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.
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 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 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 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 Race, America’s Got Talent and The Voice.
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).
- 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.
- 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?
- Getting integrated: Identify how critical listening might be useful for you in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic.
- Listening scholars have noted that empathetic listening is the most difficult type of listening. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Which style of listening best describes you and why? Which style do you have the most difficulty with or like the least and why?