Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process.
Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. As a result, communication breaks down and the sender of the message can easily become frustrated or irritated. If there is one communication skill you should aim to master, then listening is it.
Listening is Not the Same as Hearing
Hearing refers to the sounds that enter your ears. It is a physical process that, provided you do not have any hearing problems, happens automatically. Listening, however, requires more than that: it requires focus and concentrated effort, both mental and sometimes physical as well.
Listening means paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages. Your ability to listen effectively depends on the degree to which you perceive and understand these messages.
Listening is not a passive process. In fact, the listener can, and should, be at least as engaged in the process as the speaker. The phrase ‘active listening’ is used to describe this process of being fully involved.
We Spend a lot of Time Listening
Adults spend an average of 70% of their time engaged in some sort of communication. Of this, research shows that an average of 45% is spent listening compared to 30% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing. (Adler, R. et al. 2001). That is, by any standards, a lot of time listening. It is worthwhile taking a bit of extra time to ensure that you listen effectively.
General Listening Types
The two main types of listening – the foundations of all listening sub-types are:
Discriminative listening is first developed at a very early age – perhaps even before birth, in the womb. This is the most basic form of listening and does not involve the understanding of the meaning of words or phrases but merely the different sounds that are produced. In early childhood, for example, a distinction is made between the sounds of the voices of the parents – the voice of the father sounds different to that of the mother.
Discriminative listening develops through childhood and into adulthood. As we grow older and develop and gain more life experience, our ability to distinguish between different sounds is improved. Not only can we recognise different voices, but we also develop the ability to recognise subtle differences in the way that sounds are made – this is fundamental to ultimately understanding what these sounds mean. Differences include many subtleties, recognising foreign languages, distinguishing between regional accents and clues to the emotions and feelings of the speaker.
Being able to distinguish the subtleties of sound made by somebody who is happy or sad, angry or stressed, for example, ultimately adds value to what is actually being said and, of course, does aid comprehension. When discriminative listening skills are combined with visual stimuli, the resulting ability to ‘listen’ to body-language enables us to begin to understand the speaker more fully – for example recognising somebody is sad despite what they are saying or how they are saying it.
Comprehensive listening involves understanding the message or messages that are being communicated. Like discriminative listening, comprehensive listening is fundamental to all listening sub-types.
In order to be able use comprehensive listening and therefore gain understanding the listener first needs appropriate vocabulary and language skills. Using overly complicated language or technical jargon, therefore, can be a barrier to comprehensive listening. Comprehensive listening is further complicated by the fact that two different people listening to the same thing may understand the message in two different ways. This problem can be multiplied in a group setting, like a classroom or business meeting where numerous different meanings can be derived from what has been said.
Comprehensive listening is complimented by sub-messages from non-verbal communication, such as the tone of voice, gestures and other body language. These non-verbal signals can greatly aid communication and comprehension but can also confuse and potentially lead to misunderstanding. In many listening situations it is vital to seek clarification and use skills such as reflection aid comprehension.
Specific Listening Types
Discriminative and comprehensive listening are prerequisites for specific listening types. Listening types can be defined by the goal of the listening.
The three main types of listening most common in interpersonal communication are:
Informational Listening (Listening to Learn)
Critical Listening (Listening to Evaluate and Analyse)
Therapeutic or Empathetic Listening (Listening to Understand Feeling and Emotion)
In reality you may have more than one goal for listening at any given time – for example, you may be listening to learn whilst also attempting to be empathetic.
Whenever you listen to learn something, you are engaged in informational listening. This is true in many day-to-day situations, in education and at work, when you listen to the news, watch a documentary, when a friend tells you a recipe or when you are talked-through a technical problem with a computer – there are many other examples of informational listening too.
Although all types of listening are ‘active’ – they require concentration and a conscious effort to understand. Informational listening is less active than many of the other types of listening. When we’re listening to learn or be instructed we are taking in new information and facts, we are not criticising or analysing. Informational listening, especially in formal settings like in work meetings or while in education, is often accompanied by note taking – a way of recording key information so that it can be reviewed later.
We can be said to be engaged in critical listening when the goal is to evaluate or scrutinise what is being said. Critical listening is a much more active behaviour than informational listening and usually involves some sort of problem solving or decision making. Critical listening is akin to critical reading; both involve analysis of the information being received and alignment with what we already know or believe. Whereas informational listening may be mostly concerned with receiving facts and/or new information – critical listening is about analysing opinion and making a judgement.
When the word ‘critical’ is used to describe listening, reading or thinking it does not necessarily mean that you are claiming that the information you are listening to is somehow faulty or flawed. Rather, critical listening means engaging in what you are listening to by asking yourself questions such as, ‘what is the speaker trying to say?’ or ‘what is the main argument being presented?’, ‘how does what I’m hearing differ from my beliefs, knowledge or opinion?’. Critical listening is, therefore, fundamental to true learning.
