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7.1: The Fundamentals of Listening

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    • Define listening in their own terms.
    • Identify reasons why listening is important.
    • Be able to explain features in the listening process.


    Take two or three minutes to recount your most cherished interpersonal relationships. Are any of these relationships’ family members, friends, colleagues, co-workers, people you met on-line or regularly Skype with? Now think about why you value these relationships. You may quickly realize that your answer has something to do with your ability to openly communicate and how much each person actively listens in the relationship. But, are these people really listening to you or are they doing something else and you think they are good listeners because you have never defined listening? In this Module, you will learn what listening is. Second, you will learn why listening is important. Finally, you will learn about a number of different features in the listening process.

    What is Listening?

    If you had to come up with your own definition for listening, how would you define listening? Now, if you compared your definition with someone else would the definitions match, be completely different; or, somewhere in the middle? Chances are, you may find it easier to explain what is not listening than what is listening. According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to listen is “to pay attention to sound, to hear something with thoughtful attention, to be alert to catch an expected sound” (“Listen”, 2020, n.p.). While some may find this definition acceptable, others would say it not completely accurate because it fails to take into account verbal and nonverbal aspects of listening. In other words, that definition is an oversimplification of a very complex interpersonal communication skill.

    If you struggled to come up with your own definition of listening, know that you are not alone. Throughout the years, researchers have generated numerous definitions of listening (Barker and Fitch-Hauser, 1986; Glenn, 1989; Wolvin & Coakley, 1996; Worthington & Bodie, 2018). Often discrepancies about definitions involved the very active and complex cognitive nature of listening. Some definitions illuminated the importance of the listener’s role and conducts for the effectiveness of the interaction. Other definitions highlighted verbal and nonverbal communication.

    Several large associations have also weighed in. For example, the International Listening Association (ILA) defines listening as “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages” (1995). In 1998, the National Communication Association (NCA) came up with its own definition in a document summarizing two sets of competencies (speaking and listening) for college students. NCA states,

    “Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and nonverbal messages. People listen in order to comprehend information, critique and evaluate a message, show empathy for the feelings expressed by others, or appreciate a performance. Effective listening includes both literal and critical comprehension of ideas and information transmitted in oral language.”

    As you just read, the different definitions of listening as a concept are extremely broad. However, listening, as defined by both the ILA and the NCA, is an active, conscious communication act. The definition of listening as defined by the ILA will be used for the remainder of this unit because it was developed by an international organization of members that promote the study, development, and teaching of listening.

    Why is listening important?

    Listening is important because we spend most of our lives listening. In his groundbreaking research, Paul Rankin (1926) found that adults listen 42% and speak 32% of their daily communication time. Other listening scholars have concluded that in specific settings such as work, family/friend, on average, we spend at least 50% of our day listening to either another person or to media (Janusik & Wolvin, 2009). Collectively, these two studies indicate that you spend approximately half of your time communicating with others. However, perhaps the most obvious reason why listening is important, especially when it comes to interpersonal communication, is that you might misinterpret key information. When that happens, you will not respond appropriately or effectively.

    Let’s be honest, when it comes to listening, many if not all of us at some point are guilty of faking attention, fading in and out of conversations, rehearsing responses, making assumptions, and failing to retain pertinent information. Listening has always played a fundamental role in interpersonal communication. For example, scholarly articles and research studies have examined listening and its role in interpersonal relationships such as student/teacher (Cooper & Buchanan, 2010; Imhof, 2008; Valli, 1997), undergraduate peer tutors (Abbot, Graf, & Chatfield, 2018), friends (Bodie, 2012), parent/child (Ross & Glenn,1996), adolescents/parents/medical team (Starkman, Fisher, Pilek, Lopez-Henriquez, Lynch & Bilkins-Morgin, 2019), romantic partners (Hoskins, Woszidlo, & Kunkel, 2016); Kuhn, Bradbury, Nussbeck, & Bodenmann, 2018; Manusov, Stofleth, Harvey & Crowley, 2018), long-married couples (Pasupathi, Carstensen, Levenson, & Gottman, 1999), ministers, rabbis, priests/parishioners (Corley Schnapp, 2003) and employees/supervisors (Kristinsson, Jonsdottir, & Snorrason, 2019) just to provide a few examples. Although, the examples span more than 20 years this by no means is an exhaustive list. In short, listening is very important in a variety of interpersonal relationships and there is plenty of research to support this claim.

