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5: Listening

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    Four men standing around talking
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Talkikng and listening. (CC0; Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent via Paxels )

    Listening is a critical communication skill. Watch William Ury, a Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation faculty member, discuss the importance of listening in high-stakes negotiations.

    Believe it or not, it appears that one reason elementary school children fail to develop adequate reading comprehension skills is because they haven’t developed good listening comprehension skills. At least that’s what one study says. (Hogan, Adlof & Alonzo, 2015).

    What is listening? It’s the active process of making meaning out of another person’s spoken message. It’s different than hearing, which is the process of physically receiving sound. A tree falls, a car screeches, a gunshot rings out, thunder booms . . . sound enters our ear canal, vibrates off our eardrum, and we perceive the sound in our brains. But none of those convey a message to us.

    On the other hand, when a person speaks – whether in person, on TV, or on digital media –when his voice vibrates off our eardrum, we receive a message, provided we have been paying attention. The process of paying attention is called attending. We can attend, even when we don’t understand a foreign language. As a teenager, I used to engage in shortwave listening, using a special radio to hear stations in other countries. I didn’t understand much French, but when I heard “Ici Radio Canada,” I knew I was listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. When I heard “Ici Radio Brazzaville,” I was listening to a station in French Equatorial Africa (now the Republic of the Congo). When I heard “Ici Radio France” I was listening to the French equivalent of the Voice of America. On the other hand, when I heard “Hier ist der Deutsche Welle” I was listening to the German shortwave station.

    But let’s face it. All too often, we engage in mindless listening. Test yourself now: Can you list five key points in William Ury’s TED Talk video? If you go to church when you leave church, can you discuss the sermon? If not, you have engaged in mindless listening. Mindless listening is not always a bad thing. In fact, mindless listening can be a valuable strategy for many of the messages we receive. One of the facts of modern life is that we are susceptible to message overload.

    Consider a drive to class. If you live in the Washington, D.C., area, we have an all-news radio station, WTOP, that broadcasts weather and traffic every 10 minutes, beginning at eight minutes after the hour. Driving along, you might hear the traffic reporter tell about an accident in Virginia on I-66. If you’re in Maryland, you won’t even hear that, you’ll completely ignore it because it has no impact on you. But if you’re in Maryland driving to Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) and you hear the reporter say, “In Maryland, on the Capital Beltway Inner Loop at Maryland 214 . . . “ you’ll pay attention because that’s one of the major access points to the PGCC campus. When we pay attention to important messages, we engage in mindful listening. We also (hopefully) engage in mindful listening to our professors, our bosses, and our parents or partners.

    Another poor listening practice involves selective listening. In a word, we hear what we want to hear and ignore the rest. For example, someone hears wine is heart-healthy, but ignores the part about moderate consumption (two glasses, at most, for men, and just one for women), exercise, and adequate sleep.

    Stage hogs are only interested in what they want to say. They will talk right over you. Watch this video for an example of a stage hog in action. Closely related to stage hogism is a rebuttal tendency, debating a speaker’s point and formulating your reply while the speaker is still speaking. Also closely related to stage hogism is competitive interrupting where listeners use interruptions to take control of the conversation. This isn’t a case where the listener wants more information. When a listener engages in competitive interrupting, he simply wants to take over the conversation.

    When engaged in mindful listening, it is important not only that we understand the message but that we remember it. Understanding involves comprehension. While I might understand “Ici Radio Brazzaville,” it’s highly unlikely I would understand a newscast in French since I don’t speak or read French. And, even if I do understand French, if I don’t take notes, it’s likely I would quickly forget what was said. In fact, one study found people forget 40% of what they learned in 20 minutes and 70% in six days (University of Waterloo, 2022). Another found we forget 50% to 80% of what we learn after one month and 97% to 98% after one month. Regardless of what the actual number is, the simple fact is we forget a lot.

    his is why, if you are a student or someone (such as a reporter) for whom it is important to remember what you hear, it’s vital to take good notes. Here is an excellent video on the subject:

    How to study efficiently: the Cornell Notes Method

    The Cornell Notes Method is really good for taking notes in a lecture.

