5.4 Barriers to Effective Listening

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss environmental and physical barriers to effective listening.
  • Explain how cognitive and personal factors can present barriers to effective listening.
  • Describe poor listening practices.

Barriers to effective listening are present at every stage of the listening process (Hargie, 2011). At the receiving stage, noise can block or distort incoming stimuli. At the interpreting stage, complex or abstract information may be challenging to relate to previous experiences, making it difficult to understand. At the recalling stage, natural limits to our memory and challenges to concentration can interfere with remembering. At the evaluating stage, personal biases and prejudices can lead us to block people out or assume we know what they will say. A lack of paraphrasing and questioning skills at the responding stage can lead to misunderstanding. The following section will explore how environmental, physical, cognitive, and personal factors and poor listening practices present barriers to effective listening.

Environmental and Physical Barriers to Listening

Environmental factors such as lighting, temperature, and furniture affect our listening ability. A room that is too dark can make us sleepy, just as a room that is too warm or cool can raise awareness of our physical discomfort to the point that it is distracting. Some seating arrangements facilitate listening, while others separate people. In general, listening is easier when listeners can make direct eye contact with and are in close physical proximity to a speaker. While the ability to effectively see and hear a person increases people’s confidence in their abilities to receive and process information, eye contact and physical proximity can still be affected by noise. As we learned earlier, environmental noises such as a whirring air conditioner, barking dogs, or a ringing fire alarm can interfere with listening despite direct lines of sight and well-placed furniture.

Physiologic noise, like environmental noise, can interfere with our ability to process incoming information. This is a physical barrier to effective listening because it emanates from our physical body. Physiologic noise stems from a physical illness, injury, or bodily stress. Ailments such as a cold, a broken leg, a headache, or a poison ivy outbreak can range from annoying to unbearably painful and impact our listening relative to their intensity. Another type of noise, psychological noise, bridges physical and cognitive barriers to effective listening. Psychological noise, or noise stemming from our psychological states, including moods and arousal, can facilitate or impede listening. Any mood or state of arousal (positive or negative) that is too far above or below our regular baseline creates a barrier to message reception and processing. The generally positive emotional state of being in love can be just as much of a barrier as feeling hatred. Excited arousal can distract as much as anxious arousal. Stress about upcoming events ranging from losing a job to having surgery to wondering what to eat for lunch, can overshadow incoming messages. While we will explore cognitive barriers to effective listening more in the next section, psychological noise is relevant here, given that the body and mind are not entirely separate. They can interact in ways that further interfere with listening. Fatigue, for example, is usually a combination of psychological and physiological stresses that manifests as stress (psychological noise) and weakness, sleepiness, and tiredness (physiological noise). Additionally, mental anxiety (psychological noise) can manifest in our bodies through trembling, sweating, blushing, or even breaking out in rashes.

Cognitive and Personal Barriers to Listening

Aside from the barriers to effective listening that may be present in the environment or emanate from our bodies, cognitive limits, a lack of listening preparation, difficult or disorganized messages, and prejudices can interfere with listening. Whether you call it multitasking, daydreaming, glazing over, or drifting off, we all cognitively process other things while receiving messages. If you think of your listening mind as a wall of 10 televisions, you may notice that in some situations, 5 of the 10 televisions are tuned into one channel. If that one channel is a lecture your professor gives, you exert about half of your cognitive processing abilities on one message. In another situation, all 10 televisions may be on different channels. The fact that we can process more than one thing simultaneously offers advantages and disadvantages. But unless we can better understand how our cognitive capacities and personal preferences affect our listening, we will likely experience more barriers than benefits.

Difference Between Speech and Thought Rate

Our ability to process more information than that which comes from one speaker or source creates a barrier to effective listening. While people speak at a rate of 125 to 175 words per minute, we can process between 400 and 800 words per minute (Hargie, 2011). This gap between speech rate and thought rate allows us to side-process any thoughts that can distract from a more important message. Because of this gap, giving one message our “undivided attention” is impossible, but we can occupy other channels with thoughts related to the central message. For example, using some of your extra cognitive processing abilities to repeat, rephrase, or reorganize messages coming from one source allows you to use that extra capacity in a way that reinforces the primary message.