    What is the Listening Process?

    One of the reasons why Merriam Websters’ definition of listen is an oversimplification is because too much of the answer seems to imply that listening is hearing. This simply is not the case. Can you recall a time when you responded to someone with, “Yeah, I heard you.” but in reality, you were multitasking and checking your cell phone? While you can feel good knowing that you were telling the truth, because you did hear them, unfortunately you were not listening. This is a perfect example of ineffective listening and definitely demonstrates that hearing and listening are not the same. Listening is a process.

    The study of listening in the field of communication is not a new focus. As early as 1948 Ralph Nichols, considered by many listening scholars to be the “father of listening” as a field of study, established dimensions of what constitutes listening behavior. These dimensions included inference making, listening for the main ideas, identifying the organizational plan, and concentration. Early listening scholars attempted to classify, categorize and explain how listening is situated from a number of different factors. “Although other scholars had studied listening, Nichols’s work motivated scholars to think of listening as a separate and identifiable aspect of communication” (Worthington & Fitch-Hauser, 2012, p. 7).

    As a result, scholars have described the listening process using five (Adler, Rosenfeld, Towne & Scott, 1986; Adler & Towne, 1999; Adler, Rosenfeld & Proctor, 2017; DeVito, 2000), six (Brownell, 2013) or even seven components (Worthington Fitch-Hauser, 2012). A content analysis of 50 definitions of listening found that the five most frequently used features included perception, attention, interpretation, remembering, and responding (Glenn, 1989). Given the fact that these five components have been a part of listening definitions for more than 60 years, the next section will address each of these components in greater detail.


    Perception also called receiving is the first and most basic component of the listening process. As a listener, you must first become aware of the sounds you are hearing in an environment. In other listening process models, it is called “hearing.” As a listener, you select which auditory sounds to focus on. For example, you walk into a party, see a group of friends. You can hear other sounds in the room; however, you most likely will instinctively focus on the conversation with your friends. As a listener in this initial stage you are actually absorbing the information being expressed to you verbally and nonverbally.


    Attention is the second component in the listening process where you place your focus as a listener on the speaker. This part of the listening process is selective. The sounds we hear have no meaning until we give them their meaning in context. Attending to a message requires active engagement. For example, you put away your cell phone and say to your colleague, “Go ahead, keep talking. I’m listening,” Now your colleague truly does have your undivided attention. You are actively avoiding distractions, not interrupting the speaker and not rehearsing a response. In this component, your top priority is only to listen.


    Interpretation is the third component in the listening process where the listener assigns meaning to a message based on verbal and nonverbal messages. Interpretation takes place after you have received the information from the speaker and begin to interpret its meaning. You can share your interpretation by asking questions, or rephrasing parts of the speaker’s message. Interpretation allows you to demonstrate your active engagement with their words, and help you better understand their key points or even ambiguous messages. For example, your supervisor says, “You and I definitely should schedule to meet sometime next week” but then walks away. Most people would not know how to interpret this because the message is vague. Does your supervisor want to meet next week on Monday, Tuesday, Friday? Is this really a “meeting” or are you being demoted, transferred, or perhaps even promoted? Furthermore, “sometime” is not a specific time and they could possibly be referring to a meeting early in the morning, noon or late in the afternoon. In this phase of the listening process, listening fidelity is crucial. Listening fidelity is “the degree of congruence between the cognitions of a listener and the cognition of a source following a communication event (Mulanax & Powers, 2001; Powers & Bodie, 2003, p. 24). It is possible to listen and still not understand what the message the sender was attempting to communicate.


    Remembering is the ability to recall information. What good would it do in a conversation if you could not remember key points of the speaker’s message? Remembering is important in the listening process because it means that an individual has not only received and understood a message but has also added it to the mind’s storage bank. However, just as our attention is selective, so too is our memory. What is remembered may be quite different from what was originally seen or heard (Tyagi, 2013). Too often, people equate being a good or bad listener with their ability to remember information. Wolvin and Coakley (1996) note that the most common reason for not remembering a message after the fact is because it was not really learned in the first place.

    There are two types of memory: short-term or active memory, and long-term or passive memory. As its name suggests, short-term or active memory is made up of the information we are processing at any given time. Short-term memory involves information being captured at the moment (such as listening in class) as well as from information retrieved from our passive memory for doing complex mental tasks (such as thinking critically and drawing conclusions). But short-term memory is limited and suffers from the passing of time and lack of use. We begin to forget data within 30 seconds of not using it, and interruptions (such as phone calls or distractions) require us to rebuild the short-term memory structure—to get “back on task.”

