Chapter 5: Listening
As you read earlier, there are many factors that can interfere with listening, so you need to be able to manage a number of mental tasks at the same time in order to be a successful listener. Author Joseph DeVito has divided the listening process into five stages: receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding (2000).
Stage 1: Receiving
Receiving is the intentional focus on hearing a speaker’s message, which happens when we filter out other sources so that we can isolate the message and avoid the confusing mixture of incoming stimuli. At this stage, we are still only hearing the message. There are many reasons that we may not receive a message. We often refer to these as listening barriers. If we have barriers to our listening, it is important to be able to recognize them and avoid those behaviors that contribute to poor listening.
Stage 2: Understanding
In the understanding stage, we attempt to learn the meaning of the message, which is not always easy. For one thing, if a speaker does not enunciate clearly, it may be difficult to tell what the message was—did your friend say, “I think she’ll be late for class,” or “my teacher delayed the class”?
Even when we have understood the words in a message, because of the differences in our backgrounds and experience, we sometimes make the mistake of attaching our own meanings to the words of others. For example, say you have made plans with your friends to meet at a certain movie theater, but you arrive and nobody else shows up. Eventually, you find out that your friends are at a different theater all the way across town where the same movie is playing. Everyone else understood that the meeting place was the “west side” location, but you wrongly understood it as the “east side” location and therefore missed out on part of the fun.
The consequences of ineffective listening in a classroom can be much worse. When your professor advises students to get an “early start” on your speech, he or she probably hopes that you will begin your research right away and move on to developing a thesis statement and outlining the speech as soon as possible. However, students in your class might misunderstand the instructor’s meaning in several ways. One student might interpret the advice to mean that as long as she gets started, the rest of the assignment will have time to develop itself. Another student might instead think that to start early is to start on the Friday before the Monday due date instead of Sunday night.
So much of the way we understand others is influenced by our own perceptions and experiences. Therefore, at the understanding stage of listening, we should be on the lookout for places where our perceptions might differ from those of the speaker.
Stage 3: Remembering
Remembering begins with listening; if you can’t remember something that was said, you might not have been listening effectively. The most common reason for not remembering a message after the fact is because it wasn’t really learned in the first place. However, even when you are listening attentively, some messages are more difficult than others to understand and remember. Highly complex messages that are filled with detail call for highly developed listening skills. Moreover, if something distracts your attention even for a moment, you could miss out on information that explains other new concepts you hear when you begin to listen fully again.
It’s also important to know that you can improve your memory of a message by processing it meaningfully—that is, by applying it in ways that are meaningful to you. Instead of simply repeating a new acquaintance’s name over and over, for example, you might remember it by associating it with something in your own life. “Emily,” you might say, “reminds me of the Emily I knew in middle school,” or “Mr. Impiari’s name reminds me of the Impala my father drives.”
Finally, if understanding has been inaccurate, recollection of the message will also be inaccurate.
Stage 4: Evaluating
The fourth stage in the listening process is evaluating or judging the value of the message. We might be thinking, “This makes sense” or, conversely, “This is very odd.” Because everyone embodies biases and perspectives learned from widely diverse sets of life experiences, evaluations of the same message can vary widely from one listener to another. Even the most open-minded listeners will have opinions of a speaker, and those opinions will influence how the message is evaluated. People are more likely to evaluate a message positively if the speaker speaks clearly, presents ideas logically, and gives reasons to support the points made.
Unfortunately, personal opinions sometimes result in prejudiced evaluations. Imagine you’re listening to a speech given by someone from another country and this person has an accent that is hard to understand. You may have a hard time simply making out the speaker’s message. Some people find a foreign accent to be interesting or even exotic, while others find it annoying or even take it as a sign of ignorance. If a listener has a strong bias against foreign accents, the listener may not even attempt to attend to the message. If you mistrust a speaker because of an accent, you could be rejecting important or personally enriching information. Good listeners have learned to refrain from making these judgments and instead to focus on the speaker’s meanings.
Stage 5: Responding
Responding—sometimes referred to as feedback—is the fifth and final stage of the listening process. It’s the stage at which you indicate your involvement.
Almost anything you do at this stage can be interpreted as feedback. For example, you are giving positive feedback to your instructor if at the end of the class you stay behind to finish a sentence in your notes or approach the instructor to ask for clarification. The opposite kind of feedback is given by students who gather their belongings and rush out the door as soon as class is over.
Not all response occurs at the end of the message. Formative feedback is a natural part of the ongoing transaction between a speaker and a listener. As the speaker delivers the message, a listener signals his or her involvement with focused attention, note-taking, nodding, and other behaviors that indicate understanding or failure to understand the message. These signals are important to the speaker, who is interested in whether the message is clear and accepted or whether the content of the message is meeting the resistance of preconceived ideas. Speakers can use this feedback to decide whether additional examples, support materials, or explanation is needed.
Summative feedback is given at the end of the communication. When you attend a political rally, a presentation given by a speaker you admire, or even a class, there are verbal and nonverbal ways of indicating your appreciation for or your disagreement with the messages or the speakers at the end of the message. Maybe you’ll stand up and applaud a speaker you agreed with or just sit staring in silence after listening to a speaker you didn’t like. In other cases, a speaker may be attempting to persuade you to donate to a charity, so if the speaker passes a bucket and you make a donation, you are providing feedback on the speaker’s effectiveness. At the same time, we do not always listen most carefully to the messages of speakers we admire. Sometimes we simply enjoy being in their presence, and our summative feedback is not about the message but about our attitudes about the speaker. If your feedback is limited to something like, “I just love your voice,” you might be indicating that you did not listen carefully to the content of the message.
There is little doubt that by now, you are beginning to understand the complexity of listening and the great potential for errors. By becoming aware of what is involved with active listening and where difficulties might lie, you can prepare yourself both as a listener and as a speaker to minimize listening errors with your own public speeches.
Ineffective Listening Behaviors
At times, the barriers to effective listening (i.e., why listening is difficult) cause us to engage in ineffective listening behaviors. When our goal is to create shared meaning with others, these behaviors interrupt this process.
Pseudolistening– pretending to listen and appears attentive but is not listening to understand or interpret the information (listeners may respond with a smile, head-nod, or even a minimal verbal acknowledgment but are ignoring or not attending).
Selective Listening– selecting only the information that the listeners identify as relevant to their own needs or interests (listeners may have their own agenda and disregard topics if they do not align with their current attitudes or beliefs).
Insulated Listening– ignoring or avoiding information or certain topics of conversation (the opposite of selective listening).
Defensive Listening– taking innocent comments as personal attacks (listeners misinterpret or project feelings of insecurity, jealousy, and guilt, or lack of confidence in the other person).
Insensitive Listening– listening to information for its literal meaning and disregarding the other person’s feeling and emotions (listeners rarely pick-up on hidden meanings or subtle nonverbal cues and have difficulty expressing sympathy and empathy).
Stage Hogging– listening to express one’s own ideas or interests and be the center of attention (listeners often plan what they are going to say or interrupt while the other person is talking).
Ambushing– careful and attentive listening to collect information that can be used against the other person as an attack (listeners question, contradict, or oppose the other person to trap them or use their own words against them).
Multitasking– listening without full attention while attempting to complete more than one task at a time (listeners are actually “switch tasking” and your brain is switching from one task to another rapidly and the information is lost). Review the article from the NPR broadcast, “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again” (Hamilton, 2008).