A mother takes her four-year-old to the pediatrician reporting she’s worried about the girl’s hearing. The doctor runs through a battery of tests, checks in the girl’s ears to be sure everything looks good, and makes notes in the child’s folder. Then, she takes the mother by the arm. They move together to the far end of the room, behind the girl. The doctor whispers in a low voice to the concerned parent: “Everything looks fine. But, she’s been through a lot of tests today. You might want to take her for ice cream after this as a reward.” The daughter jerks her head around, a huge grin on her face, “Oh, please, Mommy! I love ice cream!” The doctor, speaking now at a regular volume, reports, “As I said, I don’t think there’s any problem with her hearing, but she may not always be choosing to listen.”
Hearing is something most everyone does without even trying. It is a physiological response to sound waves moving through the air at up to 760 miles per hour. First, we receive the sound in our ears. The wave of sound causes our eardrums to vibrate, which engages our brain to begin processing. The sound is then transformed into nerve impulses so that we can perceive the sound in our brains. Our auditory cortex recognizes a sound has been heard and begins to process the sound by matching it to previously encountered sounds in a process known as auditory association (Brownell, 1996). Hearing has kept our species alive for centuries. When you are asleep but wake in a panic having heard a noise downstairs, an age-old selfpreservation response is kicking in. You were asleep. You weren’t listening for the noise – unless perhaps you are a parent of a teenager out past curfew – but you hear it. Hearing is unintentional, whereas listening (by contrast) requires you to pay conscious attention. Our bodies hear, but we need to employ intentional effort to actually listen.
We regularly engage in several different types of listening. When we are tuning our attention to a song we like, or a poetry reading, or actors in a play, or sitcom antics on television, we are listening for pleasure, also known as appreciative listening. When we are listening to a friend or family member, building our relationship with another through offering support and showing empathy for her feelings in the situation she is discussing, we are engaged in relational listening. Therapists, counselors, and conflict mediators are trained in another level known as empathetic or therapeutic listening. When we are at a political event, attending a debate, or enduring a salesperson touting the benefits of various brands of a product, we engage in critical listening. This requires us to be attentive to key points that influence or confirm our judgments. When we are focused on gaining information whether from a teacher in a classroom setting, or a pastor at church, we are engaging in informational listening (Ireland, 2011).
Yet, despite all these variations, Nichols (1995) called listening a “lost art.” The ease of sitting passively without really listening is well known to anyone who has sat in a boring class with a professor droning on about the Napoleonic wars or proper pain medication regimens for patients allergic to painkillers. You hear the words the professor is saying, while you check Facebook on your phone under the desk. Yet, when the exam question features an analysis of Napoleon’s downfall or a screaming patient fatally allergic to codeine you realize you didn’t actually listen. Trying to recall what you heard is a challenge, because without your attention and intention to remember, the information is lost in the caverns of your cranium.
Listening is one of the first skills infants gain, using it to acquire language and learn to communicate with their parents. Bommelje (2011) suggests listening is the activity we do most in life, second only to breathing. Nevertheless, the skill is seldom taught.