The difference between speech and thought rate connects with personal barriers to listening since personal concerns are often the focus of competing thoughts that can take us away from listening and challenge our ability to concentrate on others’ messages.  For example, when our self-consciousness is raised, we may be too busy thinking about how we look, how we are sitting, or what others think of us to be attentive to an incoming message. Additionally, we are often challenged when presented with messages that we do not find personally relevant. In general, we employ selective attention, which refers to our tendency to focus on the messages that benefit us somehow and filter others out. So the student checking their Instagram or Twitter feed during class may suddenly switch their attention back to the previously ignored professor when the following words are spoken: “This will be important for the exam.”


Image of students in a classroom with a teacher at the front of the room. Some students are not paying attention ot the teacher.
Figure 5.4.1 Drifting attention is a common barrier to listening.

Another common barrier to effective listening stems from the speech and thought rate divide in response preparation. Response preparation refers to our tendency to rehearse what we will say next while a speaker is still talking. Rehearsal of what we will say once a speaker’s turn is an important part of the listening process between the recalling and evaluation or the evaluation and responding stage. Rehearsal becomes problematic when response preparation begins as someone is receiving a message and has not had time to engage in interpretation or recall. In this sense, we are listening with the goal of responding instead of with the goal of understanding, which can lead us to miss important information that could influence our response.

Lack of Listening Preparation

Another barrier to effective listening is a general lack of listening preparation. Unfortunately, most people have never received any formal training or instruction related to listening. Although some think listening skills develop over time, competent listening is difficult and enhancing listening skills takes concerted effort. Even when listening education is available, people do not embrace it as readily as they do opportunities to enhance their speaking skills. Often students and teachers approach the listening part of a communications course less enthusiastically than others. Listening is often viewed as an annoyance, a chore, or ignored or minimized as part of the communication process. In addition, our individualistic society values speaking more than listening, as the speakers are sometimes literally in the spotlight. Although listening competence is a crucial part of social interaction, and many value others we perceive as “good listeners,” listening does not get the same kind of praise, attention, instruction, or credibility as speaking. Teachers, parents, and relational partners explicitly convey the importance of listening through statements like “You better listen to me,” “Listen closely,” and “Listen up.” Still, these demands are rarely paired with concrete instruction.

Poor Messages or Speakers

Poor messages or speakers also present a barrier to effective listening. Sometimes our trouble listening originates in the sender. In terms of message construction, poorly structured messages or messages that are too vague, jargon-filled, or simple can present listening difficulties. Regarding speakers’ delivery, verbal fillers, monotone voices, distracting movements, or a dishevelled appearance can cognitively inhibit our ability to process a message (Hargie, 2011). As we will learn, speakers can employ particular strategies to create listenable messages that take some of the burdens of the listener by tailoring a message to be heard and processed easily. Listening also becomes complicated when a speaker tries to present too much information. Information overload is a common barrier to effective listening that good speakers can help mitigate by building redundancy into their speeches and providing concrete examples of new information to help audience members interpret and understand the key ideas.


Oscar Wilde said, “Listening is a very dangerous thing. If one listens, one may be convinced.” Unfortunately, some of our default ways of processing information and perceiving others lead us to rigid thinking. When we engage in prejudiced listening, we usually try to preserve our ways of thinking and avoid being convinced of something different. This type of prejudice is a barrier to effective listening because when we prejudge a person based on their identity or ideas, we usually stop listening actively and ethically.

We exhibit prejudice in our listening in several ways, some more obvious than others. For example, we may claim to be in a hurry and only selectively address the parts of a message that we agree with, or that are not controversial. We may also operate from a state of denial where we avoid a subject or person altogether so that our views are not challenged. Prejudices based on a person’s identity, such as race, age, occupation, or appearance, may lead us to assume that we know what they will say, essentially closing down the listening process. Keeping an open mind and checking perception can help us identify prejudiced listening and shift into more competent listening practices.

Technology, Multitasking, and Listening

Do you like to listen to music while you do homework? Do you clean your apartment while talking to your mom on the phone? Your answers to these questions will point to your preferences for multitasking. Do you text in class? Suppose you answered “yes” to most of these. In that case, you align with the general practices of the “net generation” of digital users for whom multitasking, especially with various forms of media, is a way of life. Multitasking is a concept that has been around for a while and emerged along with the increasing expectation that we will fill multiple role demands throughout the day. Multitasking can be relatively straightforward and beneficial — for example, if we listen to motivating music while working out. But multitasking can be inefficient, especially when one or more of our concurrent tasks are complex or unfamiliar to us (Bardhi et al., 2010, p. 318).

