Obstacles to Listening

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In this modern, digital age, listening is quickly becoming a dying art. With our eyes and thumbs constantly distracted by texts, emails, phone calls, messages and social media, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to simply listen. Despite the challenges of listening in a modern world, most of us still believe we’re actually good listeners. In a recent survey by Accenture, nearly every respondent believed themselves to be a good listener—even though two–thirds also admitted genuinely listening has become difficult in a digital age.
This seeming contradiction—the alleged conviction that you’re a good listener, despite your acknowledgement that listening well is a near–impossible task—is progressively problematic in retail environments, especially from a leadership perspective.

One of the most unwavering fundamentals of successful leadership is being a great listener. When you listen well, others listen to you. By listening attentively, you not only prove that you care about what that person has to say, you demonstrate your devotion to your job and the task at hand—another key to leadership.

Even if you can admit that you’re not the best listener, how do you get better? The first step is to understand the obstacles to good listening. We can guaranteed that you’ve been guilty of one—or all—of these poor listening habits:

1. Multi–tasking.
Multi–tasking may be the main culprit in the war on listening in a digital age. We all seem to believe that only we are capable of multi–tasking and listening well; we’ll check our email during conference calls, reply to a text during a business meeting, or even glance periodically at our phones during a one–on–one with an employee; every one of these activities is distracting you from listening well, and if you’re face to face with someone, it’s also a rude act that shows the speaker you don’t care about what they have to say. It’s scientifically proven that multi–tasking reduces our effectiveness in all tasks, including listening. Put down the device and distractions and listening will come more easily.
2. Interrupting.
When you’re listening to a story, it’s almost a natural instinct to voice your own opinions or similar experiences. Maybe you want to prove that you’re listening by responding; maybe you’re afraid you’ll forget your idea if you don’t voice it right away; maybe you’re trying to connect with the speaker; or maybe you simply don’t care about the subject and you want to redirect the conversation and take control. Regardless of your reason for interrupting, it’s one of the easiest ways to stop listening. To the speaker, it’s obvious that you think what you have to say is more important than their own speech.
3. Interpreting and Assumptions.
Quite often, we misinterpret what someone’s saying simply because we expect them to say something else. From the first word we stop listening because we assume we know what’s coming next, with the end effect of completely misinterpreting the entire conversation. Rather than assume you know what’s coming next, genuinely pause and listen to the real words being said. It’s easy to hear things through our own, personal filters, but we get the most from a conversation if we put that filter aside.
4. Body Language & Response.
We all know that our body language is an important communication tool when we’re speaking, but sometimes we forget that it’s just as important when we’re listening. Fidgeting, indirect eye contact, and similar signals show the speaker that we’re not listening well. Similarly, if your response to their words is completely off topic or unrelated, it’s also a giveaway that you’re not listening. Actively listen and direct all your attention to the speaker—both physically and mentally.
5. Internal Monologue.
Even if you try your hardest to devote yourself to listening, there can be an additional hurdle to overcome: your own internal monologue. The first step to quieting your own thoughts is to be aware of them. Acknowledge that you’re listening to yourself, rather than the conversation, and purposefully choose to direct your attention to the conversation.

Once you understand these obstacles to listening, you’ll begin to recognize your own bad listening habits, at which point you can overhaul your listening style. Listening intentionally and focusing on the conversation will earn you the respect and attention you deserve.

We know that even once you recognize these obstacles to listening, sometimes it’s truly impossible to concentrate on the conversation. Perhaps you’re in the middle of a big project, or you’re preparing for an important meeting—regardless of the situation, you know you won’t be able to concentrate and listen well. Rather than distractedly half–listening, offer an alternative time to meet and discuss this topic; by deliberately rescheduling the conversation for later, you prove that you genuinely want to listen and consider what they have to say.

Listening well is one of the most important skills a well–developed leader can have in their arsenal. When you listen to your employees, you prove that you genuinely care about their opinions, their jobs, and your store. This skill can be transferred elsewhere, as well—in fact, it’s one of the keys to excellent salesmanship. By recognizing and acknowledging your own obstacles to listening, you’ve already improved as a listener. There’s no such thing as a perfect listener, or a perfect leader, but you can choose to make every day, and every conversation, a little better than the last.


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