Effective listening is not and never has been easy. Norman Weiner wrote, “Speech is a joint game between the talker and the listener against the forces of confusion. Unless both make the effort, interpersonal communication is quite hopeless.” In order to improve our listening, we must first identify the barriers we encounter to listening.
Ever since the Fall, men and women have been self-absorbed, self-seeking, self-loving, self-willed, selfish, proud and rebellious. “Why do I have to listen to you?” is our common and defiant cry from the time we are able to talk. Ultimately, the reason why people don’t listen is because they don’t want to listen. At its core, listening poorly is sin.
Thus, true listening must begin with heart change. It is not simply a skill that can be learned. It is only through daily union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6) that the Christian leader will be an effective listener. Listening is an act of self-sacrifice and an expression of our genuine love for others (Phil. 2:4).
But sin is not the only obstacle to effective listening.
The Communication Process
In any given mode of communication, the speaker shares a message with the listener who, in turn, gives feedback to the speaker regarding the content of his message. Because words are such imprecise carriers of ideas, the intended meaning of the speaker can be easily distorted or lost. At least five challenges to effective communication exist in the process alone.
First, the speaker must accurately choose how to express his intended meaning. Second, the listener must properly understand the intention of the communication. When the listener frames his feedback he must accurately reflect his intended meaning to the original speaker, who then must correctly interpret the feedback. The final challenge is the internal and external environments, which provide enough distractions that any meaning may be obscured or lost altogether.
Research shows that the general efficiency of the communication process hovers around five percent – a figure approaching statistical randomness! Based on this, Osmo Wiio (a Finnish communication researcher) developed his first law of communication: “Communication usually fails, except by chance.”
Throughout much of our lives we are passive recipients for hours every day. We are rewarded in school when we do well at reading, speaking, and writing, but high grades are never connected to listening. The communication process in many forms of entertainment is also one-way; studies indicate that heavy TV-watching encourages passivity and stunts the growth of the imagination. At the very least, it discourages the habits of active listening.
When we’re in school, when we watch TV or go to the movies, and even when we go to church it is passive: a one-way monologue. Consequently, we have learned to be passive recipients; not engaged, not active, just “hearing,” not really listening.
Filters are the various internal “lenses” we have, through which we filter and interpret everything we see and hear. Common human filters include beliefs, values, attitudes, personality, culture, prejudice, interests, expectations, assumptions, memories, and past experiences.
Although all of us possess these internal lenses, we are often blind to them. We do not realize how much they color what we hear and how we respond.
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. (Prov. 18:2)
Being aware of these filtering lenses is a significant step in becoming a better listener.
Many internal habits prevent us from effective listening. For example, instead of hearing things out, we jump in before the other person is finished. We also do any number of the following:
- Let our minds wander to things that are more interesting to us.
- Become defensive when the subject is negative towards us.
- Devalue conversations that we do not initiate.
- Attempt to “multi-task” while we listen.
- Think ahead to what we’re going to say next.
- Judge the speaker before we give them a chance to change our minds.
- Turn off interest based on tone of voice, mannerisms, or physical appearance.
- Yield to emotions instead of calmly considering what is being said.
- Attempt to look interested and please the speaker instead of hearing them.
- Add or take away from the speaker’s words in our mind, hearing only what we want to hear.
One major barrier to effective listening is the myth that speaking represents power. In our culture, the one who speaks is seen as the active and powerful one, while listening signifies weakness and compliance.
In reality, effective listening is active and influential. The good listener can actually direct the conversation by his sensitive and well-placed responses (Prov. 20:5). The effective listener will find himself well-positioned to cheer up anxious hearts (Prov. 12:25), sustain the weary (Is. 50:4), bring healing (Prov. 12:18; 16:24), turn away wrath (Prov. 15:1), and build others up (Eph. 4:29). Such powerful words can only be spoken after effective listening.
In addition to all the internal distractions mentioned above, there are significant external distractions that affect our ability to listen effectively: barriers such as desks or physical distance between speaker and listener, faulty acoustics, the accent of the speaker, the time of day, personal problems, interruptions, and time pressures. For effective listening to be possible, such distractions need to be minimized.
The use of “trigger” words
Certain words or ideas carry lots of emotion, and their use has the tendency to shut down the communication process. These words can express accusation, hurt, offense, insult, distrust, cynicism, sarcasm, scorn, judgment, rejection, etc., and they can vary from person to person and from relationship to relationship. We must avoid using trigger words when we speak, and avoid reacting or resisting when someone uses them. We must try to discern the underlying idea the speaker is trying to express.
Insufficient attention to nonverbal communication
Much of our communication is delivered nonverbally. There are three main ways that communication takes place: through words, through tone of voice, and through body language (facial expressions, posture, gestures, eye contact, etc.) Words have about a 7% impact on effective communication, vocal tones about 38%, and body language around 55%.
Think of the times people have influenced you simply by the way they looked at you. Face color changes as people talk about things that affect them emotionally. Movements of the lips, mouth, cheek muscles and eyebrows reveal what is going on inside the speaker – not to mention the movements or posture of the rest of the body, including the hands and the feet (Prov. 6:12-14). In addition, the speaker’s tone can often convey more meaning than his words. So the effective listener must pay attention to the pitch, rate, timbre and subtle variations in the tone of the speaker’s voice.
The reality is that a person cannot help but communicate. The reading of nonverbal communication, therefore, is one of the most significant skills of effective listening.
Someone said, “God gave us two ears but only one mouth. Some people say that’s because He wanted us to spend twice as much time listening as talking. Others claim it’s because He knew listening was twice as hard as talking.”
Good leaders are effective listeners, those who overcome the
significant barriers to communication to actively turn their ear to their God,
their followers, their colleagues, and their own leaders. The result of this
willingness to listen is not just effective communication, but a heart of
 Albert Mehrabian: “Communication Without Words” in Psychology Today, September 1968, p. 53.