3 Listening

Janet Douglas-Pryce, MA, MBA, ABD

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the importance of listening and types of listening barriers.
  • Assess listening styles to improve communication outcomes.
  • Recognize the speaker’s role in effective listening.
  • Recognize the listener’s role in effective listening.

Robyn Rihanna Fenty (a.k.a. Rihanna) launched her Fenty Beauty line in 2017. Rihanna’s product filled a gaping hole in the $430 billion beauty industry. Fenty produced 40 shades of foundations to accommodate diverse beauty enthusiasts who could not find a foundation to match their skin tone. Make-up users with darker hues were said to have had to buy multiple foundations to meet their beauty needs, which carried an exorbitant price tag. In addition, they had to blend them to achieve the proper coverage. Rihanna captured a segment of the market share because of her ability to pay attention. She listened to customers who felt left out and underrepresented. Today, Rihanna is a billionaire primarily because of her ability to pay attention. She offers patrons an inclusive product line with a price tag slightly above drugstore brands but  significantly less than what consumers pay for high-end brands. Rihanna’s marketing strategy and listening acuity left many patrons overjoyed knowing there is a product created specifically for them.

Rihanna’s financial success might be easily attributed to other factors, but leaders in the beauty industry acknowledge the valiant role active listening plays in its ongoing success. Active listening, as defined by Collins Dictionary, is a two-way communication process; it does more than hear, it aims to understand, interpret, and evaluate what it hears. The insights Rihanna gained from listening to patrons in meaningful ways helped to empower makeup users and effect change in the beauty industry (West, 2017).

Photo by Parabol on Unsplash

Listening benefits everyone. Rachel K. Sobel, a reporter at U.S. News and World Report had this to say about a former classmate whom she calls Jane.  Jane attributes being alive to a doctor who listened well:

Jane first noticed an odd fluttering sensation inside her chest as a teenager. The doctor did a quick exam and chalked it up to palpitations from too much caffeine. Later, while in college, Jane was getting ready for bed when her heart began racing and her room suddenly started spinning. Different symptoms, different doctor, but the same cursory approach: In this case, the diagnosis was anxiety.

Not until a recent summer checkup–six years after her initial complaint–did a keen physician find what was wrong. He took a meticulous history, and then he listened to her heart with a stethoscope. Medicine’s fancy term for this is auscultation–basically LISTENING to the body’s various sounds. According to Jane, this physician “wasn’t just going through the motions.” He placed the stethoscope on her chest, closed his eyes, and listened for a long time. It paid off. The doc discovered a dangerous murmur, and further tests showed a 2-inch hole in the wall between two chambers of her heart. Left untreated, such a defect could have caused heart and lung failure.

The Importance of Listening

Whether you are a student or an employee, most of your day is spent listening.  One study found that college students devote 55% of their communication time to listening while executives spend 60%.  Yet, it is estimated that your listening efficiency is about twenty-five percent.  For example, if one of your classmates gives a ten-minute speech on The Facts and Fiction of Anastasia Romanov, it is estimated that you will lose seventy-five percent of what you heard.  This is possible because your brain processes information faster than you can speak, which gives your brain enough time to focus on something else.  Researchers say your brain takes in 400 to 800 words per minute, while your speaking rate is 120 to 150 words per minute.  Regardless of the challenges posed by listening, you are required to listen well at work, at home, and at play.

Hearing vs. Listening

Listening is a required job skill most people lack.  Emphasis is placed on writing effective resumes, rehearsing frequently asked questions at an interview, and selecting the proper attire.  But insufficient time or no time at all is spent practicing effective listening.   Don’t blame yourself for neglecting such an important factor.  Most people neglect listening unintentionally.  They assume that hearing and listening are identical.  Although there is a direct relationship between the two, listening and hearing are distinctly different.

While attending your monthly book club meeting, you noticed two new guests, Chi-Chi, and Goku. You attempted to engage both attendees at the meeting to make them feel included. However, later, you noticed that Goku ignored your comments throughout the evening. At the end of the session, you approached Goku to inquire if he had a good time at the book club. He emphatically said, “Yes!” You went on to say; “I am glad to hear because I thought you were not enjoying the session.” Goku asked, “Why did you believe that?” You explained that you asked him to respond to a few questions during the meeting, but he did not answer. Goku apologized and said, “I am sorry, I did not hear you. You were sitting to my left, and I am deaf in that ear.” You felt somewhat embarrassed but relieved to know Goku was listening to you but could not hear you.