Media multitasking refers explicitly to using multiple forms of media simultaneously, which can positively and negatively affect listening (Bardhi et al., 2010, p. 318). The adverse effects of media multitasking have received much attention in recent years as people question the decreasing attention span within our society. Media multitasking may promote inefficiency because it can lead to distractions and plays a prominent role for many in procrastination. The numerous media engagement options can also lead to chaos as our attention is pulled in multiple directions, creating a general sense of disorder. And many of us feel a sense of enslavement when we media multitask, as we feel like we cannot live without certain personal media outlets.

Media multitasking can also give people a sense of control, as they use multiple technologies to access various information points to solve a problem or complete a task. An employee may be able to use their iPad to look up information needed to address a concern raised during a business meeting. They could then email a link to the presenter, who could share it with the room through his laptop and a projector. Media multitasking can also increase efficiency, as people can carry out tasks faster. The links to videos and online articles in course resources allow readers to quickly access additional information about a particular subject to prepare for a presentation or complete a paper assignment. Media multitasking can also increase engagement. Aside from just reading material in a textbook, students can now access information through an author’s blog or social media accounts.

Media multitasking can produce a productive experience, but does it?  Media multitasking can interfere with listening at multiple stages of the process. McCoy (2016) showed that laptop use interfered with receiving, as students using them reported that they paid less attention to the class lectures. This is because students used the laptops for purposes other than taking notes or exploring class content. Of the students using laptops, 92 % checked email during lectures or used instant messaging. Furthermore, undergraduate students reported they used digital devices for non-academic purposes on average 11.7 times per day, accounting for 21% of class time (McCoy, 2016). Students using laptops also had difficulty with the interpretation stage of listening, as they found less clarity in the parts of the lecture they heard and did not understand the course material as much as students who did not use a laptop. Difficulties with receiving and interpreting create issues with recall that can lead to lower academic performance. Laptop use also negatively affected the listening abilities of students not using laptops. These students reported that they were distracted, as their attention was drawn to the laptop screens of other students.

Poor Listening Practices

The previously discussed barriers to effective listening may be difficult to overcome because they are at least partially beyond our control. Physical barriers, cognitive limitations, and perceptual biases exist within all of us. It is more realistic to believe that we can become more conscious of and lessen them than to believe that we can eliminate them. Other “bad listening” practices may be habitual but are easier to address with concerted effort. These bad listening practices include interrupting, distorted listening, eavesdropping, aggressive listening, narcissistic listening, and pseudo-listening.


Conversations unfold as a series of turns, and turn-taking is negotiated through a complex set of verbal and nonverbal signals that are consciously and subconsciously received. Conversational turn-taking has been likened to a dance where communicators try to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. An interruption is one of the most frequent glitches in the turn-taking process, but not all interruptions are considered “bad listening.” An interruption could be unintentional if we misread cues and think a person is finished speaking, only to have them start up again at the same time we do. Sometimes interruptions are more like overlapping statements that show support (e.g., “I think so too”) or excitement about the conversation (e.g., “That is so cool!”). As we learned earlier, back-channel cues like “uh-huh” also overlap with a speaker’s message. We may also interrupt out of necessity if we are engaged in a task with the other person and need to offer directions (e.g., “Turn left here.”), instructions (e.g., “Will you whisk the eggs?”), or warnings (e.g., “Look out behind you!”). These interruptions are not typically thought of as evidence of bad listening unless they distract the speaker or are unnecessary.

Unintentional interruptions can still be bad listening if they result from mindless communication. As we have already learned, the intended meaning is less important than the meaning generated in the interaction. So if you interrupt unintentionally, but because you were only half-listening, the interruption is still evidence of bad listening. The speaker may form a negative impression of you that can not just be erased by noting that you did not “mean to interrupt.” Interruptions can also be used as an attempt to dominate a conversation. A person engaging in this interruption may lead the other communicator to try to assert dominance, too, resulting in a competition to see who can hold the floor the longest or the most often. More than likely, though, the speaker will form a negative impression of the interrupter and may withdraw from the conversation.

