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5.4: Poor Listening Habits

  • Page ID
    107110
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    Learning Objectives

    1. Identify your own poor listening habits.
    2. Understand the types of noise that can affect a listener’s ability to attend to a message.
    3. Explain how a listener’s attention span can limit the listener’s ability to attend to a speaker’s message.
    4. Analyze how a listener’s personal biases can influence her or his ability to attend to a message.
    5. Define receiver apprehension and the impact it can have on a listener’s ability to attend to a message.

    Numerous tests confirm that we are inefficient listeners. Studies have shown that immediately after listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, understood, and retained 50 percent of what was said. Within 48 hours, that drops off another 50 percent to a final level of 25 percent efficiency. In other words, we often comprehend and retain only one-fourth of what we hear. We all want to be more than 25 percent efficient. Poor listening causes us many personal and professional problems.  It's not difficult to see the many problems inefficient listeners can create for themselves and others.

    Poor Listening Habits

    The International Listening Association identifies many listening habits that can interfere with our ability to listen effectively.  Here, we will analyze a few of the most common habits.

    Interrupting the Speaker

    Conversations unfold as a series of turns, and conversational turn-taking has been likened to a dance where communicators try to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. One of the most frequent glitches in the turn-taking process is an interruption, but not all interruptions are considered “bad listening.” An interruption could be unintentional if we misread cues and think a person is done speaking only to have him or her start up again at the same time we do. Sometimes interruptions are more like overlapping statements that show support (“I think so too.”) or excitement about the conversation (“That’s so cool!”). Supportive paralanguage like “uh-huh,” as we learned earlier, also overlaps with a speaker’s message.  All these interruptions are not typically thought of as evidence of bad listening unless they become distracting for the speaker or are unnecessary. Unintentional interruptions can still be considered bad listening if they result from mindless communication. So if you interrupt unintentionally, but because you were only half-listening, then the interruption is still evidence of bad listening. Or if you interrupt the speaker in an attempt to dominate the conversation, you are engaged in poor listening.  Hijacking the speaker's message with "That reminds me..." or "That's nothing, let me tell you about..." is evidence of an attempt to hijack the conversation.

    Faking attention

    Do you have a friend or family member who repeats stories? If so, then you’ve probably engaged in fake listening as a politeness strategy. Outwardly visible signals of attentiveness are an important part of the listening process, but when they are just an “act,” are bad listening behaviors.  Although it is a bad listening practice, we all understandably engage in faking attention from time to time, especially if the friend just needs a sounding board and isn’t expecting advice or guidance. We may also pseudo-listen to a romantic partner to prevent hurting their feelings. On the other hand, some of us constantly fake attention when we can't really afford to do so, such as in the classroom and at work. We should avoid faking attention as much as possible and should definitely avoid making it a listening habit. Although we may get away with it in some situations, each time we risk being “found out,” which could have negative consequences.

    Giving in to Internal and External Distractions

    Our ability to process more information more quickly than a speaker can talk often leads to internal distractions.  While people speak at a rate of 125 to 175 words per minute, we can process between 400 and 800 words per minute. (Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 195. This gap between speech rate and thought rate gives us an opportunity to engage in thoughts unrelated to the message. Because of this gap, it is impossible to give one message our “undivided attention,” but we can occupy other channels in our minds with thoughts related to the central message. For example, using some of your extra cognitive processing abilities to repeat, rephrase, or reorganize messages coming from one source allows you to use that extra capacity in a way that reinforces the primary message.

    A common problem for many in listening is that we give in to external barriers such as technology. 

    Technology, Multitasking, and Listening

    Do you like to listen to music while you do homework? Do you clean your apartment while talking to your mom on the phone? Do you think students should be allowed to use laptops in all college classrooms? Your answers to these questions will point to your preferences for multitasking. If you answered “yes” to most of them, then you are in line with the general practices of the “net generation” of digital natives for whom multitasking, especially with various forms of media, is a way of life. Multitasking is a concept that has been around for a while and emerged along with the increasing expectation that we will fill multiple role demands throughout the day. Multitasking can be pretty straightforward and beneficial—for example, if we listen to motivating music while working out. But multitasking can be very inefficient, especially when one or more of our concurrent tasks are complex or unfamiliar to us.  (Fleura Bardhi, Andres J. Rohm, and Fareena Sultan, “Tuning in and Tuning out: Media Multitasking among Young Consumers,” Journal of Consumer Behaviour 9 (2010): 318.)

