Most of us would like to think that effective listening is within easy reach, and that it's mostly just a matter of applying simple willpower, discipline, or good manners.
In fact, the mental stopples that keep us from truly understanding the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others are lodged much more stubbornly than we might think.
Note from the author
In this essay I build on Eight barriers to effective listening by taking a closer look at the psychology of listening. I explore communication anxiety, arguing that it is a frequent cause of listening dysfunction, and I outline some techniques for mitigating communication anxiety through mindful awareness.
- Michael Webb
Most advice on effective listening focuses on the mechanics of listening, usually taking a rules-based approach. Imposing rules leads to limited improvement, and in some cases actually raises new barriers to listening effectiveness.
The notion of "active" listening, in particular, is troublesome. Unless root psychological causes have been addressed, an active listening approach is likely to fail in stressful situations, resulting in superficial listening, or it may give listeners false confidence in their listening comprehension.
Many barriers to effective listening arise, of course, because the participants have incompatible expectations for the interaction, with each bringing a different agenda to the communicative act, be it a casual chat, a serious discussion, or a business meeting.
To understand each other's messages, particpants first have to understand the agendas and intentions of those with whom they're communicating. That is a form of empathy, and mindful listening can help.
Here is a brief look into the psychology of listening, exploring some of the root causes of miscommunication and examining some of the thoughts, feelings, motivations, and preconceptions acting as filters that the listener may not be mindful of.
I use the word mindful to mean "non-judgmentally observant of what is immediately at hand." To be mindful means to become consciously aware of what would otherwise be unseen due to inattention.
I will provide some examples of how to develop mindfulness in order to bring attention to habits that impede effective communication.
Communication anxiety is the first area to which a listener can turn the observational power of mindfulness:
communication anxiety (n.) Fear or apprehension that a communicative interaction will not lead to the outcome desired.
Communication anxiety lies at the root of many impediments to wholehearted, effective listening. It strikes nearly all listeners and speakers - especially in challenging situations, where effective listening is critically important.
Anxiety has a strongly adverse effect on access to mental resources, narrowing the scope of attention, and shifting the mind into a more reactive and less flexible tunnel-vision mode.
It also diminishes memory and higher-order thinking - exactly the cognitive resources that a listener most needs in order to process what a speaker is saying.
The more intensely a person experiences communication anxiety, the more difficult it will be for that person to listen effectively, despite best intentions.
Communication anxiety usually goes unnoticed. Its effects may not be obvious without practice or training.
Furthermore, speakers or listeners may not be inclined to recognize their anxieties in general. They may not readily admit to having any feelings of anxiety.
Because communication anxiety often goes unnoticed, speakers tend to blame the objects or situations where communication anxiety occurs rather than recognizing that the anxiety itself is the impediment.
The following are common examples of communication anxiety.
Fear of running out of time - One of the most frequently seen examples of communication anxiety is a fear of not having enough time to make all desired points or achieve all objectives for the conversation before it has to end.
Communicators may fear that the conversation will end before they have time to achieve their objectives for it.
Time may be too limited or the material to be discussed too great for a listener to feel comfortable and as a result the listener may feel an urge to cut the speaker off.
The listener fears that what the speaker is saying will not lead to what the listener desires to achieve from the conversation. Realizing that time is running out, the listener may signal his or her anxiety, perhaps by interrupting or by taking on an impatient demeanor.
Once the listener gains the floor, he or she may feel reluctant to yield it to other speakers.
Unfortunately, such behavior interferes with healthy turn-taking, and the conversation now meets the listener's needs less efficiently than if he or she had listened patiently and allowed the conversational turns to interleave smoothly.
Fear of not completing a point - Speakers also suffer communication anxiety. In healthy conversations the roles of speaker and listener should generally alternate, as one communicator builds upon or responds to the contributions of the other.
However, a speaker who is experiencing communication anxiety may be afraid to stop talking and to listen.
The speaker may fear not being able to communicate all details associated with the topic. As a result, he or she may try to provide too many details, causing listeners to lose interest or to miss the overall point.
If a listener tries to take a turn before the speaker has explained all sub-points, the speaker may experience communication anxiety.
