Top 10 Obstacles to Listening

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

Listening is much more than just a passive process of receiving information – it is active. When we choose to listen actively, we seek to fully understand what it is that the other person is thinking and feeling.  We are willing to set aside our personal defenses and truly listen to what is being said.  We refrain from jumping in with our own point of view or defending our “side.”  When we listen effectively, we are open to asking questions when we are unclear about what is being said.  We are willing to admit when we do not understand something, because our true intention is understand the other person.

Listening Blocks

Sometimes even the best of intentions to actively listen are sabotaged when use the following listening blocks, adapted from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

1. Mind reading: Assuming that we already know what it is that the other person thinks or feels, without asking them.

2. Rehearsing: Planning out what we want to say next in our minds, missing what is being said now.

3. Filtering: Listening only to that which we believe to be important or relevant to us personally, missing the full context or what is important to them.

4. Judging: Evaluating what the other person is saying without really attempting to empathize, or understand how they view the world.

5. Daydreaming: Getting lost in our own thoughts/memories while someone is talking to us now.

6. Advising: Jumping to give suggestions or “solutions” rather than simply listening and understanding.

7. Sparring: Invalidating the other person by being argumentative or debating – looking to fight or compete in some way rather than listen.

8. Being right: Ignoring or resisting any evidence that we are wrong and should change – being defensive.

9. Derailing: Immediately changing the subject when something feels threatening or upsetting – “shutting down” what is being said.

10. Placating: Being quick to agree with whatever is being said to end the discussion without really listening to feelings or concerns.

Try writing down situations that come up over the next week when you find yourself having difficulty being truly present and listening. What particular listening blocks do you tend to use?  What do you believe your chosen blocks to listening give you? It is important to realize that we engage in these behaviors because it is giving us something – or else we wouldn’t do it!

Think of how the listening block “filtering” allows you to only hear what you want to hear – this is providing a temporary benefit.  Or, consider the way that “placating” allows you to get out of an uncomfortable conversation or end an argument quickly – this is also giving you a short-term benefit.  We want to begin to work towards active listening so that we may reap the long-term benefits of being fully present with other people.  Until we are willing to truly listen to what is being said (including the message behind the message), we miss out on a complete and genuine connection.

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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: What did you say??? by law_keven / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on May 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    The reminder that weengage in certain behaviors…even if negative to our well-being because we get something out of it… Is terrific reminder. I am a good listener, but fall into the trap of #10:placating to end the conversation and, also, to stop the experience before I drift away or start lecturing because I want to “be right” as you say.

    How can we be more present when those feelings start to well up and put a stop to more constructive communication?

    I really enjoyed this one. Thank you!

    • Laura on May 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      The first step is increasing awareness of which obstacles to listening typically get in your way. Once we begin to recognize our own personal tendencies, then we are more alert to their presence when they occur. I would begin by asking yourself what benefits you feel that you get out of placating to end the conversation – reflecting on why you think you gravitate towards that. Once we realize what benefits we are receiving from obstacles to listening, then we can begin to try to meet our needs in more adaptive ways. If the benefit of placating is that you get the conversation to end when you want to (i.e., before you “start lecturing”) then I would reflect on more assertive/direct ways of ending the conversation on your own terms.

      Thanks for the comment!

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