Distorted Listening

Distorted listening occurs in many ways. Sometimes we get the order of information wrong, which can have a relatively small negative effect if we are casually recounting a story, an annoying effect if we forget the order of turns (left, right, left or right, left, right?) in our driving directions, or a very negative effect if we recount the events of a crime out of order, which leads to faulty testimony at a criminal trial.

Rationalization is another form of distorted listening through which we adapt, edit, or skew incoming information to fit our existing schemata. We may, for example, reattribute the cause of something to suit our beliefs better. If a professor is explaining to a student why they earned a “D” on a final paper, the student could reattribute the cause from “I did not follow the paper guidelines” to “this professor is an unfair grader.” Sometimes we change the words we hear to make them better fit what we are thinking. This can easily happen if we join a conversation late, overhear part of a conversation, or are lazy listeners and miss important setup and context. Passing distorted information can lead to negative consequences ranging from starting a false rumour about someone to passing along incorrect medical instructions from one healthcare provider to the next (Hargie, 2011). Lastly, adding material to a message is distorted listening that goes against our normal pattern of listening, which involves reducing the amount of information and losing some meaning as we take it in. The metaphor of “weaving a tall tale” is related to distorting through addition, as inaccurate or fabricated information is added to what was heard. The addition of material is also a common feature of gossip.


Eavesdropping is a lousy listening practice that involves a calculated and planned attempt to listen to a conversation secretly. There is a difference between eavesdropping on and overhearing a conversation. Many, if not most, of the interactions we have throughout the day occur in the presence of other people. However, given that our perceptual fields are usually focused on the interaction, we are often unaware of the other people around us or do not think they could listen to our conversation. We usually only become aware that others can listen when discussing something private.


Image of a man holding a glass to the wall to try to listen to what is being said in another room.
Figure 5.4.2. Eavesdropping entails intentionally listening in on a conversation you are not a part of.

People eavesdrop for a variety of reasons. People might think another person is talking about them behind their back or that someone is engaged in illegal or unethical behaviour. Sometimes people eavesdrop to feed the gossip mill or out of curiosity (McCornack, 2007). In any case, this type of listening is considered harmful because it violates people’s privacy. Consequences for eavesdropping may include an angry reaction if caught, damage to interpersonal relationships, or being perceived as dishonest and sneaky. Additionally, eavesdropping may lead people to find out information that is personally upsetting or hurtful, especially if the point of eavesdropping is to find out what people are saying behind their backs.

Aggressive Listening

Aggressive listening is a bad practice in which people focus on attacking something a speaker says (McCornack, 2007). Aggressive listeners like to ambush speakers to critique their ideas, personality, or other characteristics. Such behaviour often results from built-up frustration within an interpersonal relationship. Unfortunately, the more two people know each other, the better they will be at aggressive listening. Take the following exchange between long-term partners:

I have considered making a salsa garden next to the side porch. I think it would be really good to be able to go pick our tomatoes and peppers and cilantro to make homemade salsa.

Really? When are you thinking about doing it?

Next weekend. Would you like to help?

I will not hold my breath. Whenever you come up with some “idea of the week,” you get excited about it. But do you ever follow through with it? No. We will eat salsa from the store next year, just like now.


Although Summer’s initial response to Deb’s idea is seemingly appropriate and optimistic, she asks the question because she has already planned her upcoming aggressive response. Summer’s aggression toward Deb is not about a salsa garden but about a building frustration with what Summer perceives as Deb’s lack of follow-through on her ideas. Aside from engaging in aggressive listening because of built-up frustration, such listeners may also attack others’ ideas or mock their feelings because of their low self-esteem and insecurities.

Narcissistic Listening

Narcissistic listening is a form of self-centred and self-absorbed listening in which listeners try to make the interaction about them (McCornack, 2007). Narcissistic listeners redirect the focus of the conversation to them by interrupting or changing the topic. When the focus is taken off them, narcissistic listeners may give negative feedback by pouting, criticizing the speaker or topic negatively, or ignoring the speaker. A common sign of narcissistic listening is the combination of a “pivot,” when listeners shift the focus back to them, and “one-upping,” when listeners try to top what previous speakers have said during the interaction. You can see this narcissistic combination in the following interaction:

My boss has been unfair to me lately and has not let me work around my class schedule. I think I may have to quit, but I do not know where I will find another job.