In this case, communication anxiety interferes with a smoothly collaborative style, because the participant is reluctant to relinquish the floor to allow other speakers to modify or comment on points as the participant is making them.
Sometimes a speaker may wish to add detail that listeners may not want to hear because they believe the detail is not related to what they want to know. Listeners, in turn, may become anxious that the speaker is wasting time by presenting too much detail.
In healthy conversation, listeners and speakers are receptive to feedback from their speaking partners, and they negotiate with each other to meet their mutual expectations for the exchange.
One way that communication anxiety interferes with that negotiation is by making speakers less willing to summarize or essentialize their presentation.
Fear of adverse perceptions - This is a basic form of communication anxiety. The speaker fears not being able to control how listeners will understand the message.
The speaker fears that listeners will interpret the message in a way that the speaker finds undesirable or unacceptable.
This fear causes many problems in communication, such as using an indirect or obfuscatory writing or speaking style - fearing that plain language would leave readers or listeners with an unfavorable impression.
The anxious communicator makes an effort to manipulate the impressions of listeners by using conceits or stylistic affectations.
The conceits may fail because the listener immediately recognizes them as being conceits, consciously or subconsciously, perhaps because of having previously used the same conceits.
This form of communication anxiety is especially pronounced whenever the communicator believes that listeners may find the message negative and that they may react to it in an angry or unpleasant way.
When a communicator needs to deliver a message that may upset listeners, the fear of adverse perceptions will often provoke the communicator to use language that is so euphemistic, indirect, or non-committal that listeners misunderstand.
Fear of incorrect emphasis - In many cases a complex topic entails competing or contradictory factors that should be taken as a whole in order to have a meaningful view of that topic.
Listeners may misconstrue a speaker's emphasis of one factor as being a denial of another. They may forget that the speaker has a broader picture of the subject than what is implied by the specific point that the speaker has chosen to make at that moment.
They may interpret the speaker's point as a denial or de-emphasis of certain views - even when the speaker did not actually intend to deny the complementary views - rather than as a rounding out of the overall picture.
A listener may anxiously interrupt the speaker to counter a point of emphasis or clarification. The speaker may then misinterpret the listener's objection as being an argument against the speaker's point.
The result can be conversational noise, misunderstandings, and interference in the smooth exchange of ideas in the conversation.
Fear of losing the thread - As a listener you may feel anxious that the thread of the conversation will take a diversion that will cause you to miss an opportunity to make a point you wished to make.
You may fear that you don't have enough working memory to juggle all the twists and turns in the conversation, and that your point will be lost or forgotten.
You may feel that there won't be another break in the conversation when you'll be able to make your point. You may also feel that other parties in the conversation will not be willing later to yield the floor to you long enough to make your point, or that they will forget to do so.
Because of those fears, which are all forms of communication anxiety, you may be reluctant to yield the floor or otherwise to let the thread of the conversation drift naturally to other topics.
Healthy, productive conversations usually explore many topics freely. That freedom often leads to unexpected and interesting ideas, and is important to making the conversation vital.
If you are a listener and you fear not being able to finish your point later, you may interrupt the speaker or stop listening when he or she wanders to a different topic.
That behavior will make the conversation less fluid, and will impair your ability as a listener to fully understand what the speaker is meaning to say.
Fear of inadequacy - If you are a listener you may fear being unable to understand the speaker. You may feel that you lack the background or even intelligence to do so.
That basic and common form of communication anxiety may lead you to want to compensate for your perceived inadequacy. You may try to manipulate the opinions of other participants in the conversation in attempting to create a more favorable impression of yourself.
Communication anxiety often manifests physically or behaviorally, but communicators may be only partially aware of those manifestations.
Learning to recognize overt signs of communication anxiety, both in yourself and in others, is a crucial step toward bringing mindful awareness to communication.
Here are some common examples of physical symptoms of communication anxiety.
Time-checking - This is one of the surest signs of communication anxiety. If you feel an irresistible urge to look at your watch or to glance at a clock while someone else is speaking, you're suffering communication anxiety.
There are practical considerations, however. It may be that every minute counts, and you risk being late for another engagement.
In that case, a good response is to politely beg the pardon of the person you're speaking with, and then deliberately, with your full attention, to check the time.
