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Collaborative problem solving for community safety
Collaborative problem solving for community safety

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2.2 Barriers to active listening

Most people would agree that active listening is an important life skill, yet there are many barriers to doing it successfully. In the context of training police officers, Peter McDermott and Diana Hulse argue that, ‘If officers cannot communicate with the public, poor community relations will hinder even the most technically proficient departments’.

But why is this the case? On a simple level, and again thinking about things from a community policing perspective, an officer might be under pressure to get things done quickly or be focused on calming or managing a difficult situation. Equally, however, the person or people they are dealing with might be distressed and upset, making it hard for an officer to engage in a proactive manner.

Whatever the reason, Elizabeth Kuhnke, writing in Communication Skills for Dummies,(2012), outlines some key barriers to active listening:

  • Assumptions: When you make [such] an assumption, you’re creating a conclusion based on partial information. No matter how tempting, refrain from speaking until the other person has finished. Then pause to show that you’ve absorbed what’s been said before offering your opinion.
  • Defensiveness: If you seek to protect yourself from criticism you place barriers between yourself and the messages other people are sending. Instead of viewing comments and criticisms as personal attacks, use the messages as an instrument for self-assessment, improvement and personal development.
  • Ego: If you think that you’ve nothing to learn from what someone else is saying, or that you’re better than the other person, you close yourself off and stop listening. Although you may not agree with what’s being said, keeping your mind open may allow you to discover something you didn’t know before.
  • Environmental distractions: These distractions can be your own internal messages, including pre-judging the other person’s point of view, or issues that are concerning you that have nothing to do with the person speaking. They can also include electronic gadgets and the room temperature. Put away your toys, let go of unproductive thoughts and make yourself comfortable in order to listen properly to what the other person is saying.
  • Intolerance: If you close your mind to the beliefs and opinions of others, you stand little chance of hearing what they’re saying and the messages beneath the spoken word. If you really want to understand other people and build a strong relationship with them, put yourself in their shoes and see how the world seems from their perspective.
Kuhnke, 2012, pp 60-61