    (An aside: It won’t surprise you to learn that academics, especially those who get doctorates, do a lot of reading. The Red Head Academic on YouTube tells how to read for class, how to read for retention, and how to read for research. My guess is that you won’t watch this video, although I will tell you that I really wish I had seen it while in my graduate program!)

    When we listen we have several ways we can respond. We can stonewall. We don’t say a word, and we have a blank face. When this happens to you, you wonder if they are even listening. Stonewalling often signals a lack of interest in what the speaker is saying. We might also back channel, nodding our head, saying, “uh-huh” or “I understand.” The purpose of back channeling is to let the speaker know you’re paying attention. Both of these are passive listening modes.

    An active listening mode might involve paraphrasing, which is restating in your own words what the speaker has said to show you understand; empathizing, where we convey to the speaker that we understand his or her feelings on the subject; supporting, where we express agreement with the speaker’s opinion or view; analyzing, where we provide our own perspective on what the speaker has said, and advising, which is providing advice to the speaker. Men tend to advise more than women. Finally, we can respond by questioning. This is a primary technique in therapy and in consulting.

    Do you want to be known as a good conversationalist? To be liked by nearly everyone? The secret is not necessarily so much to be witty in what you say but to be a good listener. Celeste Headlee, an NPR talk show host, shares 10 ways to have a better conversation.

    Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation


    • List the 10 ways she suggests.
    • Who was her famous grandfather, and why did he have all those people over to his house?

    Six Poor Listening Practices

    In pseudo-listening, we pretend to listen, but we’re not listening at all.

    • In what situations might you pseudo-listen? (In a face-to-face class, be prepared to discuss. In an online class, list at least one.)

    Watch this video. Note the transition from passive to active listening. But is the woman empathizing, or supporting or is she engaging in pseudo-listening? How can you tell?

    Active listening – Big Band Theory

    Watch this video to get a better understanding of empathy;

    Communicate with Empathy

    • What are the three key takeaways about empathy the video discusses? If you’re in a face-to-face class, be prepared to discuss where you need more empathy in your life. If you’re an online student, write a short 100-250 word essay on the topic.

    When it comes to questioning, there are two categories of questions – open versus closed and sincere versus counterfeit. Open questions allow the responder to answer with as much detail as the listener wants. Closed questions typically elicit one-word answers.

    Sincere questions are typically a genuine attempt to seek information. Counterfeit questions are typically a disguised attempt to send a message and are often found in passive-aggressive communication.

    There are three types of listening: informational, critical, and empathetic Informational is just what it means – we use it to gain information. When we ask how to get to the airport, we engage in informational listening. In critical listening, we listen to analyze. It’s not necessary to approve or disapprove, but it is necessary to analyze and evaluate the merits of what the speaker is saying.

    • Listen to this clip and then respond to the question in the clip. (This is a critical listening exercise).

    Empathic listening is very challenging for many people. It involves two distinct skills: (1) the ability to understand how someone else is feeling and then (2) experience those feelings yourself.

    Why it Can Be Hard to Listen Effectively

    Noise. Yes, noise. Not only physical noise, such as street traffic, but also psychological noise, such as what goes on in your head when you arrive at class after having had a fight with your significant other. Also, physiological phenomena, such as needing to use the bathroom are considered noise.

    Information Overload. We simply have too much information to process effectively.

    Rapid thought. Our brains can comprehend up to 600 words a minute, but we speak only about 150 words a minute. So you listen and fill your brain one-quarter of the time. The other three-quarters it has time to wander. This can cause you to miss important details, to listen less critically than normal, and appear to a speaker you aren’t listening at all.

    How to Improve Your Active Listening Skills

    To wrap up this chapter, Dr. Grace Lee, an executive coach provides practical expertise based on neuroscience to help you close the gap in your listening skills.

    Your Secret Weapon to Listen Better

    • List the five filters Dr. Lee mentions, and identify the filter you think is most important in your listening.

    5: Listening is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 1.3 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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