    Long-term memory involves the storage and recall of information over a long period of time (such as days, weeks, or years). Long-term memories aren’t all of equal strength. Stronger memories enable you to recall an event, procedure, or fact on demand—for example, you may be able to vividly remember exactly where you were, who you were with; and, what you were doing the moment you learned about “9/11,” the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil in U.S. history. Theoretically, the capacity of long-term memory could be unlimited, the main constraint on recall being accessibility rather than availability. Long-term memories can last for just a few days, or for many years. The fact is, memory fails everyone from time to time.


    If you have completed the perception, attention, interpretation and remembering components of the listening process, verbally responding to a speaker is not only appropriate it is probably expected. Responding entails sending verbal and nonverbal messages that indicate attentiveness and understanding or a lack thereof. We send verbal and nonverbal feedback while another person is talking and after they are done. For example, using phrases such as, “yeah”, “uh-huh,” “hmm,” and “right,”) and/or nonverbal cues like direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward. Back channel cues are behaviors that generally show interest, attention and/or a willingness to continue listening.

    Now that all five components (perception, attention, interpretation, remembering, and responding) in the listening process have been examined, you are now less likely to mistake listening as a simple, passive activity. Listening is a process, and an active one that does not unfold in a linear, step-by-step fashion. While each component seems like a lengthy process, this all happens in a short amount of time, and should feel natural during a conversation.


    In this Module, you learned what listening is. Second, you learned why listening is important. Finally, you learned about a number of different features in the listening process. Each component plays an important role in your ability to communicate and listen effectively with others. Being familiar with each part of the listening process will help you become a better thinker, listener, speaker and communicator.


    1. Activity: How do YOU define Listening?

    Listening scholars have come up with a variety of definitions for listening. Take five minutes to write down your own definition of listening. Next, get into small groups and share your definition with others. Are there any similarities/differences?

    2. Activity: Practice With the Listening Process

    For one week practice using each of the five components in the listening process with a friend, classmate, co-worker. What differences did you notice based on the different relationship contexts?


    Abbot, S., Graf, A. J., & Chatfield, B. (2018). Listening to Undergraduate Peer Tutors: Roles, Relationships, and Challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2), 245-261.

    Adler, R. B., & Towne, N. (1999). Looking out/looking in: Interpersonal communication. Fort Worth, Harcourt Brace College Publishers

    Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. B., Towne, N., & Scott, M. (1986). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

    Adler, R.B., Rosenfeld, L.B. & Proctor, R.F. (2017). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. Oxford University Press.

    Barker, D. R., & Fitch-Hauser, M. (1986). Variables related to the reception and processing of information as published in ten selected psychology journals: 1976-1986. Working paper presented to the Research Task Force of the International Listening Association, San Diego.

    Bodie, G. D. (2012). Listening as positive communication. The positive side of interpersonal communication, 109-125.

    Bodie, G. D., & Denham, J. (2017). Listening in(to) close relationships. In M.M., Stolz (Ed). Listening Across Lives (pp. 41-61). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

    Brownell, J. (2013). Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills (Subscription). Routledge.

    Cooper, L. O., & Buchanan, T. (2010). Listening competency on campus: A psychometric analysis of student listening. International Journal of Listening, 24(3), 141-163

    Corley Schnapp, D. (2003, July). Listening in pastoral care. Paper presented to the meeting of the International Listening Association, Haninge, Sweden.

    DeVito, J. A. (2000). The elements of public speaking (7th ed.). New York, NY: Longman.

    Glenn, E. C. (1989). A content analysis of fifty definitions of listening. International Journal of Listening, 3(1), 21-31.

    Hoskins, N. S., Woszidlo, A., & Kunkel, A. (2016). Words Can Hurt the Ones You Love:

    Interpersonal Trust as it Relates to Listening Anxiety and Verbal Aggression. Iowa Journal of Communication, 48.

    Imhof, M. (2008). What have you listened to in school today? International Journal of Listening, 22(1), 1-12.

    International Listening Association. (1995, April). An ILA definition of listening, Listening Post, 53, 4.

    Janusik, L. A., & Wolvin, A. D. (2009). 24 hours in a day: A listening update to the time studies. International Journal of Listening, 23(2), 104-120.

