The emotional barriers to listening

August 26, 2020

There is an inverse relationship between listening and upset emotions. The more upset you become, the harder it gets to listen to someone.

The following post is an extract from my book, How to be Heard.

There is an inverse relationship between listening and upset emotions. The more upset you become, the harder it gets to listen to someone: strong negative emotions like anger, self-pity or sadness turn our focus inward, removing it from the process of listening, which requires full attention to be effective. And if someone is upset, really listening to them will almost always calm them down.

If you want to defuse an argument, the best way is to stop speaking and start listening. This is worth knowing because we all experience strong emotions sometimes.

Negative emotions such as sadness, anger, or personal dislike filter what you hear so that it matches your mood. They can even distract you from listening at all. Other people may read or sense your state and censor themselves, or struggle to communicate.

At the same time, good feelings can generate carelessness: being optimistic, excited or liking a speaker can make you go along with whatever you hear. You may lose focus, neglect details, or stop thinking analytically. In short, you may stop listening effectively.

Even staying neutral can descend into apathy and partial listening. When you stop putting energy into listening, you no longer do it attentively.

The key is to be aware of your state. If you know that you can’t listen so well because of your current emotional state, you can take action, for example to move important conversations to a better time or to compensate by making greater effort than you naturally would.

In the case of arguments at home, it can be very helpful to agree on a system of calling time-outs that allow all parties to take a break and calm down so that, when conversation resumes, listening can take the place of shouting. All parties must agree in advance that, when a time-out is called, there is no negotiation or carrying on; also, calling a time-out must include agreeing a time to resume the conversation within a preagreed maximum limit.

By becoming aware of emotional barriers to listening, and by spending some time asking if they exist and have any effects in your life, you can manage them, often with dramatic effects on your power and effectiveness in communication.

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