You may even mention that time is tight, so that your conversation partner is aware of the situation and can cooperate with you in making good use of time.
That response is much preferred to glancing distractedly or worriedly at your watch. The worst case is looking at your watch while the other person is speaking.
Many people consider that to be an act of rudeness or even passive aggression, and it can even imply that you consider the listener to have lower social status than you.
For many people, it means that you want them to stop talking, even if you may not be fully aware that you want them to stop.
Fidgetiness - Fidgetiness is also a clear sign that the listener may feel overwhelmed or anxious.
In many cases fidgeting seems to be caused by the body starting to act and then being consciously overruled. The fidgety listener would rather get up and run away, but that movement is constrained by conditioning, such as a learned sense of responsibility to stay and finish the conversation.
The unmoderated emotions express themselves momentarily in the movements of the body, until the person dampens them. A listener who is aware at some level that fidgeting implies a dissonance between desires and constraints may try to stifle the fidgeting in order to conceal those desires.
In that case the desires may express themselves through the body in a more indirect way, such as by yawning.
Yawning - We usually think of yawning as being caused by tiredness. That may sometimes be true. However, it's interesting to note that people rarely yawn when they're doing something that they're completely interested in.
If you're watching a thrilling or fascinating film, or you're in the midst of explaining something that you're impassioned by, you might not yawn even if you were dead tired. Clearly factors other than fatigue are involved here.
Yawning seems to happen when we feel restricted in some way. It's a stretching response, a response to feeling "suffocated" psychologically, if not physically.
That suffocation usually comes from a sense of tedium. Tedium is similar to boredom, but it differs in several important ways.
Boredom comes when we have an appetite for challenge, a desire to stretch our capabilities, but when that appetite can't be fulfilled in the current situation.
To abide in a psychological state of "flow," we need just enough difficulty, but not too much. Tedium happens when the flow is broken by some kind of constraint, usually a constraint that we may not be immediately conscious of.
One characteristic of tedium is that it involves a feeling of being overwhelmed in some way. Perhaps the quantity of detail is too much to manage. In that case, a person may feel communication anxiety about missing certain details, but without knowing whether those details are truly important.
Perhaps the information is too intricate to comprehend easily, or the listener doesn't feel prepared to take on the complexity at that moment. Perhaps information is coming too quickly, or perhaps it is too much for the listener's short-term memory.
If the listener is being asked to pay attention while a long stream of information is being recited, where much of that information is redundant, the task of pulling out the meaningful bits would then feel tedious.
That feeling of being out of control of the intake of information leads to communication anxiety.
In other words, rather than being a result of fatigue, or even of boredom, yawning is usually a result of feeling overwhelmed, and is a symptom of communication anxiety.
Often a person's body reveals more about the person's state of mind than what is revealed by what the person says.
Eyes unfocused - Just as fidgets are the body's overridden attempts to flee or respond to an undesirable situation, unfocused eyes show that the person would rather not see the present situation.
The eyes are connected directly to the brain. In fact, with certain types of damage to the brain stem, a person may be unable to move any part of the body, including facial muscles, but still be able to move the eyes.
When the eyes go unfocused, or "glaze over," the brain is saying, "I don't want to be here right now."
Unfocused eyes are also a sign that the person may be absorbed in a daydream or memory. Many of same regions of the brain that process immediate visual information also process the visual information in daydreams or memories.
It isn't surprising that the eyes themselves reflect the fact that the person is paying attention to the daydream, memory, or perhaps to a captivating thought.
In many cases the person's internalized images are a way of trying to mollify or cope with the discomfort caused by the anxiety.
Micro-expressions - The emotional part of the brain has a "shorter circuit" to facial muscles than does the cortical brain, where deliberation occurs. Emotions register on the face for a fraction of a second before other cognitive functions of the brain have a chance to conceal them or change them to a more socially acceptable expression.
The result is that for an almost impossible-to-notice instant, the face reveals how a person really feels about a situation, before their expression changes to how they believe they're supposed to feel.
Law enforcement officials, border security agents, military intelligence officers, and others, have been successfully trained to read micro-expressions, as they're called by Paul Ekman, an important researcher in contemporary psychology of emotion.
