The 12 Blocks to Active Listening
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Communication is central to any type of interaction and relationship. Most relationship problems can be overcome if individuals improve their communication skills, and replace passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive communication with more assertiveness.
What we often fail to comprehend is that active and assertive listening is THE most important communication skill. In fact, we usually put more effort in how we can get our point across and become more assertive in what we ask and express, than actually realize the significance of our listening skills. We tend to forget that communication is a mutual process of listening to the other and expressing ourselves.
Today our focus will be what prevents us from listening actively and attentively. By recognizing the 12 blocks to listening and realizing when we engage in those, we can subsequently improve our listening skills. This will inevitably bring positive changes in the way we communicate with others.
After all, listening does mean not just hearing with our ears, but actively being mindful and attentive of what is being expressed, so that we first understand it fully. You are what you listen to- and this does not only apply to music!
The 12 Blocks to Active Listening
If you often find yourself in situations that you cannot communicate with someone properly, maybe you are also not listening properly.
Of course it is understandable that we can not always give our full attention to whoever is talking to us- yet understanding what prevents us from doing so is a first step in making necessary adjustments in order to improve our communication. Let’s look at 12 common blocks to listening.
1. Mind Reading
Have you ever caught yourself drifting away from what the other person is saying, because you are already making an assumption in your mind about what they will say?
Although this is to some extent natural and automatic in many conversations, and it may suggest that you understand the other quite well so that you can already guess what they’re about to say, mind reading can become an obstacle in your communication with others.
The reason for this is, the more time you invest in trying to figure out what will be said next, the less involved you are with the present moment and the other person.
After all, no matter how well you know and understand your conversational partner, you are not really in their head- so it is beneficial to actually listen to them rather than presuming you know their next sentence before they utter it.
We can all be guilty of this occasionally; rehearsing means preparing what you will respond next, before your partner has finished talking.
This can often be accompanied by interrupting the other, to say what popped in your mind- which can take a negative turn quite easily, because interrupting is regarded as quite offensive and aggressive and can trigger a defensive attitude of the other person.
Then your focus is on constructing your next argument, not on the person talking to you. Consequently, you focus on yourself and not the other- but listening is all about the other.
It can therefore be worthwhile to pay close attention to them for a bit- it won't be long until you also have a chance to speak. In addition, the more attentively you listen, the better you will absorb and understand the other's message- so the more authentic you can be in your response.
Filtering means having selective attention only to certain types of information, and letting your mind drift away otherwise.
We tend to use filtering when we want to ensure we are not threatened, or when we expect or wish to hear specific things from the other.
For instance, if you feel you are in danger if the other becomes upset, your attention may be more tuned to cues of increased emotion of the other. If the threatening cue is not present, then you can be distracted by your own thoughts and lose concentration.
Understandably, this is a block to effective communication because you do not receive the whole message of whatever the other wants to say- only fragments of it. You basically hear only what you want to hear.
Judging means having a negative opinion that is already firmly established about the other person, or making negative criticism in your mind about what they are saying.
By making judgements or assessing that the other person is not worth listening to, you close yourself from actually hearing what they have to say. Being open and flexible is always an advantage in communication.
Something the other just said triggered a memory, image or thought in your mind- and then you got carried away on your train of thought.
You know how it goes, one thought let to another, and another, and off you go! Suddenly you are disconnected from your partner, lost in your own mind, drifting away. Or you simply lost interest and therefore concentration.
Often when you return to the conversation, you have absolutely no idea of what has been said so far. You may feel confused or awkward. This can be very embarrassing in some occasions, especially when you ask a question about something that has already been expressed while you were off somewhere far. It is quite obvious that such a thing is disrespectful to the other person.
I have often heard this as a complaint from women about their male romantic partners: a woman wants to express herself, just vent, and the partner who is usually more practical and likes to solve problems, offers solution or advise. Of course it does not only apply to men.
If you tend to do this, maybe you are a wonderful problem-solver and your advice is really valuable and thoughtful. Maybe you have the very best intentions and sincerely want to help out the person who is talking to you. Yet unsolicited advice can be quite annoying to the speaker.
Most of the times, when a person is talking, what they mostly want is to be listened to and understood.
If they request your opinion or advice, then you can gladly offer this to them- otherwise, it is much preferable to resist the urge to offer advice, and instead give them the most precious gift you can, at the moment: your undivided attention.
Sparring means being absolute, argumentative, and willing to convince the other about your own opinion being better/ more correct than theirs.
It is absolutely fine if you disagree with what is being said by the other. However sparring means making very snap judgements, and becoming competitive in conversation with the other. It can often turn into an argument, because your partner does not feel listened to, but rather cornered and ready to defend their position.