    Kristinsson, K., Jonsdottir, I. J., & Snorrason, S. K. (2019). Employees’ Perceptions of Supervisors’ Listening Skills and Their Work-Related Quality of Life. Communication Reports, 32(3), 137-147.

    Kuhn, R., Bradbury, T. N., Nussbeck, F. W., & Bodenmann, G. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(6), 762-772.

    Listen. (2020, February 16) In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. Retrieved from

    Manusov, V., Stofleth, D., Harvey, J. A., & Crowley, J. P. (2018). Conditions and consequences of listening well for interpersonal relationships: modeling active-empathic listening, social-emotional skills, trait mindfulness, and relational quality. International Journal of Listening, 1-17.

    Mulanax, A., & Powers, W. G. (2001). Listening fidelity development and relationship to receiver apprehension and locus of control. International Journal of Listening, 15(1), 69-78.

    National Communication Association. (1998). Speaking and Listening Competencies for College Students. Retrieved from

    Nichols, R. G. (1948). Factors in listening comprehension. Communications Monographs, 15(2), 154-163.

    Pasupathi, M., Carstensen, L. L., Levenson, R. W., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Responsive listening in long-married couples: A psycholinguistic perspective. Journal of Nonverbal behavior, 23(2), 173-193

    Peterson, Deb. (2018, December 6). Listening Test - Are You a Good Listener? Retrieved from

    Powers, W. G., & Bodie, G. D. (2003). Listening fidelity: Seeking congruence between cognitions of the listener and the sender. International Journal of Listening, 17(1), 19-31.

    Rankin, P. T. (1926). The measurement of the ability to understand spoken language. University of Michigan.

    Ross, C. S., & Glenn, E. C. (1996). Listening between grown children and their parents. International Journal of Listening, 10(1), 49-64.

    Starkman, H., Fisher, K., Pilek, N. L., Lopez-Henriquez, G., Lynch, L., & Bilkins-Morgis, B. L. (2019). Listening to adolescents with uncontrolled diabetes, their parents and medical team. Families, Systems, & Health, 37(1), 30.

    Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion: An International Journal in English, 12, 1-8.

    Valli, L. (1997). Listening to other voices: A description of teacher reflection in the United States. Peabody journal of Education, 72(1), 67-88.

    Wolvin, A., & Coakley, C. G. (1996). Listening (5th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

    Worthington, D.L. & Bodie, G.D. (2018). Defining listening: a historical, theoretical, and pragmatic assessment. In G.D. Bodie (Ed.) The sourcebook of listening research: Methodology and measures. (pp. 3-18). John Wiley & Sons.

    Worthington, D. L., & Fitch-Hauser, M. E. (2012). Listening: Processes, functions, and competency. Routledge.


    Attention: The process of filtering out some messages and focusing on others.

    Back channel cues: Verbal and nonverbal signals we send while someone is talking and can consist of typically short utterances (e.g., “yeah”, “uh-huh,” “hmm,” and “right,”) and/or nonverbal cues like direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward.

    Interpretation: Occurs in the third phase of the listening process where the listener attempts to assign meaning to a message.

    Listen: Give attention to a sound, both verbal and nonverbal in an effort to make meaning .

    Listening: The process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages

    Listening fidelity: The degree of congruence between the cognitions of a listener and the cognition of a source following a communication event.

    Long-term memory: Involves the storage and recall of information over a long period of time

    Perception: Is the first step of the listening process where the listener initially becomes aware of the sounds

    Remembering: Ability to recall information

    Responding: Giving verbal and nonverbal feedback

    Short-term memory: Involves information being captured at the moment


    1. Finding Dory: Short Term Memory Loss: Here is a clip from the film Finding Dory (2016). While Dory forgets conversations within minutes of having them, she never quite forgets who she is, or the fact that she has short-term memory loss, and can therefore explain her bizarre behavior to those around her. Use this video to spark a discussion about how you failed to remember some basic information in a conversation and how it impacted your ability to listen:
    2. Relational Listening: It’s Not About the Nail: This clip very clearly shows how important it is to LISTEN even though there might be other obvious concerns that we might want to discuss with the sender. In interpersonal communication, relational listening includes providing reactions and responses for the person who is speaking. How would you have used relational listening in this situation? See the link:

    This page titled 7.1: The Fundamentals of Listening is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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