If you watch your conversation partner's face carefully, you'll be able to see micro-expressions that reveal whether he or she is honestly connecting to what you're saying or is experiencing communication anxiety due to doubt, confusion, or other difficulties.
One of the most common effects of communication anxiety is its impact on attention. A person suffering communication anxiety will have difficulty summoning the attentive resources to participate fully in a conversation.
Anxiety diminishes the amount of working memory available for cognitive functioning, such as for analytical thinking skills. Anxiety also diminishes the mind's ability for sustain attention on a given subject.
Anxiety makes the mind noisy, skittish, and relatively unreceptive. The profile of the typical distracted listener in today's world is a person wracked with communication anxiety.
Here I propose that an effective way to reduce communication anxiety is by applying mindful awareness, a basic mental faculty.
Through mindfulness, a person becomes aware of feelings, motivations, and assumptions that would otherwise lurk beneath the horizon of consciousness due simply to lack of attention.
Mindful awareness reminds us to turn attention to what has become invisible through haste or neglect. The greater the level of mindfulness, the less life goes by on autopilot.
Each of these example cases briefly reveals the private thoughts of two participants in a conversation.
Each encounter is described from the perspective of each of the participants, showing how each person's listening behavior feels to the other participant.
I give some suggestions for how to apply mindful awareness in order to listen more effectively in each case.
How it feels from inside: He just called it a purblehetch. If he thinks it's a purblehetch, then he might want to do a murchyflit. I need to nip this in the bud right now. I don't like where this conversation is going.
How it feels from outside: She's railroading this conversation. I can't express my opinions without her cutting me off. She has such a rigid way of looking at this. I think we should be able to explore options.
The listener is afraid of doing a "murchyflit," but she is not fully aware how uncomfortable that possibility makes her feel. Instead, she only feels an urge to keep the conversation from leading to that conclusion.
She fears that she will fail to adequately communicate to her interlocutor how uncomfortable that possible outcome makes her feel.
Because she is only partially aware of her fear of failing to communicate her aversion, she abruptly interrupts the flow of the conversation. However, her speaking partner interprets that interruption as rigidity, resulting in a real breakdown in communication.
Communication would be improved if the listener could become mindful of her fear if not being able to avoid the undesirable outcome.
She can begin to cultivate mindful awareness by sensing the tension produced in her body when she thinks of the undesirable outcome. She does this by pausing momentarily to investigate her bodily sensations.
Questions such as these can stimulate the investigation:
- Do I have tension in my neck, shoulders, or back?
- Do I feel any sensations of straining or pushing behind my eyes or in my jaw?
Unless a listener intentionally develops the habit of pausing periodically to discover sensations such as those, she will remain only partially conscious of them.
Normally, a listener's attention is riveted on the externalities that she tends to perceive as the causes of the incipient anxiety, leaving the anxiety itself largely unnoticed.
How it feels from inside: I don't understand why she's talking about kreebles. What do kreebles have to do with what we're talking about? I'm going to cut her off. I need to get this conversation back on track.
How it feels from outside: He looks skeptical and annoyed. He's not really hearing what I'm saying. I think he wants to change the subject. If he'd open up a little, maybe he'd see that there's another side to this situation.
The listener has an unspoken agenda for the conversation. He fears that if he lets his interlocutor continue her thread of discussion, he risks not achieving what he wants from the conversation.
His speaking partner would like to introduce another dimension to the discussion, but she senses that he is unwilling to listen to her point of view. She interprets his behavior as closed-mindedness.
Communication would be improved if the listener could become mindful of how fearful he is of failing to achieve his communicative objectives for the conversation.
In this case, the fact that the listener has only a partial awareness of his expectations for the conversation creates a definite barrier to listening. If asked directly what he was meaning to accomplish, he might deny having any specific agenda at all.
The listener can cultivate mindful awareness of his subconscious motivations by paying attention to clues in his body. By being alert to subtle muscular contractions, he can become aware of embodied motivations that he would not otherwise notice.
Micro-contractions associated with hidden motivations are easier to discover if the listener restrains movement in the body, without becoming rigid - something like a cat before pouncing on its prey. With training, the micro-contractions become easier to detect.
