The listening process
Listening is the learned process of receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding to verbal and nonverbal messages. Because it is a process, it doesn’t have a defined start and finish. Like the communication process, listening has cognitive, behavioural, and relational elements and doesn’t unfold in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Models of processes are informative in that they help us visualize specific components, but keep in mind that they do not capture the speed, overlapping nature, or overall complexity of the actual process in action. The stages of the listening process are receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding.
Before we can engage other steps in the listening process, we must take in stimuli through our senses. We primarily take in information needed for listening through auditory and visual channels. Although we don’t often think about visual cues as a part of listening, they influence how we interpret messages. For example, seeing a person’s face when we hear their voice allows us to take in nonverbal cues from facial expressions and eye contact. The fact that these visual cues are missing in email, text, and phone interactions presents some difficulties for reading contextual clues into meaning received through only auditory channels.
During the interpreting stage of listening, we combine the visual and auditory information we receive and try to make meaning out of that information. It is through the interpreting stage that we may begin to understand the stimuli we have received. When we understand something, we are able to attach meaning by connecting information to previous experiences.
Our ability to recall information is dependent on some of the physiological limits of how memory works. As stimuli are organized and interpreted, they make their way to short-term memory where they either expire and are forgotten or are transferred to long-term memory. Recall is an important part of the listening process because it is most often used to assess listening abilities and effectiveness.
When we evaluate something, we make judgments about its credibility, completeness, and worth. In terms of credibility, we try to determine the degree to which we believe a speaker’s statements are correct and/or true. In terms of completeness, we try to “read between the lines” and evaluate the message in relation to what we know about the topic or situation being discussed. We evaluate the worth of a message by making a value judgment about whether we think the message or idea is good/bad, right/wrong, or desirable/undesirable.
Responding entails sending verbal and nonverbal messages that indicate attentiveness and understanding or a lack thereof. We send verbal and nonverbal feedback while another person is talking and after they are done. Back-channel cues are the verbal and nonverbal signals we send while someone is talking and can consist of verbal cues like “uh-huh,” “oh,” and “right,” and/or nonverbal cues like direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward. Back-channel cues are generally a form of positive feedback that indicates others are actively listening. People also send cues intentionally and unintentionally that indicate they aren’t listening. If another person is looking away, fidgeting, texting, or turned away, we will likely interpret those responses negatively.
Paraphrasing is a responding behavior that can also show that you understand what was communicated. When you paraphrase information, you rephrase the message into your own words. For example, you might say the following to start off a paraphrased response: “What I heard you say was…” or “It seems like you’re saying…” You can also ask clarifying questions to get more information. It is often a good idea to pair a paraphrase with a question to keep a conversation flowing. For example, you might pose the following paraphrase and question pair: “It seems like you believe you were treated unfairly. Is that right?” Or you might ask a standalone question like “What did your colleague do that made you think they were ‘playing favourites?’” Make sure to paraphrase and/or ask questions once a person’s turn is over because interrupting can also be interpreted as a sign of not listening.
Active listening refers to the process of pairing outwardly visible positive listening behaviours with positive cognitive listening practices. Active listening can help address many the environmental, physical, cognitive, and personal barriers to effective listening you may encounter.
Being an active listener starts before you actually start receiving a message. Active listeners make strategic choices and take action in order to set up ideal listening conditions. Physical and environmental noises can often be managed by moving locations or by manipulating the lighting, temperature, or furniture. When possible, avoid important listening activities during times of distracting psychological or physiological noise. Effective listeners must also work to maintain focus as much as possible and refocus when attention shifts or fades (Wolvin & Coakley, 1993).
Eye contact is typically thought of as a key sign of active listening, and speakers usually interpret a listener’s eye contact as a signal of attentiveness. While a lack of eye contact can sometimes indicate inattentiveness, before assuming this is the case, it’s important to consider whether it stems from cultural differences, is a sign of thinking about or processing new information, or happens for other reasons.
A more direct way to indicate active listening is to reference previous statements made by the speaker. Norms of politeness usually call on us to reference a past statement or connect to the speaker’s current thought before starting a conversational turn. Being able to summarize what someone said to ensure that the topic has been satisfactorily covered and understood or being able to segue in such a way that validates what the previous speaker said helps regulate conversational flow. Asking probing questions is another way to directly indicate listening and to keep a conversation going, since they encourage and invite a person to speak more. You can also ask questions that seek clarification and not just elaboration. Speakers should present complex information at a slower speaking rate than familiar information, but many will not. Remember that your nonverbal feedback can be useful for a speaker, as it signals that you are listening but also whether or not you understand. If a speaker fails to read your nonverbal feedback, you may need to follow up with verbal communication in the form of paraphrased messages and clarifying questions.
As active listeners, we want to be excited and engaged, but don’t let excitement manifest itself in interruptions. Being an active listener means knowing when to maintain our role as listener and resist the urge to take a conversational turn.
Note-taking can also indicate active listening. Translating information through writing into our own cognitive structures allows us to better interpret and assimilate information.
Listening with empathy
To be a better empathetic listener, we need to suspend or at least attempt to suppress our judgment of the other person or their message so we can fully attend to both. Paraphrasing is an important part of empathetic listening because it helps us put the other person’s words into our frame of experience without making it about us. In addition, speaking the words of someone else in our own way can help evoke within us the feelings that the other person felt while saying them (Bodie, 2011). Active-empathetic listening is more than echoing back verbal messages. We can also engage in mirroring, which refers to a listener’s replication of the nonverbal signals of a speaker (Bruneau, 1993). Therapists, for example, are often taught to adopt a posture and tone similar to their patients in order to build rapport and project empathy.
Paraphrasing and questioning are useful techniques for empathetic listening because they allow us to respond to a speaker without taking “the floor,” or the attention, away for long. Specifically, questions that ask for elaboration act as “verbal door openers,” and inviting someone to speak more and then validating their speech through active listening cues can help a person feel “listened to” (Hargie, 2011). It’s important to resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice. It is also important to acknowledge any feelings or emotions the speaker has expressed directly through words or indirectly through paralinguistic cues.
Listening in professional contexts
Empathetic listening and active listening can play key roles in organizational communication. Managers are wise to enhance their empathetic listening skills, as being able to empathize with employees contributes to a positive communication climate. Active listening among organizational members also promotes involvement and increases motivation, which leads to more cohesion and enhances the communication climate.
Bodie, G. D. (2011). The Active-Empathetic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and evidence of validity within the interpersonal domain, Communication Quarterly (59)3:277-295.
Bruneau, T. (1993). Empathy and Listening. In A. Wolvin & C. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.
Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London: Routledge.
Wolvin, A. D. & Coakley, C. (1993). A listening taxonomy. In A. Wolvin & C. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.
This chapter contains material from Chapter 5.3 “Improving listening competence” in Communication in the real world: An introduction to communication studies and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.