Chapter 4

4.2 Listening Styles

Department of Communication, Indiana State University

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If listening were easy, and if all people went about it in the same way, communication would be much easier. People are different, however, and part of that difference involves their listening style.  In an article in the International Journal of Listening, Watson, Barker, and Weaver identified four listening styles: people, action, content, and time (1995).

People

The people-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. People-oriented listeners listen to the message in order to learn how the speaker thinks and how they feel about their message. For instance, when people-oriented listeners listen to an interview with a famous rap artist, they are likely to be more curious about the artist as an individual than about music, even though the people-oriented listener might also appreciate the artist’s work. If you are a people-oriented listener, you might have certain questions you hope will be answered, such as: Does the artist feel successful? What’s it like to be famous? What kind of educational background does he or she have? In the same way, if we’re listening to a doctor who responded to the earthquake crisis in Haiti, we might be more interested in the doctor as a person than in the state of affairs for Haitians. Why did he or she go to Haiti? How did he or she get away from his or her normal practice and patients? How many lives were saved? We might be less interested in the equally important and urgent needs for food, shelter, and sanitation following the earthquake.

The people-oriented listener is likely to be more attentive to the speaker than to the message. If you tend to be such a listener, understand that the message is about what is important to the speaker.

Action

Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else? It’s sometimes difficult for an action-oriented speaker to listen to the descriptions, evidence, and explanations with which a speaker builds his or her case.

Action-oriented listening is sometimes called task-oriented listening. In it, the listener seeks a clear message about what needs to be done and might have less patience for listening to the reasons behind the task. This can be especially true if the reasons are complicated. For example, when you’re a passenger on an airplane waiting to push back from the gate, a flight attendant delivers a brief speech called the pre-flight safety briefing. The flight attendant does not read the findings of a safety study or the regulations about seat belts. The flight attendant doesn’t explain that the content of his or her speech is actually mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Instead, the attendant says only to buckle up so we can leave. An action-oriented listener finds “buckling up” a more compelling message than a message about the underlying reasons.

Content

Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message itself, whether it makes sense, what it means, and whether it’s accurate. When you give a speech, many members of your classroom audience will be content-oriented listeners who will be interested in learning from you. You, therefore have an obligation to represent the truth in the fullest way you can. You can emphasize an idea, but if you exaggerate, you could lose credibility in the minds of your content-oriented audience. You can advocate ideas that are important to you, but if you omit important limitations, you are withholding part of the truth and could leave your audience with an inaccurate view.

Imagine you’re delivering a speech on the plight of orphans in Africa. If you just talk about the fact that there are over forty-five million orphans in Africa but don’t explain further, you’ll sound like an infomercial. In such an instance, your audience’s response is likely to be less enthusiastic than you might want. Instead, content-oriented listeners want to listen to well-developed information with solid explanations.

Time

People using a time-oriented listening style prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. Time-oriented listeners can become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations. This kind of listener may be receptive for only a brief amount of time and may become rude or even hostile if the speaker expects a longer focus of attention. Time-oriented listeners convey their impatience through eye rolling, shifting about in their seats, checking their cell phones, and other inappropriate behaviors. If you’ve been asked to speak to a group of middle-school students, you need to realize that their attention spans are simply not as long as those of college students. This is an important reason speeches to young audiences must be shorter or broken up by more variety than speeches to adults.

In your professional future, some of your audience members will have real time constraints, not merely perceived ones. Imagine that you’ve been asked to deliver a speech on a new project to the board of directors of a local corporation. Chances are the people on the board of directors are all pressed for time. If your speech is long and filled with overly detailed information, time-oriented listeners will simply start to tune you out as you’re speaking. Obviously, if time-oriented listeners start tuning you out, they will not be listening to your message. This is not the same thing as being a time-oriented listener who might be less interested in the message content than in its length.

Identifying Your Listening Style

It is important that you realize that your listening style is relational and situational. For example, if you are in a deeply committed relationship, you may be more people-oriented in your listening because you are invested in the other person’s feelings and well-being more so than the person that bags your groceries or takes your order at a restaurant. The situational context requires you to focus more on action, content, or time. In the workplace, you will respond with an action orientation and may think of your assignment as a to-do list. In an emergency, you are aware more of time and may not be as worried about the emotional feelings of the person involved but their safety. And in a final review session, you may be much more content focused while normally in class you might focus on what the professor is wearing or what the person next to you is eating. All of these examples represent the way listening styles can shift. You can think of your own listening style as fluid- but you probably recognize the one you tend to be most of the time. Would it surprise you to know that your gender may also play a part in your listening style? Males are generally action-oriented listeners, whereas women are generally more people-oriented listeners (Barker & Watson, 2000). It is key to remember that your listening preference does not equate to your ability and that you want to be able to adapt and apply different listening styles at different times.

Exercises

  1. In a small group, discuss what each person’s usual listening style is. Under what circumstances might you practice a different listening style?
  2. Make a list of benefits and drawbacks to each of the listening styles discussed in this section.

  1. "5.3: Learning Styles". Introduction to Public Communication. Department of Communication, Indiana State University. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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4.2 Listening Styles by Department of Communication, Indiana State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.