How it feels from inside: No one understands this issue as well as I do. I've got the whole picture. I'm the smartest person here. They just need to sit and listen to me tell my story. I know how this works.
How it feels from outside: I wanted to make a point, but damn, he's talking forever. By the time it's my turn to talk, the discussion will have moved on, and I won't get a chance to make my point.
Mindful conversation means keeping an eye on your speaking partners to sense whether they would like to take a turn speaking. However, the speaker may be too preoccupied with what he is trying to say, and not notice that the other participants are interested in speaking.
That is an indirect form of interruption, because the speaker prevents the listeners from taking a turn.
Without mindful awareness, a speaker's attention can become fixated on what he's trying to communicate. Communication anxiety exacerbates the fixation because fear tends to cause the speaker's scope of perception to become narrower, making the speaker's attention even more rigidly fixated, and he fails to notice that he's talking incessantly.
Mindful awareness opens the mind, allowing it to take note of more factors arising in the immediate situation. Attention becomes more labile and flexible, more comprehensive.
An effective technique for developing mindful awareness during a conversation is to take note periodically of the physical sensation of breathing.
As attention shifts momentarily to the sensations of breathing, the conversation moves into the background. For the person practicing this, it has the effect of stepping back and taking a glance at the interaction as a whole.
A good practice is to let attention rest on sensations of breathing for a few moments before the conversation starts, if possible.
Speakers who are highly involved with achieving their objectives in the conversation will usually not remember to apply the technique. The speakers will proceed through the conversation as if in a trance.
By at least having the intention to pay occasional attention to breath sensations the trance-like state of mind will become more apparent.
The repeated trying - and failing - to remember the breath sensations during conversation will itself open the speaker to awareness of his fixated state of mind.
How it feels from inside: My idea is amazing. I need to make sure she gets it. If she doesn't know all the details about the foogles and the fraggles, she might not see why this idea is so cool.
How it feels from outside: I really wish he'd get to the point. I asked a simple question. I can't see why he's going into all these pointless details. Not only that, I'm not sure what the answer to my question is.
Here are some questions to pose to yourself whenever you notice that you've been speaking more than others in the conversation:
- Are the details you're providing truly necessary for your listeners to understand, or are you providing those details mainly for your own satisfaction?
- Do you feel a strong desire to tell the whole story? Are you just talking in order to satisfy your urge to tell a complete story, for the feeling of connecting all the dots?
- What are your listeners trying to get out of the conversation? Do they need all of your details to get that?
- How do you feel if you don't get a chance to tell all the details? Do you feel irritated or anxious from a lack of "closure"?
To be mindfully aware while speaking, a speaker will listen at the same time that she speaks.
The mindfully aware speaker is receptive to signals being sent by the listener, at the same time that the speaker directs her attention to the details of what she wishes to communicate.
A useful technique for cultivating such mindfulness is to pay attention to how your own physical sensations reflect your speaking partner's body language.
To apply this technique, the speaker pauses periodically and notes his own physical sensations while glancing at the listener.
Such perceptiveness is possible because we humans have mirror neurons that allow us to feel what others are feeling.
If a film shows a person's hand being crushed in a machine, the audience will normally experience a physical reaction in their own hands.
Likewise, spectators at a sporting event feel shadow sensations in their own bodies as they watch the movements of the athletes, especially if the spectators have memories of once having actually played the game.
Once the speaker begins to notice sensations reflecting the listener's posture, the speaker can practice keeping partial awareness of the sensations even while focusing primarily on the message.
Mindful awareness is not the same as concentration. Concentration involves holding attention in a small, fixed area, whereas mindful awareness usually involves paying glancing attention to many broader aspects of the situation, all at once.
How it feels from inside: There she goes again, on another tangent. I need to break in. If we go on this tangent, I won't get a chance to make my point.
How it feels from outside: He keeps interrupting. I don't think he's hearing what I'm saying. We could settle this matter faster if he would just relax and listen. His agenda isn't the only one here.
A common problem in communication is that participants become so focused on a desired outcome for the conversation that they partially lose consciousness.
Fixation on outcome can make participants blind to context, surroundings, and the nuances of personal interaction.
The fixation is often driven by communication anxiety. In the example case above, the "inside" participant fears that if he loses his opportunity to control the topic, the conversation will fail to achieve what he wishes.
