Listening is more than just hearing – it’s a skill, and one that needs to be developed. While we’re constantly surrounded by people speaking (or deaf people signing), we hear/see them but often don’t take the time to stop and pay attention to what’s being said/signed. Effective listening, though, serves as the foundation of strong relationships, at home, in schools, out in the world, and in the workplace. Because of this, it’s important that we understand what good listening is and how we can become skillful practitioners.
When we talk about listening, we focus first on the two broad types: 1) Discriminative listening, and 2) Comprehensive listening. Discriminative listening is the more fundamental type. There is no comprehension of what is being said, merely an impression of the different sounds produced and how they connect with each other. A good example would be a baby learning to discriminate between his parents based on the difference in their vocal intonations. This type of listening skill continues to develop into adulthood, and our life experiences influence that development. We learn to recognize small differences in the way sounds are made – and ultimately, therefore, what those sounds mean. In addition to determining if what we’re hearing is a foreign language or a regional accent of our own language, we learn to clue in on the emotions of whoever is speaking. This is true not just through vocal intonations, but also because of visual stimuli – recognizing how body language reinforces or contrasts what the speaker says.
Comprehensive listening is also a fundamental aspect of language, but it involves not only comprehending the words, but also recognizing how those words are put together and gleaning the message being communicated in the heard sequence. To gain that level of understanding, the listener must first become proficient in appropriate vocabulary and oral and auditory language skills. Depending on the context, overly complicated language or technical jargon can negatively affect the listener’s ability to comprehend, as there is no “shared” vocabulary or experience. However, if the listener is already proficient in such jargon, he or she would be much more likely to understand without much difficulty.
Comprehensive listening also leans on personal experience – two people who hear the same statement or question, and who draw on their personal experiences to aid their comprehension of the words, may interpret what’s been said in two different ways. And the problem is multiplied when many people hear the same utterance, such as in a classroom or a board meeting. Each student or board member could, in theory, come away with a different meaning than any of the others do.
In addition, comprehensive listening relies on forms of non-verbal communication to aid comprehension of the spoken words. Such forms include tone, gestures, and body language. The combination of verbal and non-verbal clues can either enhance the listener’s comprehension and lead to effective communication, or it can muddy the waters and lead to confusion and misunderstanding. In such situations, it is up to the speaker to ensure that all the signals, verbal and otherwise, complement each other and reinforce the message they’re conveying, and it is essential for the listener to seek clarification when needed.
Listening can be broken down from the two main types into further categories, primarily defined by the goal of the speaker and of the listener to ensure effective communication.
The three main subcategories of listening are:
- Informational Listening (Listening to Learn)
- Critical Listening (Listening to Evaluate and Analyze)
- Therapeutic or Empathetic Listening (Listening to Understand Feeling and Emotion)
Each of these subcategories does not exist in a vacuum – you can have more than one goal for listening to a speaker – for example, you might be listening to learn while at the same time listening to understand the speaker’s feelings about the topic.
Informational listening means listening to learn something, and we do it all the time. It’s certainly applicable in a classroom setting, but it’s also applicable when you watch the news or a documentary, when you call up for tech support, or when your neighbor walks you through a new recipe she’s tried. While listening as a whole is an active endeavor, requiring concentration and a deliberate effort to understand what is being said, informational listening is perhaps the least active type. As we listen, we let ourselves absorb the information, but we do so without criticizing or analyzing it in any way. Often accompanied by taking notes to retain visual cues, we simply record the information for later review.
Critical listening means listening to evaluate or analyze what we hear. The process is much more active than informational listening because it requires some amount of problem solving or decision making. This type of listening is similar to critical reading, as both involve an analysis of the information we receive and a comparison of that information with what we already know or believe. Our goals here are to analyze opinions and to make a judgment regarding their worth.
The use of “critical” to describe analytical listening or reading does not mean you claim the information you receive is necessarily either faulty or flawed. Instead, it means you ask yourself important questions during the process, such as “What is the speaker’s main idea?” or “How does this information compare to my own beliefs or prior knowledge?” Because it asks you to be present in the moment and not just a passive note-taker, this type of listening is fundamental to true learning, and it allows us to make informed decisions. It is important, though, to have an open mind when engaging in the process; allowing prior bias or stereotyping to automatically negate the speaker’s opinions subverts the learning process.
Therapeutic or Empathic Listening
Empathic listening means listening to attempt to understand what the speaker’s feelings and emotions may be; it’s a way to put yourself “in their shoes.” This type of listening can be quite challenging, and it should not be confused with sympathy – feeling sorry for someone else. It is a means of deeply connecting with another person, both realizing and understanding the reasons for their point of view.
Unlike critical listening, which demands that you question everything the speaker says, empathic listening demands that you do not make judgments about what the person says or offer them advice. Instead, you should gently encourage the speaker to explain their reasoning and elaborate what they are feeling. The two skills of clarification and reflection often come into play to help avoid any miscommunication or misunderstanding. This technique is especially effective in a counselor/client relationship. It is also common in close interpersonal relationships, where you feel comfortable discussing your feelings with one particular person. These relationships are often based on similar beliefs, values, or experiences, so you are more inclined to believe this person will truly understand what you are saying, and vice versa.
Being a Good Listener
Obviously, there are many things that will help you become a good listener, but here are a few of the top ones:
- Prepare to listen – stop talking, clear your mind, and prepare yourself to take notice of the speaker’s words.
- Try to understand the other person’s point of view – you may not agree with their opinions, but if you go in with a closed mind, it guarantees you won’t learn anything, won’t empathize, and won’t have the possibility of having your own beliefs challenged.
- Listen to the tone – the tone of the speaker’s words, as well as their loudness or softness, adds volumes to the information you can learn from the actual words. Someone speaking quietly but whose tone reflects anger, is letting you know that all is not well with the situation. You may have to listen more closely and more critically to determine the actual message.
- Listen for ideas, not just words – individual words make up only part of the whole picture. Listening for the larger ideas will help you understand what the speaker wants to convey.
Listening is a skill, and like any skill it must be practiced – actively. Take a moment in each conversation to determine what you hope to get out of it and then adjust your process accordingly.