Hearing is the physiological ability to perceive sounds, and listening is the mental process of paying close attention.  Therefore, using your ears to interpret sounds does not denote effective listening.  Effective listening requires effort and interest.  It means that you must make a conscious effort to pay attention to information.  Randy Carver is a financial advisor with a thriving practice outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He is also a private pilot. When Randy accidentally crashed his twin-engine Cessna plane, he suffered bodily injuries, including a cracked larynx  and collapsed lungs. Upon returning to work from the hospital, he relied on a voice amplifier to conduct barely audible conversations with his clients. One of the assets of his accident, Randy noted, was his ability to learn how to listen. He began to pay attention to the client’s voice, emotional cues, and nuanced speech sounds. He listened for the implicit meanings behind what they said. He became attuned to their stories and memories and empathized with their fears (Lukenberg, 2017).  Learning mindful listening profited Randy in his work as a financial advisor. It allowed him to develop a deeper connection with clients.

Mindful Listening and Mindless Listening

What is mindful listening? Mindful listening shows others you value what they say. It means you give careful and thoughtful attention and responses to the message you receive. It also confirms you deem the message-sender important. The opposite is true when you listen mindlessly. Mindless listening generates automatic and routine reactions, such as “okay” and “nice,” without much mental commitment. Take Joanna Messi, for example. She had a hectic day in the office. She came home tired. As she entered the house, she asked her partner, “How did things go at work today?” “It went well, except for the fire at the train station in the morning and the announcement of another Covid-19 variant in the afternoon.” Joanna continued to take her seat on the couch and responded, “Oh, that’s nice! It’s great to hear you had a wonderful day.” Joanna’s response is typical of someone who listens mindlessly. Her response makes her partner feel undervalued and disrespected.

Nevertheless, mindless listening has some value as it protects you from information overload. Mindless listening allows you to filter out the barrage of information you receive daily to protect your mental space. The key to successful listening is to decipher when to listen mindfully versus when mindless listening works favorably. Whether it’s information for a test, administering the proper dosage to a patient, or just listening for fun, you must make necessary adjustments to overcome listening barriers.

Listening Barriers

Listening barriers are factors that contribute to poor listening practices.  These barriers are caused by either internal or external distractions.  Internal distractions occur within the listener.  For example, during a classroom presentation you develop a terrible headache; now you are focused on the pain instead of listening to the speaker.  External distractions occur within the environment. During the middle of your speech evaluation, piercing sounds coming from sirens drown out the speaker’s voice.  The noise prevents you from clearly hearing what the speaker says, so you ask him to repeat the information.  Both types of distraction interrupt the listening process.

Four Types of Internal Distractions

  • Wandering Mind: when your focus shifts from the subject being discussed to an unrelated topic.
  • Physical Unrest: when you are experiencing bodily injury or discomfort that overshadows your ability to listen.
  • Mental Distress: when you are experiencing emotional fatigue caused by lack of sleep or disturbing personal information.
  • Lack of Knowledge: when you do not comprehend the terms or vocabulary words that the speaker is using.

Two Types of External Distractions

  • Noisy Environment: A space that produces sound or movement that causes you to focus on what you see and hear outside of the intended situation.  This is caused by voluminous traffic, uncontrolled technological sounds, or shuffling papers.
  • Uncomfortable Space: Spaces that are incongruous to the amount of occupants or have unregulated temperatures (too hot or too cold) are not conducive for giving and receiving information.

Once you acknowledge the challenges posed by listening you can determine what level of commitment is required to improve your skills.

Listening Styles

When do you listen best?  Is it when you are listening for pleasure, to lend moral support, to understand a message, or to evaluate the evidence? Your answer will vary based on your interest in the four listening styles:

  • Appreciative Listening:  This is when you listen for your own personal enjoyment, for example, listening to your favorite CD or comedian.  No one is evaluating your ability to listen.  You have full autonomy to determine your listening outcome.
  • Empathic Listening: This is when you listen to a friend or family member to provide emotional support. You function as a therapist by not telling  the person what to do but allowing him to release an emotional load and relieve mental stress.
  • Comprehensive Listening:  Your goal is to comprehend the speaker.  Listening to understand occurs in the classroom where you are required to recall specific details or show knowledge of the subject.
  • Evaluative Listening (critical):  In this case you listen with intent of deciding whether or not to accept or reject the message.  Your focus is on the evidence and the speaker’s supporting materials.

Critical listening is a definite requirement for evaluating persuasive presentations.

Listening to Classroom Presentations

Both the speaker and the listener are responsible for effective listening.  The speaker’s job transcends selecting an interesting topic and outlining the presentation.  She also must spend time practicing the delivery so that she gains the listener’s interest.    During classroom presentations, students attribute poor listening practices to these two causes: I could not hear the speaker, or I did not understand what the speaker was saying. The speaker can employ various techniques to encourage the audience to pay attention.

