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5.3: Listening Styles and Types

  • Page ID
    107109
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    Learning Objectives

    1. Understand the nature of listening styles.
    2. Explain the people listening style.
    3. Explain the action listening style.
    4. Explain the content listening style.
    5. Explain the time listening style.
    6. Understand the basic types of listening: discriminative, information, critical, and empathetic.
    QUASER - Project Management Board Meeting no ISCTE-IUL_0007
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Iscte - Instituto Universitário de Lisboa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    If listening were easy, and if all people went about it in the same way, teaching listening would be much easier. One reason for the complexity of teaching listening is that people have ways of listening. Aristotle, as long ago as 325 BC, recognized that listeners in his audience were varied in listening styles

    Styles of Listening

    Part of the potential for misunderstanding is the difference in listening styles. In an article in the International Journal of Listening, Watson, Barker, and Weaver (Watson, et al., 1995) identified four listening styles: people, action, content, and time.

    People

    The people-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. People-oriented listeners listen to the message in order to learn how the speaker thinks and how they feel about their message. For instance, when people-oriented listeners listen to an interview with a famous rap artist, they are likely to be more curious about the artist as an individual than about music, even though the people-oriented listener might also appreciate the artist’s work. If you are a people-oriented listener, you might have certain questions you hope will be answered, such as: Does the artist feel successful? What’s it like to be famous? What kind of educational background does he or she have? In the same way, if we’re listening to a doctor who responded to the earthquake crisis in Haiti, we might be more interested in the doctor as a person than in the state of affairs for Haitians. Why did he or she go to Haiti? How did he or she get away from his or her normal practice and patients? How many lives did he or she save? We might be less interested in the equally important and urgent needs for food, shelter, and sanitation following the earthquake.

    The people-oriented listener is likely to be more attentive to the speaker than to the message.

    Action

    Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else? It’s sometimes difficult for an action-oriented speaker to listen through the descriptions, evidence, and explanations with which a speaker builds his or her case.

    Action-oriented listening is sometimes called task-oriented listening. This type of listener seeks a clear message about what needs to be done and might have less patience for listening to the reasons behind the task. This can be especially true if the reasons are complicated. For example, when you’re a passenger on an airplane waiting to push back from the gate, a flight attendant delivers a brief speech called the preflight safety briefing. The flight attendant does not read the findings of a safety study or the regulations about seat belts. The flight attendant doesn’t explain that the content of his or her speech is actually mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Instead, the attendant says only to buckle up so we can leave. An action-oriented listener finds “buckling up” a more compelling message than a message about the underlying reasons.

    Content

    Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message itself, whether it makes sense, what it means, and whether it’s accurate. When you give a speech or lead a meeting at work, many members of your audience will be content-oriented listeners who will be interested in learning from you. You, therefore, have an obligation to represent the truth in the fullest way you can. You can emphasize an idea, but if you exaggerate, you could lose credibility in the minds of your content-oriented audience. You can advocate ideas that are important to you, but if you omit important limitations, you are withholding part of the truth and could leave your audience with an inaccurate view.

    Imagine you’re delivering a speech on the plight of orphans in Africa. If you just talk about the fact that there are over forty-five million orphans in Africa but don’t explain why you’ll sound like an infomercial. In such an instance, your audience’s response is likely to be less enthusiastic than you might want. Instead, content-oriented listeners want to listen to well-developed information with solid explanations.

    Time

    People using a time-oriented listening style prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. Time-oriented listeners can become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations. This kind of listener may be receptive for only a brief amount of time and may become rude or even hostile if the communicator expects a longer focus of attention. Time-oriented listeners convey their impatience through eye-rolling, shifting about in their seats, checking their cell phones, and other inappropriate behaviors. If you’ve been asked to speak to a group of middle-school students, you need to realize that their attention spans are simply not as long as those of college students. This is the important reason why speeches or conversations with young audiences must be shorter or broken up by more variety than speeches to adults.

