Interpersonal Communication, Listening and

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Listening is a fundamental part of the process of communication. Adults spend about 42 percent of their time in listening activities, and children spend about 58 percent of the time in the same activity (Lederman, 1977). Listening is a complex facet of the communication process, and it is considered by some communication researchers to be a more difficult activity than speaking. While the word "listening" is used interchangeably with some other words, such as "hearing," it is a unique process, unlike any other.


To define "listening" entails comparing and contrasting it with some other similar activities: "perception," "attention," and "hearing."

"Perception" has been defined as a process of extracting information from the world outside oneself, as well as from within. When perceiving something, a person is able to note certain stimuli and draw some kind of information from them. One type of perception is listening, the process by which one selectively attends to certain auditory stimuli. Listening is selective perception and attention to auditory stimuli.

In the selective process of listening, stimuli are filtered. Hearing is related to listening. Hearing is a nonselective process. If one has hearing that is not impaired, he or she hears every audible sound that occurs in his or her presence. Thus, hearing is a prerequisite for listening. While words such as "listening" and "hearing" are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, listening is a process that includes selective attention and the assignment of meaning. Physiologically, listening involves the use of hearing organs to receive those acoustic vibrations that are converted into signals that can be understood by the brain. It is the brain that gives meaning to those vibrations. The brain decodes these vibration patterns that are known as "words." Physiologically, listening occurs in waves. There are natural peaks and valleys in the listener's processing of auditory stimuli, and listeners can only comprehend some of the stimuli that they are able to hear.

Just as listening has a physiological basis, it also has a psychological basis. The psychological aspects have to do with interest and attention. A person listens to what interests him or her and does not listen to what is found to be boring or dull or irrelevant. Listening is an activity that involves the skills of paying attention, making sense of what is being said (interpretation), and providing feedback or response to the speaker. These skills are learned, and they can be improved. Improvement of listening involves correcting the five most frequently found psychological interferences to effective listening: habitual inattention, selective perception, selective inattention, inaccurate inference making, and the inability to frame concepts. Habitual inattention occurs when listeners regularly and consistently find their attention wandering. Selective perception occurs when listeners only perceive some of the things that are being said to them. Selective inattention occurs when listeners listen only to those things to which they want to pay attention. Inaccurate inference making occurs when listeners draw conclusions incorrectly about the meanings of what they have heard. The inability to frame concepts happens when listeners are unable to comprehend or understand what has been said.

Reasons for Listening

People listen for a variety of reasons. The most fundamental reasons for listening are to learn something, to be informed, to be entertained, or to form relationships. When people listen to learn, be informed, be entertained, or to form relationships, they are motivated by the prospect of gaining something for themselves. As a result of listening, they know more, are more informed, or are more entertained.

When it comes to forming relationships, people listen for some other reasons. In many ways, communicators act as sounding boards for others when they function as listeners. People continually address verbal messages to each other. People listen if there is some reason to do so; if not, while they may look as if they are paying attention, they simply do not really do the work that it takes to listen to the person who is speaking.

There are several reasons to listen to someone who is speaking. One reason one person listens to another is because he or she knows that at times he or she needs the other person to listen to him or her. Everyone is at one time or another in need of good listeners. A second reason that anyone listens to anyone else is because he or she cares about that other person or about what that other person has to say. A third reason for listening is because one feels he or she must listen. There are many other reasons for listening, including to pass time, to enjoy a joke, to get directions, to add to one's knowledge, and to share another's experience.

The Role of the Listener

Just as there are many reasons to listen, the role of the listener is more than just passively taking in sounds and making sense of them. In interpersonal communication, listening includes providing reactions and responses for the person who is speaking. These reactions and responses are called feedback. It is feedback to the speaker that makes listening a more active process. Feedback is any form of response to the speaker's message. It is verbal and/or nonverbal and/or silent. Any response or lack of response is the listener's message to the original speaker. Thus, verbal (words) and/or nonverbal (sounds, gestures, facial expressions) communications are the ways in which feedback is provided. The skillful listener is continuously paying attention, evaluating what is being said and what it means, and deciding on what are the best choices to make about selecting the most appropriate feedback or response.

