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Listening Blocks and How to Overcome Them

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Blocks to good listening are:
  • tension

  • bias

  • indifference

  • impatience

  • verbosity

  • preoccupation

  • distractions

  • misunderstandings


Tension can fuzz up the brain almost as badly as alcohol. It is to be expected that interviewees will be tense, but if the inter viewers share that tension it is as if they were in different rooms. Interviewers hear the interviewees, but not the subtleties, the choice of words, the changes in inflection, the pauses and hesitations that give real meaning to the interviewees' responses. Only calm, confident interviewers hear everything interviewees tell them.

If you suffer from interviewing nerves, there are a number of books and courses available on how to relax; but at the risk of repeating myself, let me say that the best way is to be properly prepared. If you have thought out your questions and your strategy, you can concentrate not on how nervous you are but on the interviewee, who is, or should be, the sole focus of your attention.


None of us is free of bias. We all carry round with us views, opinions and attitudes based to a lesser or greater extent on prejudice. Bias can work both ways, against as well as in favor of interviewees. You may not like people with high-pitched voices because the bully at school spoke like that, therefore, as soon as the candidate with the squeaky voice starts to speak, you switch off and they stand no chance of getting the job for which they may be wholly suitable. Another less suitable applicant is more fortunate because they play the same sport as you, so you only hear their good points and are deaf to the bad.

To be a good listener-and therefore a good interviewer-you have first to recognize your prejudices and, second, to leave them outside the interview room. Hear what the interviewees are saying, not what you would like them to say, otherwise you will never give them, or yourself for that matter, a fair chance.


At least bias is an emotion - something interviewees can fight against if they have the determination; indifference is a blank, an emptiness where there should be a real person. Indifference is saying, 'I've heard this all before, so I've stopped listening.' Interviewees sense this by the way the interviewer slouches, by his or her drooping shoulders, monotonous voice and blank stare, and they will respond either by withdrawing themselves from the interview, in mind if not in body, or by becoming hostile. Whichever it is, communication ceases.

There must be a purpose to the interview, one that the interviewer believes in, otherwise there is no point in conducting it. Some organizations, for instance, insist on regular appraisal interviews, and in principle this is a good idea, because it shows that management is both interested and involved in their workforce. But if they are merely a formality, they are worse than useless.

Carrying out too many interviews in one day, with too short breaks between each can seriously impede good listening. After the first three or four, it will begin to seem that they have 'heard it all before', which is unfair on interviewees who come lower down the list. I have even heard of interviewers who eat their lunch during an interview because they haven't the time to spare.

To ensure that all interviewees are listened to, interviews should be limited to not more than six in one day, and there should be a break of at least fifteen minutes between each one.


The more you interrupt, the less you listen. Anticipate the interviewees' reply before they have finished speaking and you could misinterpret what they have been telling you, but because you have stopped listening to them properly, you are not able to correct your mistake by the time you get on to your next question.

For busy, clever, successful executives, this can become a serious interviewing problem. They pick up points so quickly that, once they think they have got the gist of the interviewee's reply, they either jump in with their next question before the interviewee has finished answering the last one, or they stop concentrating and start thinking about something else. Either way, they cease to listen properly.

Good day-to-day planning will ensure that you give interviewees plenty of time to tell their stories. Exert control on your impatience by pacing your interviews so that they do not last too long or finish too quickly.


Some managers like to hear the sound of their own voices and treat interviewing as an opportunity to make speeches. Others cannot bear silences and have to be talking continually; otherwise they feel they are not doing their job. Then there is a third group who suffer from an excess of sympathy and, instead of allowing interviewees to make mistakes, try to urge them along with comments.

Interviewees do not need our help. In fact, any help we try to give them will probably hinder them. Our job is to encourage them to project the best image of themselves by asking challenging questions. Good interviewers recognize this and train themselves to speak no more than 15 to 20 per cent of the time, then sit back and listen attentively for the rest.


Interviews belong to the interviewees. Not only should you leave your biases outside the interview room, you also leave the problems you may be having with colleagues, bank managers, husbands, wives, cars, boats etc. You can listen properly only if you clear your mind of all other thoughts and make the interviewees the entire focus of your attention.

This means keeping your wits about you and not being over-prepared, because, if you have worked out in too fine detail how you are going to run your interviews, you may find that you have 'space' to think about other things, and will cease to concentrate on what you should be doing. Taking notes helps.


Interruptions not only break the pattern of question and answer, they also leave behind them thoughts and problems that continue to block our minds. Time is needed to get back into a listening state so that, even if the interviewees ignore the interruptions, interviewers may find that they are missing half what the interviewees are saying.

The best place for your interviews, therefore, is one which allows you to listen without disruptions. If, despite your pre cautions, you are still interrupted, summarize what the interviewee was saying at the moment of interruption and check that you have got it right before going on.


Through bias we hear what we want to hear; through misunderstandings we hear wrongly or we jump too quickly to the wrong conclusions.

Maggie, a successful saleswoman, has gone to see her super visor to ask for a few days off.

'Why?' he asks. 'I need time to arrange for a mortgage.' 'You're asking the firm to make you a loan?' 'Who said anything about a loan?' she snaps back. 'Well, that's what you really mean, isn't it?' he says.

Here misunderstanding has got in the way of accurate listening. The supervisor has heard only half of what Maggie has said and has supplied the rest himself which, as it turns out, is incorrect. The result is that either Maggie does not get her perfectly reasonable request granted and is going to feel resentful towards her superior as well as the company, or he is going to mark Maggie down as being unreliable with money.

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