    Media multitasking specifically refers to the use of multiple forms of media at the same time, and it can have positive and negative effects on listening. The negative effects of media multitasking have received much attention in recent years, as people question the decreasing attention span within our society. Media multitasking may promote inefficiency because it can lead to distractions and plays a prominent role for many in procrastination. The numerous options for media engagement that we have can also lead to a feeling of chaos as our attention is pulled in multiple directions, creating a general sense of disorder. And many of us feel a sense of enslavement when we engage in media multitasking, as we feel like we can’t live without certain personal media outlets.

    Media multitasking can also increase efficiency, as people can carry out tasks faster. The links to videos and online articles included in this textbook allow readers like you to quickly access additional information about a particular subject to prepare for a presentation or complete a paper assignment. Media multitasking can also increase engagement. Aside from just reading material in a textbook, students can now access information through an author’s blog or Twitter account.

    Media multitasking can produce an experience that feels productive, but is it really? What are the consequences of our media- and the technology-saturated world? Although many of us like to think that we’re good multitaskers, some research indicates otherwise. For example, student laptop use during class has been connected to lower academic performance. (Carrie B. Fried, “In-Class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning,” Computers and Education 50 (2008): 906–14. This is because media multitasking has the potential to interfere with listening to multiple stages of the process. The study showed that laptop use interfered with receiving, as students using them reported that they paid less attention to the class lectures. This is because students used the laptops for purposes other than taking notes or exploring class content. Of the students using laptops, 81 percent checked the e-mail during lectures, 68 percent used instant messaging, and 43 percent surfed the web. Students using laptops also had difficulty with the interpretation stage of listening, as they found less clarity in the parts of the lecture they heard and did not understand the course material as much as students who didn’t use a laptop. The difficulties with receiving and interpreting obviously create issues with recall that can lead to lower academic performance in the class. Laptop use also negatively affected the listening abilities of students not using laptops. These students reported that they were distracted, as their attention was drawn to the laptop screens of other students.  Although these examples are about laptops, cell phones have now taken over as likely distractions to listening.

    1. What are some common ways that you engage in media multitasking? What are some positive and negative consequences of your media multitasking?
    2. What strategies do you or could you use to help minimize the negative effects of media multitasking?
    3. Should laptops, smartphones, and other media devices be used by students during college classes? Why or why not? What restrictions or guidelines for use could instructors provide that would capitalize on the presence of such media to enhance student learning and help minimize distractions?

    From the book A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0). 

    4.3.0-1.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ian T. McFarland – Listen –  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Factors that Interfere with Listening

    Some of the factors that interfere with good listening might exist beyond our control, but others are manageable. It’s helpful to be aware of these factors so that they interfere as little as possible with understanding the message.

    Noise

    Noise is one of the biggest factors to interfere with listening; it can be defined as anything that interferes with your ability to attend to and understand a message. There are many kinds of noise, but we will focus on only the four you are most likely to encounter in public speaking situations: physical noise, psychological noise, physiological noise, and semantic noise.

    Physical noise consists of various sounds in an environment that interfere with a source’s ability to hear. Construction noises right outside a window, planes flying directly overhead, or loud music in the next room can make it difficult to hear the message being presented by a speaker even if a microphone is being used. It is sometimes possible to manage the context to reduce the noise. Closing a window might be helpful. Asking the people in the next room to turn their music down might be possible. Changing to a new location is more difficult, as it involves finding a new location and having everyone get there.  If you are responsible for organizing a meeting at work or school, consider the environment and, if possible, choose a setting where external noise won't interfere with communication and listening.

