Barriers to Communication

Effective communication is not only about expressing one’s opinions and thoughts through speaking or writing, but carries with it the equally important task of listening as well (Jahromi, Tabatabaee, Abdar, & Rajabi, 2016). In a case study of a poor interview and listening session between two individuals, Nicki shares her problems faced in her personal life and in writing her dissertation (Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Mental Health (CEIMH), 2012). 

However, Gina exhibits traits of an ineffective listener instead. Gina glazes over Nicki’s words and displays a lack of empathy, understanding and inappropriate body language (CEIMH, 2012, 2:03-2:06), even misunderstanding and forgetting what Nicki said (CEIMH, 2012, 2:45-3:00). Gina also fiddles with her pen and fingernails (CEIMH, 2012, 0:29-0:50) and interrupts Nicki before she finishes speaking (CEIMH, 2012, 1:56). These factors act as barriers to effective listening and it is of paramount importance to analyse them at a deeper level so as to foster a friendly and conducive listening environment for everyone (Brownell, 2008; Brownell 2015). 

The first barrier in the case study is competitive interrupting. This happens when one party interrupts the conversation with a comment or question before the other person has finished speaking. The person typically interrupts as a means to take control and steer the conversation. However, not all interruptions are competitive in nature. Here, Gina cuts the conversation, commenting that “he is probably just being a boy” after asking Nicki when she last saw her boyfriend (CEIMH, 2012, 1:56). Gina interrupts Nicki again and comments on it not being a good idea to look through someone else’s phone (CEIMH, 2012, 2:06). Again, Gina cuts off Nicki and brushes off her experience in living with five people by stating that she also “lived with five people before” (CEIMH, 2012, 3:03).

These instances show that Gina does not actively practice withholding her words and take turns in a conversation. Note also that not all instances of Gina’s interruptions are competitive in nature.

The second barrier to effective listening is pseudo listening and selective attention. Gina (CEIMH, 2012, 0:40) fiddles with her pen and nods her head as if to show that she is listening. She rests her left leg over her right thigh and mutters an “okay” while playing with her pen and looking downwards. Gina fiddles with her fingernails and utters a “yeah” without looking at Nicki. 

In these instances, Gina occasionally mutters a word in response to Nicki sharing her issues. However, Gina selectively listens and interrupts Nicki on two occasions when she commented on her boyfriend being distant and when she went through her boyfriend’s phone. When Nicki shared her story of living with five people, Gina latches on to the same story and stated that she also lived with five people. Even as Nicki continued sharing about communal living with others, Gina audibly smacks her lips and sighs, indicating that she was not keen on listening at all (CEIMH, 2012, 3:12-3:15).

The third barrier to listening is glazing over. In the video, Gina glazes over what Nicki said, and completely miss details of her dissertation (CEIMH, 2012, 1:26). Due to Gina’s consistent fiddling with her nails and pen, she again glazes over important details and incorrectly gives her advice to Nicki, stating that she would not have let her flatmates throw her dissertation away (CEIMH, 2012, 2:48). 

Six Stages of Listening

It is apparent that Gina faces barriers to effective listening. This is where the HURIER model can come in to eliminate such barriers. It is an acronym for “hearing, understanding, remembering, interpreting, evaluating and responding” (Brownell, 2008). The model breaks down the communication process into steps that can be analysed to plug gaps in the listening process which allows for smooth and effective communication between two or more individuals. It is through effective communication that misunderstandings and frustration are reduced and eliminated.

In HURIER (Brownell, 2015), the first step is to hear the message for effective listening. Gina can angle her chair towards Nicki and look at her while she is speaking. But, it is not necessary to sit facing Nicki directly for this helps to avoid turning the interview session into a confrontation. This should also better put Nicki at ease. Gina should put all her effort and dedicate attention to Nicki and avoid meddling with her fingernails or her pen. Eliminating physical and physiological barriers aids in the critical first step of hearing.

The second step is to understand what’s being said. Here, Gina seeks to understand Nicki’s concerns and issues. When Gina hears what Nicki said, effort must be made to understand the message. Gina can wait until Nicki has finished speaking to raise her questions and clarify matters instead of pseudo listening and glazing over what Nicki said.