Many day-to-day decisions that we make are based on some form of ‘critical’ analysis, whether it be critical listening, reading or thought. Our opinions, values and beliefs are based on our ability to process information and formulate our own feelings about the world around us as well as weigh up the pros and cons to make an informed decision.
It is often important, when listening critically, to have an open-mind and not be biased by stereotypes or preconceived ideas. By doing this you will become a better listener and broaden your knowledge and perception of other people and your relationships.
Therapeutic or Empathic Listening
Empathic listening involves attempting to understand the feelings and emotions of the speaker – to put yourself into the speaker’s shoes and share their thoughts.
Empathy is a way of deeply connecting with another person and therapeutic or empathic listening can be particularly challenging. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, it involves more than being compassionate or feeling sorry for somebody else – it involves a deeper connection – a realisation and understanding of another person’s point of view.
Counsellors, therapists and some other professionals use therapeutic or empathic listening to understand and ultimately help their clients. This type of listening does not involve making judgements or offering advice but gently encouraging the speaker to explain and elaborate on their feelings and emotions. Skills such as clarification and reflection are often used to help avoid misunderstandings.
A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said.
Effective listening therefore involves observing body language and noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages, as well as just what is being said at any given moment.
For example, if someone tells you that they are happy with their life but through gritted teeth or with tears filling their eyes, you should consider that the verbal and non-verbal messages are in conflict. Maybe they don’t mean what they say.
Listening is therefore not just a matter of using your ears, but also your eyes. There are ten principles behind really good listening.
Ten Principles of Effective Listening
- Stop Talking
Don’t talk, listen.
When somebody else is talking listen to what they are saying, do not interrupt, talk over them or finish their sentences for them. Stop, just listen.
When the other person has finished talking you may need to clarify to ensure you have received their message accurately.
- Prepare Yourself to Listen
Focus on the speaker. Put other things out of mind. The human mind is easily distracted by other thoughts – what’s for lunch, what time do I need to leave to catch my train, is it going to rain – try to put other thoughts out of mind and concentrate on the messages that are being communicated.
- Put the Speaker at Ease
Help the speaker to feel free to speak.
Remember their needs and concerns. Nod or use other gestures or words to encourage them to continue.
Maintain eye contact but don’t stare – show you are listening and understanding what is being said.
- Remove Distractions
Focus on what is being said.
Don’t doodle, shuffle papers, look out the window, pick your fingernails or similar. Avoid unnecessary interruptions. These behaviours disrupt the listening process and send messages to the speaker that you are bored or distracted.
Try to understand the other person’s point of view.
Look at issues from their perspective. Let go of preconceived ideas. By having an open mind we can more fully empathise with the speaker. If the speaker says something that you disagree with then wait and construct an argument to counter what is said but keep an open mind to the views and opinions of others.
- Be Patient
A pause, even a long pause, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished.
Be patient and let the speaker continue in their own time, sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Never interrupt or finish a sentence for someone.
- Avoid Personal Prejudice
Try to be impartial.
Don’t become irritated and don’t let the person’s habits or mannerisms distract you from what the speaker is really saying.
Everybody has a different way of speaking – some people are for example more nervous or shy than others, some have regional accents or make excessive arm movements, some people like to pace whilst talking – others like to sit still.
Focus on what is being said and try to ignore styles of delivery.
- Listen to the Tone
Volume and tone both add to what someone is saying.
A good speaker will use both volume and tone to their advantage to keep an audience attentive; everybody will use pitch, tone and volume of voice in certain situations – let these help you to understand the emphasis of what is being said.
- Listen for Ideas – Not Just Words
You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces.
Maybe one of the most difficult aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others. With proper concentration, letting go of distractions, and focus this becomes easier.
- Wait and Watch for Non-Verbal Communication
Gestures, facial expressions, and eye-movements can all be important.
We don’t just listen with our ears but also with our eyes – watch and pick up the additional information being transmitted via non-verbal communication.
Active listening is an important skill and yet, as communicators, people tend to spend far more energy considering what they are going to say rather than listening to what the other person is trying to say.
Although active listening is a skill in itself, covered in depth on our listening pages, it is also vital for effective verbal communication.
The following points are essential for effective and active listening:
- Arrange a comfortable environment conducive to the purpose of the communication, for example a warm and light room with minimal background noise.
- Be prepared to listen.
- Keep an open mind and concentrate on the main direction of the speaker’s message.
- Avoid distractions if at all possible.
- Delay judgment until you have heard everything.
- Be objective.
- Do not be trying to think of your next question while the other person is giving information.
- Do not dwell on one or two points at the expense of others.
- The speaker should not be stereotyped. Try not to let prejudices associated with, for example, gender, ethnicity, social class, appearance or dress interfere with what is being said.
Types of Listening Skills
Barriers to Effective Listening