Why are you complaining? I have been working with the same stupid boss for two years. He does not even care that I am trying to get my degree and work simultaneously. And you should hear how he talks to me in front of the other employees.


Narcissistic listeners, given their self-centeredness, may fool themselves into thinking they are listening and actively contributing to a conversation. We all are urged to share our stories during interactions because other people’s communication triggers our memories about related experiences. It is generally more competent to withhold sharing our stories until the other person can speak and we have given the appropriate support and response. But we all shift the focus of a conversation back to us occasionally, either because we do not know another way to respond or because we are making an attempt at empathy. Matching stories is not considered empathetic listening, but occasionally doing it does not make you a narcissistic listener.


Do you have a friend or family member who repeats stories? If so, you have probably engaged in pseudo-listening as a politeness strategy. Pseudo-listening is behaving like you are paying attention to a speaker when you are not (McCornack, 2007). Outwardly visible signals of attentiveness are an essential part of the listening process, but when they are just an “act,” the pseudo-listener engages in poor listening behaviours. They are not going through the stages of the listening process and will likely be unable to recall the speaker’s message or offer a competent and relevant response. Although it is a poor listening practice, we all understandably engage in pseudo-listening occasionally. Suppose a friend needs someone to talk to, but you are tired or experiencing another barrier to effective listening. In that case, it may be worth engaging in pseudo-listening as a relational maintenance strategy, especially if the friend needs a sounding board and is not expecting advice or guidance. We may also pseudo-listen to a romantic partner or a grandfather’s story for the fifteenth time to prevent hurting their feelings. We should avoid pseudo-listening when possible and avoid making it a listening habit. Although we may get away with it in some situations, each time, we risk being “found out,” which could have negative relational consequences.

Key Takeaways

  • Environmental and physical barriers to effective listening include furniture placement; environmental noise, such as sounds of traffic or people talking; physiological noise, such as a sinus headache or hunger; and psychological noise, such as stress or anger.
  • Cognitive barriers to effective listening include the difference between speech and thought rate that allows us “extra room” to think about other things while someone is talking and limitations in our ability or willingness to concentrate or pay attention. Personal barriers to effective listening include a lack of listening preparation, poorly structured or poorly delivered messages, and prejudice.
  • There are several poor listening practices that we should avoid, as they do not facilitate effective listening:

    • Interruptions that are unintentional or serve an essential or helpful purpose are not considered bad listening. When interrupting becomes a habit or is used to dominate a conversation, it is a barrier to effective listening.
    • Distorted listening occurs when we incorrectly recall information, skew information to fit our expectations or existing schemata or add material to embellish or change information.
    • Eavesdropping is a planned attempt to secretly listen to a conversation, violating the speakers’ privacy.
    • Aggressive listening is a bad practice in which people pay attention to a speaker to attack something they say.
    • Narcissistic listening is self-centred and self-absorbed listening in which listeners try to make the interaction about them by interrupting, changing the subject, or drawing attention away from others.
    • Pseudo-listening is “fake listening.” People behave as though they are paying attention and listening when they are not.


  1. We are capable of thinking faster than the speed at which the average person speaks, which allows us some room to put mental faculties toward things other than listening. What typically makes your mind wander?
  2. What are the consequences of ineffective listening in any healthcare profession?
  3. Of the poor listening practices listed, which do you use the most? Why do you think you use this one more than the others? What can you do to help prevent or lessen this barrier?


Bardhi, F., Rohm, A. J., & Sultan, F. (2010). Tuning in and tuning out: Media multitasking among young consumers. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 9(4), 316–332. https://doi.org/10.1002/cb.320

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed.). Routledge.

McCornack, S. (2007). Reflect and relate: An introduction to interpersonal communication. Bedford/St Martin’s.

McCoy, B. R. (2016). Digital distractions in the classroom phase II: Student classroom use of digital devices for non-class related purposes. Digital Commons/University of Nebraska.

Image Attributions

Figure 5.4.1. WMRS Educational program by Marko KZM. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Figure 5.4.2. Eavesdropping by A. Strakey. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Maricopa Community College. (n.d.). Exploring relationship dynamics. Maricopa Open Digital Press. https://open.maricopa.edu/com110/

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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