The Speaker’s Guide to Effective Listening

How does the speaker tastefully/creatively package the message to improve listening efficiency?  By using four easy steps: practice aloud, know your attention-getter, adapt to listener feedback, and incorporate visual aids.

  1. Practice the Presentation Aloud.  Do this enough times so that you can improve voice projection and familiarity with your speech sounds and patterns.   If you are confident about your message, project your voice so that the audience can hear what you are saying.
  2. Rehearse Your Opening Lines. This will enable you to make eye contact with the audience.  Poor eye contact implies that you are ignoring the audience.  If you exhibit this behavior, the audience might unintentionally return the favor.  They might say to themselves if you don’t care about me, then why should I listen to you? Eye contact not only supports your credibility, but it also gives you a chance to observe the audience’s response to your message.
  3. Adapt to Audience Feedback.  What did you see when you looked at the audience?  Did you notice signs of approval, confusion, or disinterest?  Depending on your observation, adjust to that feedback accordingly.  If the audience seems to have difficulty understanding you, you must think of an alternate explanation to make the idea clear and easier to retain.
  4. Include Visual Aids.  If visual aids are used correctly, they can clarify your ideas, reinforce your ideas, address communication barriers, and reduce attention deficit. Some listeners tune out the speaker because they either cannot hear or understand the message but will take a second chance at listening if they can see what the speaker is talking about.

The Listener’s Guide to Effective Listening

The listener should apply these eight basic steps: listen ethically, listen with interest, focus on content, listen for main points, be flexible, respect the choice of free speech, control emotions, and practice listening.

  1. Listen ethically.  Be alert and polite.  It’s insulting to the speaker for you to fall asleep or become preoccupied with other tasks during the delivery.  Sleep deprivation is not an excuse to disrespect the speaker.  What if your counselor fell asleep during one of your counseling sessions?  How would it make you feel?
  2. Listen with interest. If your goal is to earn an “A” in your classes, you cannot declare every lecture dull, nor can you practice absenteeism. Neither situation would earn you an “A.”  Instead, listen for usable information.  Engage in a mental dialogue.  Ask yourself, “What information is being shared that I can use?”  Maybe it’s the material that will be covered in the midterm, or perhaps the material will make you seem more intelligent to your peers.
  3. Focus on content.  Avoid being distracted by the speaker’s accent, appearance, or ethnicity.  Don’t give in to your biases; instead give the speaker a fair chance to explain his ideas.  What is your alibi for inattentive listening?  Do you say I cannot understand his accent or his unenthusiastic mannerisms?  It’s true that there are speakers whose delivery styles challenge your listening skills, but it’s still an opportunity for you to become a more effective listener.  Therefore, ask yourself: what does he know that I need to know? Information is power, and you want to have a competitive edge, especially in today’s job market.  It’s what you know that will make you outstanding.
  4. Listen for main ideas and other cues.  Listen for the main points instead of paying equal attention to all of the facts.   Critical listeners differentiate between fact and opinion, idea and example, evidence and argument.  If you focus on everything that the speaker says, you will miss the salient points.  Take for instance Maria, who missed much of the review notes because she tried to write down everything the professor said.  By the time she finished writing the answer for question one, the teacher had started with question three.  Maria can improve her note-taking skills if she identifies the speaker’s organizational patterns, transitional language, and use of recapitulation.  Organizational patterns can include chronological order– sequence in which an event occurred, or the steps taken to complete a process.  Transitional language moves the audience from one point to the next, for example, now that we’ve covered… let’s look at…  Recapitulation is when you listen for the summary of main ideas.
  5. Be flexible.  Not all speakers have an identifiable organizational pattern, which makes it challenging to take notes.  Therefore, be flexible in taking notes.  Have more than one note-taking system you can adapt to different patterns of organization or the lack thereof.
  6. Respect the choice of free speech.  You will not always agree with the speaker’s message.  Ramon delivered his speech on the practices of same sex marriages, but Shu X believed such a practice is immoral.  During Ramon’s presentation, Shu X began to read her magazine.  What should Shu X have done?   Instead of behaving as if Ramon does not have a right to share his views, she should have listened courteously and decided after listening to all Ramon’s arguments whether to accept or reject the message.Control your emotions.  Become a listener who first understands the message, then renders an evaluation.  Sometimes as a listener you get too excited, or excited too soon, by the speaker.   Listen to the message in its entirety before you accept or reject the ideas.  It is more difficult to focus on the message when the speaker’s points are incongruous with your thoughts.  You may find that instead of listening to subsequent points, you are plotting ways to unravel the speaker’s momentum, whether by asking an embarrassing question or anticipating the speaker’s possible response to your challenging question.
  7. Practice listening.  It’s easier to relax than it is to listen.  Listening is hard work.  It requires faster heart action, quicker circulation of the blood, and a small rise in body temperature.  Thus, you must make a conscious effort to assume a disposition that is both helpful to you and the listener. You can establish eye contact; maintain an alert posture, and a pleasant facial expression.