Feedback serves two functions. First, it indicates the listener's understanding or misunderstanding of the speaker's intended meaning. Second, it shows the listener's willingness or resistance to proceed as requested and/or directed by the speaker. Viewed as feedback, responses or lack of responses are the listener's tools for indicating to the speaker how effectively he or she has expressed himself or herself. Feedback that is other than what is desired, either in form or content, would be an indication that the speaker has not been effective.

Active Listening

Because of the importance of the feedback from listeners, and because that feedback takes the form of some active response, listening is at times referred to as "active listening." "Active listening" is a term that is used to refer to listening activity that includes providing the speaker with feedback. The speaker talks. The listener listens. The listener reacts: nods, says something, utters subvocalizations (e.g., "ohh," "uh huh"). Active listening, therefore, goes beyond the attention and interpretation of stimuli. Active listening involves verbal and nonverbal response. Active listeners work at letting the people who talk to them know that they are listening. Active listeners work at letting those people know that they are being attended to—that the listener is working at understanding what the speaker is trying to say.

As an active participant in interpersonal communication, the listener attempts to see, hear, and understand all that is said or done by the speaker who is attempting to communicate. One of the hallmarks of the good listener is that he or she is empathetic and supportive. In other words, the listener tries to understand what is being said both emotionally and intellectually. The listener works to try to understand what is meant, or the meaning of what is being said, by the speaker. In trying to understand, the listener may even be helping the speaker to understand better the message that is being sent. In this sense, the listener is an active responder. While listening is being discussed separately from speaking, in conversations or interpersonal communication, speaking and listening are roles that are exchanged almost imperceptibly.

It is often said that a good listener is a good conversationalist. What this means is that the person who is quiet and listens thus allows the other person to speak. However, beyond allowing another to speak, a good listener really is a good conversationalist, because the listener provides feedback that is needed by the speaker, and the listener actively takes a turn in engaging in conversation. In essence, feedback is a message that the listener directs toward the original speaker in response to the original speaker's message. It occurs in response to the original message maker rather than as the initial message in a given conversation or verbal interaction. Thus, feedback is both a response and the listener's message.

As a responder, the listener has choices to make about the ways in which to frame the message and how to convey it. First, the listener must decide the timing: when will he or she respond. Second, the listener must decide how to respond. The listener can respond either verbally by saying something or nonverbally by gestures, facial expressions, or vocalizations. In fact, listeners usually provide a combination of these responses. The verbal response is what is left until the speaker has completed his or her thoughts. The nonverbals—facial expressions, nods of the head, gestures, vocalizations—may take place while the speaker is talking.

Being More than an Active Responder

Feedback can be more than just a response to a speaker or a speaker's message. Feedback can be seen as the listener's exertion of control over the communication. In this instance, feedback is not a measure of ineffectiveness on the speaker's part. It is the listener's way of expressing how the conversation must proceed if the listener is going to continue to participate in the conversation. The listener responds to the speaker by indicating either verbally or nonverbally that the conversation needs to take a turn in order to keep the listener involved. A deep yawn while a speaker goes on at length would be an example of a nonverbal expression that the conversation needs to be changed.

To view feedback only as the response to the speaker violates the activeness principle of listening. It makes the listener a less-than-equal partner, one who passively functions only to assist the speaker in accomplishing his or her ends. In any interpersonal exchange, however, all participants must be accomplishing some sort of personal ends, or they may have no reasons to participate, actively or passively.

Feedback is more effective when it is descriptive, specific, timely, and about behaviors that can be changed. In offering feedback, the listener is attempting to let the speaker know how he or she responds to the speaker and the speaker's message. For example, feedback that is descriptive is report-like rather than judgmental and includes details that explain what the listener needs for the speaker to be understood clearly. Its timeliness is significant. If it is offered as an interruption or before the speaker has completed his or her thought, it is either not of value to him or her or it may be perceived as being an attempt to redirect the conversation. Feedback, to be effective, must also be reflective of something about which the listener thinks the speaker can take some action.

See also:Interpersonal Communication; Interpersonal Communication, Conversation and; Interpersonal Communication, Ethics and; Nonverbal Communication; Relationships, Stages of; Relationships, Types of.


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Linda Costigan Lederman

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Interpersonal Communication, Listening and

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