    Psychological noise consists of distractions to a speaker’s message caused by a receiver’s internal thoughts. For example, if you are preoccupied with personal problems, it is difficult to give your full attention to understanding the meanings of a message. The presence of another person to whom you feel attracted, or perhaps a person you dislike intensely, can also be psychosocial noise that draws your attention away from the message.

    Physiological noise consists of distractions to a speaker’s message caused by a listener’s own body. Maybe you’re listening to a speech in class around noon and you haven’t eaten anything. Your stomach may be growling and your desk is starting to look tasty. Maybe the room is cold and you’re thinking more about how to keep warm than about what the speaker is saying. In either case, your body can distract you from attending to the information being presented.

    Semantic noise occurs when a receiver experiences confusion over the meaning of a source’s word choice. While you are attempting to understand a particular word or phrase, the speaker continues to present the message. While you are struggling with a word interpretation, you are distracted from listening to the rest of the message. One of the authors was listening to a speaker who mentioned using a sweeper to clean carpeting. The author was confused, as she did not see how a broom would be effective in cleaning carpeting. Later, the author found out that the speaker was using the word “sweeper” to refer to a vacuum cleaner; however, in the meantime, her listening was hurt by her inability to understand what the speaker meant. 

    Types of Noise: Physical (Construction activity, barking dogs, loud music, air conditioners, airplanes, noisy conflict nearby), Psychological (Worries about money, crushing deadlines, the presence of specific other people in the room, tight daily schedule, biases related to the speaker or the content), Physiological (Feeling ill, having a headache, growling stomach, room is too cold or too hot), and Semantic (Special jargon, unique word usage, mispronunciation, euphemism, phrases from foreign languages)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Types of Noise

    Many distractions are the fault of neither the listener nor the speaker. However, when you are the speaker, being aware of these sources of noise can help you reduce some of the noise that interferes with your audience’s ability to understand you.

    Attention Span

    A person can only maintain focused attention for a finite length of time. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education professor Neil Postman argued that modern audiences have lost the ability to sustain attention to a message (Postman, 1985). More recently, researchers have engaged in an ongoing debate over whether Internet use is detrimental to attention span (Carr, 2010). Whether or not these concerns are well-founded, you have probably noticed that even when your attention is “glued” to something in which you are deeply interested, every now and then you pause to do something else, such as getting a drink of water, stretching, or looking out the window.

    The limits of the human attention span can interfere with listening, but listeners and speakers can use strategies to prevent this interference. As many classroom instructors know, listeners will readily renew their attention when the presentation includes frequent breaks in pacing (Middendorf & Kalish, 1996). For example, a fifty- to seventy-five-minute class session might include some lecture material alternated with questions for class discussion, video clips, handouts, and demonstrations. Instructors who are adept at holding listeners’ attention also move about the front of the room, writing on the board, drawing diagrams, and intermittently using slide transparencies or PowerPoint slides.

    If you have instructors who do a good job of keeping your attention, they are positive role models showing strategies you can use to accommodate the limitations of your audience’s attention span.

    Receiver Biases

    Good listening involves keeping an open mind and withholding judgment until the speaker has completed the message. Conversely, biased listening is characterized by jumping to conclusions; the biased listener believes, “I don’t need to listen because I already know what I think.” Receiver biases can refer to two things: biases with reference to the speaker and preconceived ideas and opinions about the topic or message. Both can be considered noise. Everyone has biases, but good listeners have learned to hold them in check while listening.

    The first type of bias listeners can have is related to the speaker. Often a speaker stands up and an audience member simply doesn’t like the speaker or doesn't care for the way the speaker is dressed, so the audience member may not listen to the speaker’s message. Maybe you have a classmate who just annoys you for some reason, or maybe you question a classmate’s competence on a given topic. When we have preconceived notions about a speaker, those biases can interfere with our ability to listen accurately and competently to the speaker’s message.

