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4.2: Types of Listening

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    62846
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    Listening serves many purposes, and different situations require different types of listening. The type of listening we engage in affects our communication and how others respond to us. For example, when we listen to empathize with others, our communication will likely be supportive and open, which will then lead the other person to feel “heard” and supported and hopefully view the interaction positively.1 The main types of listening we will discuss are discriminative, informational, critical, empathetic2 and appreciative.

    Discriminative Listening

    Discriminative listening, is a focused and usually instrumental type of listening that is primarily physiological and occurs mostly at the receiving stage of the listening process.3 It is sometimes referred to as listening for discernment because it involves listening for specific sounds.  Here we engage in listening to scan and monitor our surroundings in order to isolate particular stimuli. For example, we may focus our listening on a dark part of the yard while walking the dog at night to determine if the noise we just heard presents us with any danger. In the absence of a hearing impairment, we have an innate and physiological ability to engage in discriminative listening. Although this is the most basic form of listening, it provides the foundation on which more intentional listening skills are built. This type of listening can be refined and honed. Think of how musicians, singers, and mechanics exercise specialized discriminative listening to isolate sounds.  Even parents can hear the sound of their own baby’s cry and distinguish it from any other child.

    Informational Listening

    Informational listening entails listening with the goal of comprehending and retaining information. This type of listening is not evaluative and is common in teaching and learning contexts ranging from a student listening to an informative speech to an out-of-towner listening to directions to the nearest gas station. We also use informational listening when we listen to news reports, voice mail, and briefings at work. Since retention and recall are important components of informational listening, good concentration and memory skills are key. These also happen to be skills that many college students struggle with, at least in the first years of college, but will be expected to have mastered once they get into professional contexts. In many professional contexts, informational listening is important, especially when receiving instructions. I caution my students that they will be expected to process verbal instructions more frequently in their profession than they are in college. Most college professors provide detailed instructions and handouts with assignments so students can review them as needed, but many supervisors and managers will expect you to take the initiative to remember or record vital information. Additionally, many bosses are not as open to questions or requests to repeat themselves as professors are.

    Critical Listening

    Critical listening8 entails listening with the goal of analyzing or evaluating a message based on information presented verbally and information that can be inferred from context. A critical listener evaluates a message and accepts it, rejects it, or decides to withhold judgment and seek more information. As constant consumers of messages, we need to be able to assess the credibility of speakers and their messages and identify various persuasive appeals and faulty logic (known as fallacies). Critical listening is important during persuasive exchanges, but I recommend always employing some degree of critical listening, because you may find yourself in a persuasive interaction that you thought was informative.  For example, critical listening skills are useful when listening to a political speech, being on a jury, and when processing any of the persuasive media messages we receive daily. You can see judges employ critical listening, with varying degrees of competence, on talent competition shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice. While the exchanges between judge and contestant on these shows is expected to be subjective and critical, critical listening is also important when listening to other speakers that have stated or implied objectivity, such as parents, teachers, doctors, and religious leaders. Given the number of instances in which you listen critically, it is clear that there is often a high level of analysis in your listening so that you can make informed decisions.

    Empathetic Listening

    Empathetic listening is the most challenging form of listening and occurs when we try to understand or experience what a speaker is thinking or feeling. Empathetic listening is distinct from sympathetic listening. While the word empathy means to “feel into” or “feel with” another person, sympathy means to “feel for” someone. Sympathy is generally more self-oriented and distant than empathy.4 Empathetic listening is other oriented and should be genuine. Because of our own centrality in our perceptual world, empathetic listening can be difficult. It’s often much easier for us to tell our own story or to give advice than it is to really listen to and empathize with someone else. We should keep in mind that sometimes others just need to be heard and our feedback isn’t actually desired.

    Empathetic listening is key for dialogue and helps maintain interpersonal relationships. In order to reach dialogue, people must have a degree of open-mindedness and a commitment to civility that allows them to be empathetic while still allowing them to believe in and advocate for their own position. Empathetic listening focuses on offering support to another individual without judgment, therefore it is not only one of the most important listening skills you can have, but one of the most difficult to achieve.

    Appreciative Listening

    Finally, as communicators we often engage in appreciative listening.  It is easy to understand that listening to music, watching a movie, or going to a theatre would allow us to simply listen for enjoyment.  We can also engage in conversations with friends or others that have no purpose other than enjoyment.  Think about a time when a friend told you a funny story, or you just got together to talk about what is happening in each other’s lives.  You may even have a college professor that you find entertaining!  Appreciative listening is the easiest type of listening because you do not have to necessarily engage in analysis.

    Although we can engage in each of these listening types independently, you will find that you can will use more than one type at the same time.  If you are in a college class, you will most definitely need to focus on informational listening, but if your instructor is telling a story, you may also be listening appreciatively.

    Listening Styles

    Just as there are different types of listening, there are also different styles of listening. People may be categorized as one or more of the following listeners: people-oriented, action-oriented, content-oriented, and time-oriented listeners. Research finds that 40 percent of people have more than one preferred listening style, and that they choose a style based on the listening situation.5 Other research finds that people often still revert back to a single preferred style in times of emotional or cognitive stress, even if they know a different style of listening would be better.6 Following a brief overview of each listening style, we will explore some of their applications, strengths, and weaknesses.