    In your professional future, some of your audience members will have real time constraints, not merely perceived ones. Imagine that you’ve been asked to speak about a new project to the board of directors of a local corporation. Chances are the people on the board of directors are all pressed for time. If your speech is long and filled with overly detailed information, time-oriented listeners will simply start to tune you out as you’re speaking. Obviously, if time-oriented listeners start tuning you out, they will not be listening to your message. This is not the same thing as being a time-oriented listener who might be less interested in the message content than in its length.

    Just as there are many different listening styles, people also engage in different types of listening. 

    Listening Types

    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. (Bodie)  

    The main types of listening we will discuss are discriminative, informational, critical, and empathetic. (Watson) 

    Discriminative Listening

    Discriminative listening occurs mostly at the receiving stage of the listening process. Here we engage in listening to scan and monitor our surroundings in order to focus on particular sounds. 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. Or we may look for a particular nonverbal cue to let us know our conversational partner received our message. (Hargie)  In the absence of 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 specific sounds and how parents train themselves to listen to sounds from their baby's room that might indicate the baby is in distress. (Watson)

    Informational Listening

    Informational listening entails listening with the goal of comprehending and retaining information. This type of listening is common in 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 listening 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), which you can learn more about in the chapter on Persuasive Speaking. 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. Critical-listening skills are useful when listening to a persuasive speech in this class 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 RaceAmerica’s Got Talent and The Voice.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): We support others through empathetic listening. (Thinkstock. A Primer on Communication Studies)

    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. (Bruneau)  Empathetic listening is other-oriented and should be genuine. Because of our own egocentrism, 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. An excellent example of critical and empathetic listening in action is the international Truth and Reconciliation movement. The first TRC in the United States occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, as a means of processing the events and aftermath of November 3, 1979, when members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed five members of the Communist Worker’s Party during a daytime confrontation witnessed by news crews and many bystanders. The goal of such commissions is to allow people to tell their stories, share their perspectives in an open environment, and be listened to. (http://www.greensborotrc.org/truth_reconciliation.php).

    Key Takeaways

    • A listening style is a general manner in which an individual attends to the messages of another person.
    • People-oriented listeners pay attention to the personal details of a speaker and not to the speaker’s actual message.
    • Action-oriented listeners pay attention to the physical actions a speaker wants the listener to engage in.
    • Content-oriented listeners pay attention to the meaning and credibility of a speaker’s message.
    • Time-oriented listeners pay attention to messages that are short and concise as a result of limited attention spans or limited time commitments.
    • Discriminative listening is the most basic form of listening, and we use it to distinguish between and focus on specific sounds. We use informational listening to try to comprehend and retain information. Through critical listening, we analyze and evaluate messages at various levels. We use empathetic listening to try to understand or experience what a speaker is feeling.

    Exercises

    1. The recalling stage of the listening process is a place where many people experience difficulties. What techniques do you use or could you use to improve your recall of certain information such as people’s names, key concepts from your classes, or instructions or directions given verbally?
    2. Getting integrated: Identify how critical listening might be useful for you in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic.
    3. Listening scholars have noted that empathetic listening is the most difficult type of listening. Do you agree? Why or why not?
    4. Which style of listening best describes you and why? Which style do you have the most difficulty with or like the least and why?
    5. As you prepare for presenting a speech, identify ways that you can adapt your message to each of the listening styles noted in this section.

    References

    Aristotle. (c. 350 BCE). Rhetoric (W. Rhys Roberts, Trans.). Book I, Part 3, para. 1. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.1.i.html.

    Bruneau, Tom. “Empathy and Listening,” in Perspectives on Listening, eds. Andrew D. Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley (Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation, 1993), 188, from  A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0).

    Hargie, Owen. Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 185. Taken from "Understanding How and Why We Listen”, section 5.1, from the book A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0).

    Watson, K. W., Barker, L. L., & Weaver, J. B., III. (1995). The listening styles profile (LSP-16): Development and validation of an instrument to assess four listening styles. International Journal of Listening, 9, 1–13.

    Wolvin, Andrew  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. Taken from "Understanding How and Why We Listen”, section 5.1, from the book A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0).


    5.3: Listening Styles and Types is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.