Closely following the second step, is the third and that is to remember what is said. In the beginning of the video, Gina mentioned that she “lost my papers” (CEIMH, 2012, 0:20). Gina also forgets Nicki’s name which prompts Nicki to correct her. Gina proceeds to not remember key details of the dissertation that Nicki shared and incorrectly states that Nicki’s flatmates threw the dissertation away (CEIMH, 2012, 2:20). Rather than fiddle with the pen, it would be more productive to use it to take notes as Nicki shared her issues. Hence, Gina ought to have a notebook too.

The fourth step is to interpret the message that is received. It is vital that Gina avoids distorting the message. She must carefully apply her own logic and meaning to the message while considering the verbal, non-verbal and contextual factors and cues of the situation to make an informed understanding of the content. Interpreting the message also demands the ability to emphasise with the speaker and consider the perspective of the other parties in the communication context.

The fifth step is to evaluate the received message. It is critical that the receiver not pass judgement on the received message. Gina must strive to objectively evaluate the content, free from biases and personal interjections. Gina should evaluate the message without investing her own prejudices or risk a potential misunderstanding and communication breakdowns.

The last step in the HURIER model is to respond. Gina should take the opportune moments to respond clearly to Nicki’s comments through non-verbal actions like nodding her head, or verbally, such as a “yes, I understand how you feel”. Responding indicates to Nicki that Gina is listening. However, more important than simply responding is picking the best response among a variety of different choices. In many situations, feedback is vital for different parties and acts as a recognition of communication being done (Brownell, 1994).

Two Approaches to Empathic Listening

Gina can improve her listening skills by practising active and emphatic listening and there are two ways to achieve that goal. The first approach is to practice non-judgemental listening. Instead of commenting that “he is probably just being a boy”, Gina should not pass judgement on Nicki’s words, and even the quality of a male “just being a boy”, especially when Nicki was sharing and not seeking advice yet.

When Nicki was sharing her experience about going through her boyfriend’s phone and seeing another girl’s number, Gina should also withhold comments instead of blurting her thoughts out loud at inappropriate moments (CEIMH, 2012, 2:06). Nicki was merely responding to Gina’s probing question about when she last saw her boyfriend. However, Gina took the opportunity to take a jab at Nicki.

Non-judgemental listening also requires that Gina avoid kneejerk reactions such as when she commented that Nicki ought to have already completed her dissertation, or stating that Nicki is stressed, making up ideas and that it is not a problem (CEIMH, 2012, 4:00). Gina not only demonstrated a lack of impartial judgement in giving those comments, but also a complete misjudgement of Nicki’s context. Lastly, she interjected with advice bordering on irrelevance as simply a way to brush off Nicki’s concerns.

The second approach is to acknowledge the feelings of the speaker. In the case study, Gina should acknowledge Nicki’s feelings and not simply brush them aside with a rebuttal (CEIMH, 2012, 4:00-4:11). Gina should acknowledge that humans experience pain in the loss of a family cat. Gina ought not to make it seem like the loss was nothing (CEIMH, 2012, 4:34) and to “move away from the mourning about your cat” (CEIMH, 2012, 4:58) when Nicki asked Gina to elaborate on how she should get things into perspective. 

Gina could say “I know how that feels” especially since they experienced the death of a pet and also “lived with five people before” (CEIMH, 2012, 3:05). Ultimately, Gina could work on acknowledging the feelings of Nicki when she shared about her cheating boyfriend, her issues with her flatmates, incomplete dissertation, her cat’s death and also acknowledge Nicki’s feelings of being under tremendous stress from coping with everything (Brownell, 1994). These all go toward making Gina an effective listener.

References

Brownell, J. (1994). Relational Listening: Fostering Effective Communication Practices in Diverse Organizational Environments. Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. Retrieved from https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2045&context=articles

Brownell, J. (2008). Building managers’ skills to create listening environments. Cornell Hospitality Tools, (11), 6-17. Retrieved from https://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=chrtools

Brownell, J. (2015). Listening: Attitudes, Principles and Skills. New York: Routledge.

Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Mental Health. (2012, July 30). Nicki and Gina case study: Poor interview/listening skills [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5GabS3UYBA

Jahromi, V. K., Tabatabaee, S. S., Abdar, Z. E., & Rajabi, M. (2016). Active listening: The key of successful communication in hospital managers. Electron Physician, 8(3): 2123–2128. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4844478/