    The second type of bias listeners can have is related to the topic or content of the speech. Maybe the speech topic is one you’ve heard a thousand times, so you just tune out the speech. Or maybe the speaker is presenting a topic or position you fundamentally disagree with. When listeners have strong preexisting opinions about a topic, such as the death penalty, religious issues, affirmative action, abortion, or global warming, their biases may make it difficult for them to even consider new information about the topic, especially if the new information is inconsistent with what they already believe to be true. As listeners, we have difficulty identifying our biases, especially when they seem to make sense. However, it is worth recognizing that our lives would be very difficult if no one ever considered new points of view or new information. We live in a world where everyone can benefit from clear thinking and open-minded listening.  Oscar Wilde said, “Listening is a very dangerous thing. If one listens one may be convinced.”

    Listening or Receiver Apprehension

    Listening or receiver apprehension is the fear that you might be unable to understand the message or process the information correctly or be able to adapt your thinking to include the new information coherently (Wheeless, 1975). In some situations, you might worry that the information presented will be “over your head”—too complex, technical, or advanced for you to understand adequately.

    Many students will actually avoid registering for courses in which they feel certain they will do poorly. In other cases, students will choose to take a challenging course only if it’s a requirement. This avoidance might be understandable but is not a good strategy for success. To become educated people, students should take a few courses that can shed light on areas where their knowledge is limited.

    As a communicator, you can reduce listener apprehension by defining terms clearly and using simple visual aids to hold the audience’s attention. You don’t want to underestimate or overestimate your audience’s knowledge on a subject, so good audience analysis is always important. If you know your audience doesn’t have special knowledge on a given topic, you should start by defining important terms. Research has shown us that when listeners do not feel they understand a speaker’s message, their apprehension about receiving the message escalates. Imagine that you are listening to a speech about chemistry and the speaker begins talking about “colligative properties.” You may start questioning whether you’re even in the right place. When this happens, apprehension clearly interferes with a listener’s ability to accurately and competently understand a speaker’s message. As a speaker, you can lessen the listener’s apprehension by explaining that colligative properties focus on how much is dissolved in a solution, not on what is dissolved in a solution. You could also give an example that they might readily understand, such as saying that it doesn’t matter what kind of salt you use in the winter to melt ice on your driveway, what is important is how much salt you use.

    Key Takeaways

    • The International Listening Association has identified common habits that can lead to poor listening.
    • Listeners are often unable to accurately attend to messages because of four types of noise. Physical noise is caused by the physical setting a listener is in. Psychological noise exists within a listener’s own mind and prevents him or her from attending to a speaker’s message. Physiological noise exists because a listener’s body is feeling some sensation that prevents him or her from attending to a speaker’s message. Semantic noise is caused by a listener’s confusion over the meanings of words used by a speaker.
    • All audiences have a limited attention span. As a speaker, you must realize how long you can reasonably expect an audience to listen to your message.
    • Listeners must be aware of the biases they have for speakers and the topics speakers choose. Biases can often prevent a listener from accurately and competently listening to a speaker’s actual message.
    • Receiver apprehension is the fear that a listener might be unable to understand the message, process the information correctly, or adapt thinking to include new information coherently. Speakers need to make sure their messages are appropriate to the audience’s knowledge level and clearly define and explain all terms that could lead to increased anxiety.

    Learning Activities

    1. In a group, discuss what distracts you most from listening attentively to a speaker. Have you found ways to filter out or manage the distraction?
    2. This chapter refers to psychological noise as one of the distractions you might experience. Identify strategies you have successfully used to minimize the impact of the specific psychological noises you have experienced.
    3. Make a list of biases you might have as a listener. You can think about how you’d answer such questions as, With whom would I refuse to be seen socially or in public? Who would I reject as a trustworthy person to help if I were in danger? What topics do I refuse to discuss? The answers to these questions might provide useful insights into your biases as a listener.

    Note

    Carr, N. (2010, May 24). The Web shatters focus, rewires brains. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/all/1.

    International Listening Association. "Are you listening?" International Listening Association. Retrieved 2021. https://www.listen.org/Are-you-Listening

    Middendorf, J., & Kalish, A. (1996). The “change-up” in lectures. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5(2).

    Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking Press.

     A Primer on Communication Studies (v. 1.0).

    Wheeless, L. R. (1975). An investigation of receiver apprehension and social context dimensions of communication apprehension. Speech Teacher, 24, 261–268.


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