Active Listening: Why is it so Difficult?


Active Listening: Why is it so Difficult?  By Gene Wheeler

Active listening is a critical skill for leaders, coaches, supervisors and necessary for good relationships with people in general.  So, why is listening so difficult?  Let’s start with a definition of active listening.

Active Listening Defined

Active listening is defined as the ability to focus completely on what the person is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the person’s desires, and to support self-expression.

The Father of Effective Listening

Dr. Ralph Nichols, known as the father of effective listening, stated there is a compelling need more than ever around the globe for mankind to understand each other.  “We need to enhance listening in every corner and quarter of society.  As professionals in the field of listening, we will impact future listeners by impacting the listening of present leaders in every walk of life. If we fail, future listeners will listen like past listeners, and that will not be good enough.”

Active Listening is Difficult

We think four times faster than a person can speak, which means we need only about 25% of our mental capacity to hear the content of the message.  We have 75% left, so our mind wanders.  But the biggest difficulty in listening is NOISE.  Let’s explore the topic of noise as it relates to effective communication.

Interference or Noise?

The term, noise, as a concept in communication was first introduced in the 1940s by Shannon and Weaver.  Noise refers to anything introduced into the message that is not included in it by [the] sender.  The focus then was mechanical noise, such as the distortion of a voice on the telephone or interference with a television signal producing snow on the TV screen.  In the succeeding decades, other kinds of noise have been recognized as potentially important problems for communication.

Communication Noise refers to influences on effective communication that distorts the interpretation of the conversation. Communication noise can have a profound impact on our interactions with others. Dan Rothwell breaks down the forms of communication noise into psychological, physical, physiological and semantic noise.  Let’s look at each of these types of noise.

Psychological Noise occurs when the speaker experiences mental interference, such as wandering thoughts, preoccupation with personal problems, or like or dislike for the other person. Preconceived ideas and sarcasm are also a part of psychological noise.  We know what wandering thoughts are, but what about preconceived ideas and sarcasm? Preconceived ideas are when you think you already know something and it is difficult to hear a new perspective.  Preconceived ideas include biases, prejudices, presuppositions, and closed-mindedness.  Sarcasm can surface when someone disagrees with what you have said, which can cause you to check out mentally and not pay close attention to what they are saying.

Physical Noise consists of various sounds in an environment that interferes with a source’s ability to hear such as construction noise, planes flying overhead, or loud music.

Semantic Noise occurs when a receiver experiences confusion over the meaning of a word.  It is difficult for the listener to continue to listen if they are confused with what was said earlier.  This can occur because of the ambiguities inherent in all languages and cultures.  The use of acronyms, jargon, technical terms, speaking too fast or too slow and not speaking to the knowledge and experience level of the receiver can cause semantic noise.

How Can Leaders and Coaches Be Highly Skilled Listeners?

First, let me say that you don’t have to be problem free to be a skilled listener but you do need to rewire yourself to listen, and be more interested than interesting. The following are some tips on how to become a better listener:

  • Control your thoughts and emotions enough to focus entirely on the other person
  • Disengage from your own circumstances
  • Listen without judging
  • Be fully present
  • Be alert for what is not being said
  • Match your pace to the person’s pace
  • Remember questions do not need to fall on top of one another

Rewire Yourself to Listen

  • Move from crisis mode to calm
  • Get yourself under control first, your thoughts and emotions
  • Deal with the world as it is, rather than the world as you are convinced it should be
  • Get rid of what you think you already know about the person or the situation. First impressions and preconceived opinions color your perception of everything the person says
  • Examine your filters–gender, age, ethnicity, education, emotions–analyze ideas, perceptions against reality

Be more interested than interesting

  • Ask questions that demonstrate that you want to know more – How did you get into what you do?  What do you like most about it?
  • What are you trying to accomplish that’s important to you in your career? If you were able to accomplish that, what would that enable you to do?
  • Once the person begins to respond with enthusiasm, shut up and listen, and then listen some more
  • Don’t launch into a speech about a similar experience of your own

In summary

Most of us are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful 75% of the time when we should be listening.  We hear 125 – 250 words a minute, but we think at 1000 words a minute. Once we listen to someone, we only recall about 50% of what they said.  Long term, we only remember 20% of what we hear.

Over 35 business studies indicate that the top skill for successful business is listening.  Listen to understand, not to respond, and remember that silence is golden, and sometimes you should just be quiet. Maintain eye contact when possible.  Ask questions to ensure that you understand, and let people finish the thought before you jump in.  Use good communication tools; summarize, paraphrase, mirror for clarity and understanding.

Finally, encourage, accept, explore, and reinforce feelings, perceptions, concerns, and beliefs. Build on ideas and suggestions, and in some cases just let the person vent and release emotions.

Author:  Gene Wheeler is a Consultant, Educator, Public Speaker, Executive Coach, and Facilitator for Executive Coaching for the Institute of Organization Development.  He has been an adult educator and Human Resource Consultant for over 30 years, helping individuals, teams and organizations grow and strengthen human capital through recruiting, 360° and psychometric assessments, competency-based leadership development training programs, talent management, and executive coaching. He was also the director of the Air Force Leadership School.

If you want to increase your listening skills, build confidence as an executive coach, and learn a step by step strategic approach to building a coaching culture for your organization, then sign up for our eight-month Executive Coaching Certification Program at


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