After completing this section, students should be able to:
- define listening
- explain the frequency with which we use the four communication behaviors
- discuss the three purposes of listening
- identify the components of the HURIER model
- demonstrate how to attend to a speaker using the SOLER model
- explain how to stay attentive using vocalized listening
Human relationships are built on communication. As we speak and listen, learn about each other, and get to know each other in personal ways, relationships grow and thrive. Our relationships are defined by how we communicate, including what we talk about, when we talk about it, and how we respond. The substance of relationships is how we communicate. Interaction is comprised of what we tell each other (disclosure) and how we attend to each other’s disclosure (listening).
We engage in four communication behaviors: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Of these four, listening is by far the most frequently used. According to the International Listening Association, "Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages" (Verderber and MacGeorge, p. 197).
Ever since the first major study to assess listening time, the Rankin study of 1926, researchers have looked at how we use each of these behaviors within our overall communication package (Brownell, 2010). Taking into account a range of studies since Rankin, we can estimate the breakdown of our communication behaviors as shown in Image 1. The specific distribution of our individual communication behaviors will change daily and according to variables such as jobs, interests, and activities.
An interesting contrast is the time we spend on learning each of these behaviors which is directly inverted to the time we spend on each. From kindergarten to college we take classes on improving writing ability. We are taught how to read well into high school. High school students spend significantly less time learning public speaking than they do reading and writing. Listening, which is the most commonly used communication behavior, is rarely taught as a unique, identifiable skill.
Listening is the most relational of all our communication behaviors. How we listen to another affects our relationships more than anything else we do. Too often we focus on what to say, when in actuality we need to focus far more on just listening to what the other person is saying. When others focus on us, attending to what we have to say, and really listening and understanding our concerns, they are giving us a powerful message of worth and value.
Purposes of Listening
There are three major purposes for listening: to listen critically, to listen empathically, and to listen appreciatively.
- Listening critically means to listen to determine the truth, validity, accuracy, or usefulness of information. We listen analytically to gain a thorough understanding of the message, which allows us to make judgments about a message. Whenever we watch a commercial for a product or service, we need to listen carefully and make judgments about the quality of the information before we spend money. Students should be listening critically in a classroom to really understand the information being presented. Listening critically does not inherently mean listening cynically (assuming everyone is lying), but means to listen with depth and attention to detail to thoroughly understand what is being said.
- Listening empathically means listening for the emotional content of the message and responding appropriately. Empathic listening is the most common style of listening we use. In conversation with a friend we might ask them how they are doing, and if they say, “Not so good,” clearly something is on their mind which needs processing. In the process of empathic listening, we recognize the emotional state, encourage the speaker to express and process what is going on, and then we respond in a supportive manner appropriate to the situation. If they are sad, we need to listen for and respond appropriately to their sadness; if they are happy, we need to listen to the reasons for their happiness and respond appropriately to share in their happiness. When we listen empathically, we validate and affirm the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.
- Listening appreciatively means listening for enjoyment. When we listen to music, television, and movies, we are usually listening appreciatively. Rarely do we listen to these media very critically; rather, we listen for pleasure. Appreciative listening has many levels, all the way from superficial to deep. When watching an episode of a sitcom on television, we generally listen superficially, but when listening to a complex piece of music, we may listen more deeply.
A Model of Listening
Just like other aspects of communication, listening is a multi-faceted process. Judi Brownell (2010), author of Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills, proposes the HURIER model as a description of the listening process. The HURIER acronym stands for:
The HURIER model is not a series of steps; the model functions to process interdependent components of stimuli.
- Hearing is our ability to focus on and perceive the stimuli itself. In addition to the basic, physical process of capturing and processing the stimuli, the hearing stage also addresses our need to focus and concentrate on the message.
- Understanding is decoding the message. We attach meaning to the symbols we receive, so we are focusing only on the verbal message.
- Remembering is retaining what we have heard to be able to act on the message.
- Interpreting is taking the message we have decoded, consider the whole communication package of nonverbal and verbal, and look deeper at what was meant and what underlying messages may be involved.
- Evaluating is making judgments about what we have heard. In a critical listening situation, we obviously need to make careful judgments about what we are being told. In an interpersonal setting, we need to make judgments of the degree of the emotion and what our role as a friend may be.
- Responding refers to how we react to the message. We need to consider what is more appropriate or less appropriate as feedback. We also need to realize our comments, questions, or even nonverbal feedback can send strong messages about the worth of the other person and the importance of their concerns.
While the HURIER model illustrates how listening is multi-faceted and complex, we will focus mainly on hearing and responding.
The hearing stage has two parts: the physical process of hearing, and how we focus on the stimuli. We will focus our attention on the latter: how we concentrate on the message the speaker is sending. The more we focus on the message and the core stimuli, we maximize our reception of the message and we minimize external noise; thus, we "hear" more effectively.