Listening is an invaluable skill. It benefits everyone. However, it requires effort to achieve proficiency. Many people believe they are exceptional listeners, but even good listeners retain half of what they heard. Improving your listening skills adds value to your personal and professional life. Poor listening occurs because of distractions, which cause your mind to wander. Other times, you suffer from information overload, prejudging the speaker, or from listening too hard. You try to absorb everything the speaker is saying, causing you to miss the main message.

Taking steps to improve your listening skills begins with you placing listening as the top priority. Take listening seriously and commit to addressing your listening challenges. Avoid jumping to conclusions about the speaker, be intentional about paying attention to the message. The journey to excellent listening skills begins with you. Take those steps now.

Assessing Your Listening Skills

John says he is an excellent listener.  Yet John shows up unprepared for his Sociology exam.  He attended class on the day his instructor reminded the class about the upcoming exam. The instructor included the chapters that the exam would cover, as well as the format, and announced the amount of time allotted for taking the test.  However, on the day of the exam, John blurts out, “What do you mean we are having a test?  Is this a surprise?”  Everyone looks at John as if he has sprouted horns on his head.

Rate Your Listening

How well do you listen?  If you are like John, you might rate yourself as an excellent listener, when, in fact, you are an average or poor listener.  Take this listening quiz to rate your skills.

Listening Quiz

Rate each statement using:

3 if you’re very strong in an area

2 if you try to and succeed often

1 if you’re not sure how often you succeed

0 if you never succeed

  1. I am aware that to listen effectively I must listen with a purpose.
  2. I have trained myself to listen at least as twice as often as I speak.
  3. I listen for understanding rather than evaluation.
  4. I recognize the importance of my nonverbal signals to the speaker.
  5. I am aware of the words, phrases or behaviors that are likely to make me defensive.
  6. I wait until the speaker has finished before responding.
  7. I have often heard a person say to me, “Thank you for listening.”
  8. I concentrate on what the speaker is saying even though other things could distract me.
  9. I am able to exercise emotional control when listening, even if I disagree with the message.
  10. I realize that listening attentively may be the key to my success.
  11. I listen carefully to a person’s name and remember it after we’ve been introduced.
  12. I listen for ideas and feelings, as well as facts.


Total your points from each question.

If you scored 12 or less points, you’re considered a poor listener.  If you scored 13 to 20, you’re an average listener.  If you rated your skills above 20, you’re an excellent listener.

If your score suggests that you need additional listening training, then review this guide to effective listening to develop your listening efficiency.

Review Questions

  1. What is the difference between hearing and listening?
  2. Which of the listening styles is a requirement for evaluating persuasive presentations?
  3. What role can the speaker play in encouraging the audience to listen to his presentation?
  4. What are the eight techniques that the listener can employ to improve her listening skills?


Class Activities

  • Think of a time when you did not listen well. Describe the situation and your listening challenges. If you had a chance to redo the scenario, what would you do differently to adjust your listening skills?
  • Collaborate with your classmates to develop a listening code of conduct for your speech class. The document should be a guide for the remainder of the semester.
  • Watch Julianne Treasure’s TED Talk 5 Ways to Listen Better. https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better. Based on his recommendations, which one of them resonated with you immediately? What steps will you take to implement his recommendations? What challenges, if any, do you perceive will prevent you from trying any of his suggestions?

Works Cited

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/submission/18470/active+listening. 6 August 2021. 6 August 2021.

Lucas, Stephen A. The Art of Public Speaking, 11/e. Madison : McGraw-Hill, 2012.

Lukenberg, Steve. “The Underrated Art of Listening to Your Clients.” 3 November 2017. https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2017/11/03/the-underrated-art-of-listening-to-your-clients/. 6 August 2021.

Sobel, Rachel, K. “The Art of Listening.” U.S. News & World Report. 134.20 (2003).

West, Mia. “Entrepreneur.” 7 June 2017. 6 August 2021.



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Start Here, Speak Anywhere! Copyright © by Janet Douglas-Pryce, MA, MBA, ABD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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