Barriers to Active Listening

The speaker-listener connection is very complex and many things can interrupt the process. One of the very first barriers is the misconception that listening and hearing are synonymous. In general, hearing is an automatic, passive process. Listening, on the other hand, is an active process of making meaning. 

One area that students face is to understand themselves as learners and listeners. How aware are they of their active listening skills and habits? What effective habits do they have? What ineffective habits have they formed? What goals could they set for themselves as listeners? 

A common barrier is that students do not have a lot of practice listening to and learning from each other. The expectation in many classes is that the teacher will disseminate the necessary information—especially the important information that will be assessed. As far as students are concerned, they rarely need to listen to each other, except in situations like Socratic Seminar.

A major active listening barrier in the classroom is the environment created by the teacher. Many teachers, for instance, have the habit of repeating what students say. They may add to what was said, simplify it, connect it to the textbook, and so on. Maria Nichols, author of Comprehension Through Conversation, writes of one example where “the teacher is repeating everything the child says, and in a clearer, more concise manner. Why would any member of the learning community listen with intent to a peer, putting in the effort to understand their thinking, if the teacher is going to repeat and clarify? A smart learner would wait for the teacher!” In environments like Socratic Seminar, we must get the students to listen more to each other, and pass things like paraphrasing and summarizing over to the students as soon as possible.

Another common barrier to effective listening occurs when students “hold” what they want to say so firmly in their minds that they are unable to listen. They’re so eager to share what they want to say that they leave no room in their minds to listen. This is why students are encouraged to not raise their hands in Socratic Seminars. This is easily seen in many classes when students repeat, sometimes nearly verbatim, what another student just said. Sometimes this occurs when students respond prematurely to the first part of someone’s communication that makes a tangible point, known as listening to speak or “listening with your mouth open.”

Here are some additional barriers that could be addressed:

  • Paying attention to mannerisms instead of message (how versus what).
  • Lack of purpose in listening.
  • Paying attention to speaker’s looks, clothes or style.
  • Allowing one’s mind to wander or be distracted.
  • Overly reacting to charged words (barrier words) or phrases.
  • An initial lack of interest or care.
  • Predisposition or prejudice.
  • Lack of prior knowledge and/or context.
  • Second language learning.
  • Lack of understanding non-verbal cues and signals.
  • Speaker’s lack of awareness.
  • Distracting environment.
  • Trying to multitask.
  • Peer Pressure.
  • Poor memory and/or note-taking.
  • Poor executive functioning skills.
  • Wanting to say something about yourself.
  • Wanting to give advice or solve problems.
  • Listener is tired, hungry, sick, etc.
  • Listeners do not embrace active silence.

One way to deal with these barriers is to brainstorm a list of possibilities with your students. Have each of them identify a listening barrier that could negatively affect their listening. This could either be for a specific class period (that loud scraping sound is bothering me) or for longer time frames (when people are dressed like that, I don’t trust what they say). Once they have identified something that could negatively affect their listening, they can make a plan to solve the problem. Solutions can be as simple as changing seats or as complex as seriously committing to whole-body listening. This can make an excellent pre-seminar activity!


*Nichols, M. (2006). Comprehension through conversation: the power of purposeful talk in the reading workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.



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Active Listening, barriers

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