This type of communication anxiety can be difficult to address. Its roots often lie in deeper fears.
One way to approach this is to shift attention momentarily away from the object of concern and place it instead on the effects that the concern is having on the mind and body.
In the example, the listener could pay attention to how his fear about losing his chance to speak is expressed as a knot in his stomach or a tension in his hands or groin. This often leads to a spontaneous relaxation response in the body.
An interesting characteristic of fear is that it induces attention to focus an what the person regards to be the cause of the fear, rather than on the experience of the fear itself.
How it feels from inside: I already know what she's going to say next and I've got a more important point to make. She should stop talking about this so we can get to my topic. I can't wait for this to finish.
How it feels from outside: He keeps fidgeting. I have a feeling he's not paying attention to what I'm saying. He's in such a hurry, but he would save time if he listened for a moment.
The listener is feeling impatient. The speaking style of the conversation partner may seem intolerably slow and tedious from the perspective of the impatient listener.
The listener's impatience interferes with his ability to pay full attention to his speaking partner. His desire to take a turn speaking is much stronger than his desire to listen.
Underlying the listener's impatience is his anxiety that the flow of the conversation will deny him a chance to make his point. He fears an unsatisfactory outcome for the exchange.
In cases such as this the listener's communication anxiety will often inadvertently interfere with the listener's own interests.
For example, the listener's impatience may trigger the speaker's own communication anxiety, if the speaker feels that the listener's lack of attention may lead to a misunderstanding.
The speaker may then talk in a style that is more meticulous or indirect, perhaps subconsciously, causing the listener to become even more impatient.
Communication would be improved if the listener could become mindful of his own feelings of impatience.
The listener's communication anxiety provokes emotional and even physical discomfort.
In attempting to alleviate that discomfort, his attention fixes on what he perceives to be causing that anxiety - his partner's slow and tedious speaking style. As a result, his own impatience goes largely unfelt.
Unfelt or partially felt emotions can affect a communicator's behavior and quality of attention. Mindful awareness can help bring otherwise unnoticed emotions more fully into consciousness.
In this example case, by choosing to focus some of his attention on the sensations of his breathing, the listener may experience a relaxation response.
He may also catch a glimpse of the tension in his body, becoming aware of the physical sensations produced by his impatience.
Starting with awareness of breathing, the listener brings attention to sensations in the belly, hands, and neck - sensations such as tension, burning, tingling, or jumpiness.
The body provides a window of awareness on emotions, giving the listener a means to become more fully conscious of otherwise hidden emotions.
How it feels from inside: This conversation is pointless. As far as I'm concerned the case is closed and we're wasting time talking about it. I've already made up my mind about this.
How it feels from outside: She's being awfully closed-minded about this. She seems to think she knows all about what I'm talking about, but she actually doesn't. There have been misunderstandings in the past.
One of the most damaging effects of communication anxiety is that anxious communicators are usually less willing to venture away from their own perspectives during a conversation.
The result is that anxious communicators are less likely to explore viewpoints presented by their partners.
In a healthy, vigorous conversation, the communicating partners can risk crossing over to explore the point of view of the other.
A fruitful exchange involves temporarily suspending one's prior assumptions and sampling the other's perspective by adopting it for a moment to see where it might lead.
A person suffering communication anxiety does not wish to risk an unfavorable outcome from the conversation by entertaining the partner's perspective.
In the example case above, the listener fears that if she allows the speaker to go on presenting an alternate viewpoint, the conversation will drift into territory that makes her uncomfortable. She rationalizes this as wishing to avoid wasting time.
By carefully and non-judgmentally observing sensations in his or her own mind and body, the subject in each of those example cases can gain useful insight into how he or she is interacting with the interlocutor.
Those insights can address not only the pragmatics - the conversational dynamics - of the exchange, but also to some extent the subject's own thoughts and emotions.
Through mindful awareness, participants in a conversation can act more autonomously - less driven by their own communication anxieties or the urges underlying those anxieties.
That autonomy gives space for greater mental agility and for deeper engagement with the perspectives of other participants in the conversation - the essence of effective listening.
Michael Webb, September, 2008
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