To increase concentration, we engage in attending, the act of focusing on the speaker. Attending behaviors are the actions we use to focus on the message. The core attending behaviors are summarized in the acronym SOLER.
S = Square
O = Open
L = Lean
E = Eye Contact
R = Respond
While all of these attending behaviors have to be used thoughtfully and appropriately for the context, they can work wonderfully in helping us to focus on the significant stimuli.
Square means we need to face the person as directly as possible. As we turn away from the listener, we direct our focus elsewhere, so facing the person narrows our field to the speaker. However, we must adapt for physical, social, and cultural conventions. Generally, two males in west central Minnesota do not face each other directly for casual conversation; such a face-to-face stance is more often seen as a sign of aggression. Howard Mohr (1987), author of How to Talk Minnesotan, accurately identifies a 45º angle as proper body orientation for males. However, two women speaking face-to-face are generally seen as having a personal conversation, not acting aggressively. While sitting, we may only turn our upper bodies or head, not attempting to radically rearrange furniture. The important point in facing the speaker is they will see we are making them the focus of our attention.
Open refers to body posture. Crossed arms, crossed legs, head down, and other like behaviors can be seen as closing off the listener from the speaker. Arms down, head up, and shoulders back serve to open the listener’s posture, inviting the speaker to send their message
Lean means to demonstrate interest and focus by leaning toward the source of the message. Leaning helps us narrow our field of focus even more, making the reception of the message easier. The stereotypical back row of students in a traditional classroom, leaning back to the point of being in danger of sliding under the desk, might be regarded as disengaged by their teacher. Yet, the same students viewing a sporting event on TV will likely lean their body posture forward as they engage themselves in a message they find more interesting.
Eye Contact is when we demonstrate to the speaker we are paying attention. The speaker’s face becomes the prime field of when eye contact is used appropriately, and it orients our ears to get the sound most effectively. Eye contact works well to minimize external noise by narrowing our focus on the core stimuli, and allows us to focus more effectively on nonverbal visual messages, such as facial expression.
Respond refers to the subtle, primarily nonverbal behaviors we use to demonstrate we are paying attention. The head nods, facial expressions, or vocal utterances let the speaker know we are focused on them. While speaking on the phone to someone who does not give typical responses such as “oh,” “uh huh,” it seems strange to attempt to speak to someone without getting feedback.
A primary function of the attending behaviors is to help us focus on the speaker, the message, and the actual stimuli. In addition, attending also demonstrates to the speaker we are paying attention to them. By giving our attention to the speaker, we encourage them to continue speaking. If we are being ignored, we shut up; if our message is going nowhere, we quit sending it. We also give the speaker a sense of value and worth. By paying attention, we let them know they are important as a person. There is no greater gift we can give than demonstrating the value and worth of another.
We also need to be aware of multiple messages competing for our attention. Dichotic messages often occur when we try to listen to a single individual, yet the noise created by other people, music, or other distractions can take our focus away from the message of our conversational partner. In these instances, we need to find or create an environment in which extraneous noises are minimized so we can focus on the speaker much more intently.
It can be very challenging to stay focused on a person and their message for an extended time. Consider the classic classroom lecture and how challenging it can be to stay attentive for the full class time.
One of the reasons we easily lose focus is our thought/speech differential. As a listener, we can receive a message which was spoken in the 125-150 words per minute rate, yet we can think and process up to 500 or more words per minute (Brownell, 2010). Our ability to think and process quickly means we have leftover thinking time not occupied by attending to the incoming message. Because our brains like to be busy and occupied, it is very easy to find ourselves daydreaming or thinking of other things, eventually losing focus on the speaker.
To combat losing focus on another's message, we can use leftover thinking time productively with a technique called vocalized listening. A somewhat misleading title, vocalized listening is a process of silently vocalizing questions, comments, and summaries to oneself. The listener should attempt to:
- Restate what the speaker said.
- Identify points of relevance within the speaker’s message.
- Formulate potential questions to ask the speaker.
- Identify the speaker’s key points.
While vocalized listening is a good technique to practice, a listener should be careful not to slip too far into a pattern of mentally rehearsing what they intend to say in response to the speaker. As with any communication skill, it takes effort to implement, practice, and attain a comfort level with using such a skill. Over time, and with practice, good listening skills become easier and help us stay focused.
The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:
Purposes of Listening
Models of Listening and Hearing
- HURIER model: hearing, understanding, remembering, interpreting, evaluating, and responding
- SOLER model: square, open, lean, eye contact, and respond
- Dichotic messages
Brownell, J. (2010). Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills (4th ed.). New York, NY: Rutledge.
Mohr, H. (1987). How to Talk Minnesotan. New York, NY: Penguin Books.