Remember, communication is not about convincing someone else to change their point of view. It is not necessary to turn every conversation into an argument. Even if you disagree with the point of the other, there is a right way to express this without offending the other and putting them in a position of defense. It is better to allow the other to fully express what’s in their mind first, and maintain a sense of peace and safety in the conversation.
If you tend to do this, you may realize it by the attitude of the other: if they seem emotional, defensive and upset and start saying things such as “This is not what I meant”/ “You misunderstood me” etc , it is likely you are taken over by sparring.
8. Being Right
If being right is obstructing you from listening and therefore communicating properly, this means you are mostly concerned about being right, and there is no way you can be wrong.
Alternatively, maybe you like to always have the last word in a conversation. This tendency can often occur with aggressive communication style- if your buttons are pushed, you are quick to offend, criticize and undermine the other.
Another manifestation of this block, is resisting and ignoring any communication that feels critical to you and suggests something about you should change.
If you have difficulty receiving criticism and immediately get aggressive to any such attempt, it may feel inconceivable or very threatening to you to admit that there is always room for improvement. Being able to accept constructive criticism and evaluate it is very valuable.
Although how others feel and think about us can be a reflection of themselves, maybe indeed there is a particle of truth in what the other is saying about you. Listen carefully, even if it can be painful. Resist your urge to fight back, listen and evaluate.
Communication does not necessarily involve one who is right and one who is wrong. It is all about allowing for different perspectives to be expressed. You don’t always have to be right. You are you, and the other should be allowed to be themselves.
Derailing means going off the rails- changing the subject rapidly, or interrupting the other so that you can speak. The metaphorical definition of derailing is “obstruct a process by diverting it from its intended course”.
Understandably, you may not be comfortable to talk about any topic at any time. Maybe you just don’t feel in the mood or mentally prepared about delving into a specific topic. And that’s ok.
What’s not ok, is changing the subject suddenly. This gives the message to the other that what they are saying doesn’t really matter to you, that it is not important or interesting. This is disrespectful, and corresponds to all communication styles except for the assertive.
A viable assertive alternative would be to directly and assertively express to the other that this is not a good moment to discuss this issue, that you do not feel like it, as well as offer an alternative for a different time.
Changing the subject can be very rejective to the other. If you value your relationships, it is great to become conscious of this tendency and try to replace it with a more polite, considerate and assertive approach.
Placating means agreeing too much and too quickly and giving too many assenting comments and body language in a conversation.
Therapists can be guilty of this sometimes- giving too many “Uh-uh”, “I see”, “I understand” can feel condescending to the other person, even exaggerating.
Yes, you want to appear as understanding and supportive, you want the other person to like you, you want to please the other person so you offer too much verbal and non-verbal encouragement. That's all good.
But overdoing it can look non-authentic, as if you are pretending in a conversation, and sometimes the energy you invest in offering this encouragement can be obstructive to actual effective listening.
While talking to the other, you constantly try to assess who is better and smarter- you or the other. You constantly compare yourself to the other. This reflects low self-esteem and self-worth; it is not about comparing yourself to the other, but giving them your full attention and understanding.
We are all different, there is no need for comparisons and such evaluations during a conversation, because this undermines the point of being in communication- understanding each other.
Identifying means reflecting what the other person says to your own experience.
Although this is helpful in order for us to understand the other’s point of view and really get into their position, it is also distracting. Simply because you shift your attention away from your speaker and onto yourself.
Do you tend to think of how what the other person is saying applies to you personally, and offer your realization to them? “Oh yes, I understand, this had also happened to me that one time…” and then you start your own story. Often interrupting the other, and not giving them the space to complete their story.
Communication is not all about you- but about the other, too. There is time to go to your story later, or another time.
Guilty as Charged? That's Great!
Do you recognize any of these blocks to listening in your communication with others?
Each of them can severely impede effective listening. When two or more of these blocks are present in a conversation, the purpose of communication, that is the exchange of information and transfer of a message, is significantly hindered, which can result in a communication breakdown.
When communication fails, relationships deteriorate- therefore if you want to accomplish any positive change to your personal and professional relationships, the very first focus should be communication.
Becoming mindful and conscious of whenever you are not an attentive listener is a great first step. Then you are more likely to be able to stop yourself from the urge to engage in any of these blocks.
Remember, the greatest gift you can give to another in conversation is your full presence and undivided attention.
Even if it’s challenging to change established communication patterns, change is possible.
Mindfulness is the answer- you observe yourself, assess whether any of these blocks are present, resist your urge to behave as usual and return your attention back to your conversation partner.
As with anything else, practice makes perfect. With conscious effort, you can gradually master your listening skills and reap the benefits in your communication with others.