HAVE you ever had an important conversation — in which the other person is telling you something you need to know, and while you know you should be giving your full attention to what is being said — you just can’t stop thinking about that annoying sound of static coming from a nearby radio?

Everyone’s attention has been drawn away from important exchanges now and then, but not everyone realises how detrimental this is to effective communication.

Too often, people simply allow the distraction to persist, and lose out on valuable information.

To be an effective listener and communicator, you must eliminate noise and distractions.

These barriers may be in the environment, like noises in the room, other people talking, poor acoustics, bad odours, extreme temperatures, an uncomfortable chair or visual distractions.

Or they could be physical disruptions such as telephone calls or visitors.

Yet another barrier has to do with you, the listener, and can be either physical or psychological.

Maybe it is close to lunch or quitting time, and you are preoccupied with how you feel. You are hungry or tired, or angry, or maybe have a cold or a toothache. If so, you are not going to be listening fully.

There is also the psychological barrier.

Perhaps you are closed-minded to new ideas or resistant to information that runs contrary to your beliefs and values.

Or maybe you are bored, daydreaming or jumping to conclusions.

Why you don’t listen

There are five basic reasons people fail to listen well:

1. Listening takes effort

Listening is more than just keeping quiet. It means really concentrating on the other person.

An active listener registers increased blood pressure, a higher pulse rate and more perspiration. Because it takes so much effort, a lot of people just don’t listen.

2. Too many distractions

There is enormous competition for your attention from radio, TV, movies, computers, books and magazines, and much more.

With all these incoming stimuli, you have learnt to screen out information you deem irrelevant. Unfortunately, you also screen out things that are important.

3. You think you already know what someone is going to say

You assume you have a full understanding right from the start, so you jump in and interrupt. You do not take the time required to hear people out.

4. The speed gap

This is the difference between how fast you talk and how fast you listen.

The average person speaks at about 135 to 175 words a minute, but comprehends at 400 to 500 words a minute.

For the person who is not listening well, that is plenty of time to jump to conclusions, daydream, plan a reply or mentally argue with the speaker.

At least, that is how poor listeners spend the time.

5. You do not know how to listen

You do more listening than speaking, reading or writing, but it is not of the active kind.

When you listen actively, you don’t just hear the speaker’s words, you understand his message.