Barriers to Effective Listening

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how anticipating can be a barrier to listening effectively.
  • Explain how judging can be a barrier to effective listening.
  • Explain how emotional reactions can be a barrier to effective listening.

To become good at active listening takes work. It almost requires going back to a baby to remember how to focus all attention on what another person says. Babies are great role models: they listen and observe everything around them. This is how they learn to become a person in a social setting. That intent observation and listening is what one should strive to do.

Listening is a tool that is not formally taught in most classes. It is very common for a person to believe that all one has to do is sit, hear, and appear attentive. That does not mean that one is listening actively and engaging in the communication event. Our minds are very busy. We are often thinking about home, work, school, and personal communities no matter what we are doing. We have places to go, people to visit, things to do—all of those thoughts seem to pop up when it is necessary to listen actively. It is the noise of the mind that can be tamed by listening actively.

So, what kinds of barriers hinder and obstruct active listening? Knowing what these barriers are helps with overcoming them when needed.


We have all had this barrier at some point. This is when you start formulating what you want to say before the speaker finishes what they are stating. This barrier pops in when someone seems to be taking too long to make a point. In this case, you might assume what their conclusion is and start thinking of how to respond to it. Other times, someone seems to speak slower than is your style, seems unknowledgeable, or seems to take up too much of your time. In every case, it is common for the mind to drift into thinking about how you want to respond and what words you want to convey.

Person with one finger up: I have an ideaAnticipation can be a big barrier for active listening. It is something that most people have to work on eliminating from their listening practice. Think of this: your teenager comes home angry about an altercation at school. She comes to you and explains what happened to her. Before she has finished telling the story, you may already be thinking about contacting the other parent, friend, spouse, or principal. You may think what a stupid thing to get so upset about and how to say that nicely. You may think about what advice would be best to provide in this situation, or how you can help to solve the problem. It is amazing how quickly any one, or all, of these responses can overtake the mind and leave you only half listening. It is by half listening that you might miss a critical piece to your teen’s story. You might even find yourself cutting her off and starting your formulated response. There is no better way for a teen to feel hurt and unheard than to not listen to them actively. This is the point where many teens stomp off to their room and leave the parent wondering, what just happened?

A parent who is an active listener will stop and focus on the teen’s words. They will notice their daughter’s nonverbal communication. They will wait until the story’s end before thinking about what to say or do next. Active listening will most likely end in positive problem-solving and providing what the teen needs while creating a greater trust between the parent and their child. The teen will know that their parent is really listening to them.


Judges in a competition holding up signs saying IN or OUTJust like anticipating what another is going to say before they finish speaking, judging is a common occurrence for a listener. When this barrier arises, the listener is sizing up the speaker while the person is talking. For example, a presenter may have forgotten one component of an important process, which could be an honest mistake. However, the listeners might judge that this person does not understand this process and is therefore not credible. Judging someone based on a small error interferes with listening.

Once a judgement has been made, listening is lessened. You might find yourself noticing every small detail about the person that is wrong—their hair, dress, speaking style, and so on. You may find that you stop listening actively because the speaker lost credibility by making a mistake. You are making a choice to stop listening and rate the speaker poorly.

An active listener will acknowledge the mistake and let it go. They will accept the fact that people are fallible but that does not make them incompetent. They will look past the mistake and give the person a chance to complete what they have to say. Most of the time, this person will show their competence and repair their credibility.

Emotional Reactions

Man looking annoyedThere are times when a speaker may hit an emotional trigger that results in creating a listening barrier. It has happened to everyone. A speaker may talk about a topic that is extremely emotional to you. This person might talk about the death of a loved one, which floods you with memories and emotions about a person who died in your life. Once those emotions hit, you won’t hear the rest of the speech.

The same is true for contentious subjects such as immigration, abortion, health care, vaccinations, and so on. When a topic that you feel very strongly about is posed, you are more likely to stop listening and start formulating a response and judge the person speaking. At this point, you are not actively listening. This emotional barrier interferes with your ability to effectively hear the other person’s viewpoint and effectively respond based upon your attentive listening. This could mean that the argument on this topic is lost due to an inability to have thoughtful communication.

Someone who is an active listener also has emotional triggers. The difference is that this person will acknowledge the emotions that are there and set them aside to hear what the other person has to say. They will wait to hear everything before constructing a response and will try to withhold judgement. This is not easy. It is a skill that takes time and patience to employ. Emotional barriers are difficult to overcome as emotional triggers mean that we have deep seeded thoughts about the subject. To see great examples of this barrier in action, you need look no further than the news. News talk shows often have high emotional tensions that could block listening between the speakers.

Active listening takes into account the various barriers that could occur—anticipation, judgement, and emotion. The first step to being a good listener is to acknowledge that these barriers happen. Then, you can incorporate strategies into your listening practice that will make you a better and more effective listener.