We are all capable of listening effectively in different situations and to different people. Listening effectively is, however, an active process – something we have to do consciously and something that takes practice. Yet there are obstacles to our ability, or willingness, to become better listeners.

Here are some common misconceptions, or myths, about listening:

Misconception One: It’s Difficult to Learn How to Listen
We all learn to listen from an early age though rarely are we ever ‘taught’. Over time we can develop bad habits and become blasé about listening or even unaware how we listen. You should thank your mother for telling you not to eat with your mouth open, or speak with your mouth full! Our willingness to learn how to listen better may depend on our motivation and our personality. (It has to be said, introverts are better listeners than extroverts!).
As hard as it may be, with awareness and practice we can ‘unlearn’ bad habits and form new ones.

Misconception Two: I’m a Good Listener
Generally people overestimate their own listening abilities and underestimate the listening abilities of others. Like driving, we tend to think that we are better listeners than other people: 80% of drivers think they are better than everyone else on the road. This also means that other people tend to think that they are better listeners than you!

Good listening is not a skill that we are born with; it is not a natural gift. Without practice and training we are unlikely to be particularly effective listeners. Believing that you are a better listener than others may impede your motivation to learn to listen better; it is unlikely to be true unless you have taken the time to learn and practice your listening skills over a period of time.

Misconception Three: Intelligent People are Better Listeners.
There is no link between traditional measures of cognitive ability, intelligence (IQ), and how well we listen. Although being bright and having a good vocabulary may make it easier to process information and gain understanding, these qualities do not necessarily make bright people better listeners. In fact the opposite may be more true. For example, very intelligent people may be more likely to get bored with a conversation and ‘tune out’, or anticipate the rest of what the sender may be sending.

People with higher emotional intelligence (EQ), on the other hand, are more likely to be better listeners. Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to assess, identify and manage his or her emotions and the emotions of others. Emotional Intelligence is the measure of a person’s likelihood to consider the emotional needs of others – assessment of such needs often comes about through good listening.

Misconception Four: Hearing is the same as Listening
Be skeptical of the person who says “I heard you!”. Hearing is a passive process – like breathing – we do it without thinking. Listening, however, is a learned skill and an active process, and requires more effort. Our brains have to work harder to process the information that we hear

[and see] in order to understand the meaning of the message. Understanding is the goal of listening.

Good listeners also read the non-verbal signals that accompany the audible messages. Effective listening includes accurately interpreting tone of voice, the sender’s gestures and general body-language; it is not wholly dependent on our ability to hear, but includes other senses and cognitive processes.

It is now well established that the human brain is not capable of ‘multi-tasking’ – executing two or more cognitive processes simultaneously; you cannot listen and read at the same time (though you might be able to knit).

Misconception Five: We Listen Better As We Get Older
People do not automatically become better listeners as they get older; without practice, and consciously thinking about listening, there is no reason why listening will improve; it may actually get worse.

As we go through life, gaining experience and understanding of the world around us, our capacity for listening is likely to improve. Whether we utilize this capacity and actually listen more effectively depends on our personalities, the particular situation and checking any bad habits we may have acquired.

Misconception Six: Gender Affects Listening Ability
Generally, and without trying to stereotype, men and women value communication differently. Women tend to place a higher value on connection, cooperation and emotional messages, whereas men are generally more concerned with facts and arguments and may be uncomfortable talking about and listening to personal or emotional subjects.

This doesn’t mean that women are better listeners than men, or vice-versa, but that there may be differences in the ways in which messages are conveyed and interpreted. During a conversation men and women are likely to ask different types of questions of the speaker to clarify the message – their final interpretation of the conversation may, therefore, be different. (“He’s not listening to me!” “What is she going on about?!”)

So, are you listening? Or have you fallen victim to these myths in your own listening.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further AFS Consulting has a program for you delivered in one-on-one coaching modality: Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy. Check it out here: https://afsconsulting.ca/executive-coaching/communicating-with-tact-diplomacy/