Differences between discriminative listening and comprehension listening
- Discriminative Listening
This is the most basic type of listening, whereby the difference between the sounds is identified. Unless the differences between the sounds are identified, the meaning expressed by such differences cannot be grasped.
Once we learn to distinguish between sounds in our own language, we are able to do the same in other languages. One reason why people belonging to one country find it difficult to speak the language of another country is that they find the sounds similar and cannot understand the subtle differences.
- Comprehension Listening
Once we have learnt to discriminate between the different sounds, the next step is to try to comprehend the meaning of these sounds. In order to do this, we require a dictionary of words, along with the rules of grammar and syntax. Apart from the verbal communication, we also need to understand the meaning conveyed by the speaker’s nonverbal behavior. This can be achieved by closely observing various aspects of the speaker’s body language and tone of voice.