    People-Oriented Listeners

    People-oriented listeners7 are concerned about the emotional states of others and listen with the purpose of offering support in interpersonal relationships. People-oriented listeners can be characterized as “supporters” who are caring and understanding. These listeners are sought out because they are known as people who will “lend an ear.” They may or may not be valued for the advice they give, but all people often want is a good listener. This type of listening may be especially valuable in interpersonal communication involving emotional exchanges, as a person-oriented listener can create a space where people can make themselves vulnerable without fear of being cut off or judged. People-oriented listeners are likely skilled empathetic listeners and may find success in supportive fields like counseling, social work, or nursing. Interestingly, such fields are typically feminized, in that people often associate the characteristics of people-oriented listeners with roles filled by women. 

    Action-Oriented Listeners

    Action-oriented listeners8 focus on what action needs to take place in regards to a received message and try to formulate an organized way to initiate that action. These listeners are frustrated by disorganization, because it detracts from the possibility of actually doing something. Action-oriented listeners can be thought of as “builders”—like an engineer, a construction site foreperson, or a skilled project manager. This style of listening can be very effective when a task needs to be completed under time, budgetary, or other logistical constraints. One research study found that people prefer an action-oriented style of listening in instructional contexts.9 In other situations, such as interpersonal communication, action-oriented listeners may not actually be very interested in listening, instead taking a “What do you want me to do?” approach. A friend and colleague of mine who exhibits some qualities of an action-oriented listener once told me about an encounter she had with a close friend who had a stillborn baby. My friend said she immediately went into “action mode.” Although it was difficult for her to connect with her friend at an emotional/ empathetic level, she was able to use her action-oriented approach to help out in other ways as she helped make funeral arrangements, coordinated with other family and friends, and handled the details that accompanied this tragic emotional experience. As you can see from this example, the action-oriented listening style often contrasts with the people-oriented listening style.

    Content-Oriented Listeners

    Content-oriented listeners like to listen to complex information and evaluate the content of a message, often from multiple perspectives, before drawing conclusions. These listeners can be thought of as “learners,” and they also ask questions to solicit more information to fill out their understanding of an issue. Content-oriented listeners often enjoy high perceived credibility because of their thorough, balanced, and objective approach to engaging with information. Content- oriented listeners are likely skilled informational and critical listeners and may find success in academic careers in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences. Ideally, judges and politicians would also possess these characteristics.

    Time-Oriented Listeners

    Time-oriented listeners13 are more concerned about time limits and timelines than they are with the content or senders of a message. These listeners can be thought of as “executives,” and they tend to actually verbalize the time constraints under which they are operating.

    For example, a time-oriented supervisor may say the following to an employee who has just entered his office and asked to talk: “Sure, I can talk, but I only have about five minutes.” These listeners may also exhibit nonverbal cues that indicate time and/or attention shortages, such as looking at a clock, avoiding eye contact, or nonverbally trying to close down an interaction. Time-oriented listeners are also more likely to interrupt others, which may make them seem insensitive to emotional/personal needs. People often get action-oriented and time-oriented listeners confused. Action-oriented listeners would be happy to get to a conclusion or decision quickly if they perceive that they are acting on well-organized and accurate information. They would, however, not mind taking longer to reach a conclusion when dealing with a complex topic, and they would delay making a decision if the information presented to them didn’t meet their standards of organization. Unlike time-oriented listeners, action-oriented listeners are not as likely to cut people off (especially if people are presenting relevant information) and are not as likely to take short cuts.

    Key Takeaways

    Exercises

    References

    1. Graham D. Bodie and William A. Villaume, “Aspects of Receiving Information: The Relationships between Listening Preferences, Communication Apprehension, Receiver Apprehension, and Communicator Style,” International Journal of Listening 17, no. 1 (2003): 48.
    2. Kittie W. Watson, Larry L. Barker, and James B. Weaver III, “The Listening Styles Profile (LS-16): Development and Validation of an Instrument to Assess Four Listening Styles,” International Journal of Listening 9 (1995): 1–13.
    3. Andrew D. Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley, “A Listening Taxonomy,” in Perspectives on Listening, eds. Andrew D. Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley (Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation, 1993), 18–19.
    4. Tom Bruneau, “Empathy and Listening,” in Perspectives on Listening, eds. Andrew D. Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley (Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation, 1993), 188.
    5. Graham D. Bodie and William A. Villaume, “Aspects of Receiving Information: The Relationships between Listening Preferences, Communication Apprehension, Receiver Apprehension, and Communicator Style,” International Journal of Listening 17, no. 1 (2003): 50.
    6. Debra L. Worthington, “Exploring the Relationship between Listening Style Preference and Personality,” International Journal of Listening 17, no. 1 (2003): 82.
    7. Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 2.
    8. Kipling D. Williams and Lisa Zadro, “Ostracism: On Being Ignored, Excluded, and Rejected,” in Interpersonal Rejection, ed. Mark R. Leary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 21–54.
    9. Margarete Imhof, “Who Are We as We Listen? Individual Listening Profiles in Varying Contexts,” International Journal of Listening 18, no. 1 (2004): 39.

    Contributors and Attributions


    This page titled 4.2: Types of Listening is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Victoria Leonard.

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