All speech, whether written or spoken, is in a dead language
until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author (1850-1894)

Welcome to a mini-tutorial on listening, based on "The Ears Have Walls ... A Listening Workshop," by me, Liz Lavallee.

If you haven't filled out the questionnaire, please do. I want you to give listening - your definition of listening - some contemplation before being influenced by what the experts I've drawn from have to say. And I need your help in trying to define what it is to listen in cyberspace.

If you're not up to a graphics-free lecture on listening right now, bookmark this page and come back later.

Listening Defined

The listening act is hearing, analyzing, assigning meaning to and responding to aural, oral and visual stimuli that one has made a conscious effort to attend. Or, as Robert H. Waterman Jr. said in The Renewal Factor, "Listening, really listening, is tough and grinding work."

Listening is a skill - just like reading, writing and arithmetic - but it's only just beginning to be included in the curriculum of a handful of schools. Mostly, listening classes are elective and at the college level. Yet listening is arguably the most important skill a human can possess.

The United States' public schools rely heavily on lecture-based learning - this means that for students to excel, they must be good listeners.

A common complaint in relationships is that one's partner doesn't listen.

If your doctor doesn't listen to you - or you don't listen to your doctor - your health and well-being could suffer.

How many times have you wished your boss, or your employee, or the sales clerk, would listen to you. Just once.

Maybe they don't know how.

To be a good listener, you not only have to know how to listen, you have to want to listen. "Improved listening skills will not necessarily result in improved listening," said Donald L. Kirkpatrick in No-Nonsense Communication. "We must apply these skills. We must be convinced that it pays to listen. The combination of desire (I want to listen), effort (I'm going to work at it), and skill (I know how to do it) will result in improved listening."

I can't help you with desire or effort, but I can offer you some basic information about listening that could increase your skill.

To start, let me go back to the definition.

"The listening act is hearing, analyzing, assigning meaning to and responding to aural, oral and visual stimuli that one has made a conscious effort to attend."

The first step, by this definition, is hearing. If you're in a noisy bar, especially if it has a band, you're not really in a good position to listen. Also, if you've been in too many noisy environments for too long without protecting your hearing, you may have a physiological barrier to better listening - a hearing loss. The key is to know and recognize barriers to good listening. Deal with them, don't ignore them. Also remember that hearing and listening are not the same things. To listen, you have to be able to hear, but not vice versa - remember the Paul Simon song The Sounds of Silence: "People hearing without listening."

Your ears continually receive sounds. Like a ticking clock in your home, or the constant hum of your hard drive, you learn to tune out many sounds. You don't "attend" them. At a party, you can hear many conversations, but polite people only attend the one they're participating in.

To fully participate in that conversation, you need to attend, or listen to, everything -- verbal, oral, non-verbal, aural and visual.

Verbal refers only to words - to language (not just spoken words).

Oral refers to the spoken word.

Non-verbal, or paralanguage, is the nonlinguistic aspect of oral verbalization - the quality of the spoken word: volume, pitch, tone, speed or rate, vocal quality and stress.

Aural stimuli are those perceived by your ears.

Visual stimuli, such as body language, are perceived by your eyes.

OK. You've heard. You've attended. Now what?

Analysis. This can get fairly involved, but each of us analyze messages in an instant, over and over, every day. You add up the components of the message - the words, the non-verbals, the body language - and assign meaning to the message.

This is where misunderstandings come up - assigning meaning. For instance, in some cultures there are situations where it's considered impolite to look someone in the eyes while speaking to them. In the United States, averting one's eyes is considered rude at best and often considered to be a sign of deceit or dishonesty. When aural and visual stimuli disagree, visual is believed; when verbal and non-verbal messages disagree, the non-verbal message is believed.

Responding to the message, or feedback, can be used as a way to clarify meaning and clear up misunderstandings. Or it can simply continue the conversation. And, yes, silence is feedback.

The purpose of the message and the type of listening situation are factors in how much analysis is necessary and how you respond.

Determining why someone is speaking - the purpose of the message - helps you understand what they're saying. In an article in Working Woman magazine (February 1988), Ronald Pitzer of the University of Minnesota defined four levels:

. Small talk: indicates a speaker's need for affiliation and establishment of rapport with the listener

. Verbal catharsis: indicates a speaker's need to "ventilate" - to express opinions or frustration; does not indicate a speaker's readiness to accept advice or criticism

. Information exchange: indicates a speaker's need or wish for a give-and-take of factual content

. Persuasion: indicates a speaker's need or wish to influence the listener. At this stage, if a speaker is trying to enlist a listener's help with a problem, the speaker may be open to advice.

Similar to Pitzer's four levels are the listening taxonomies described by Andrew Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley in their textbook, Listening (third edition, 1982).

They depict the different listening types to a tree, with the roots being Discriminatory listening (you heard it), the trunk is Comprehensive listening (you understood it), and the branches are: Appreciative listening, Therapeutic listening and Critical listening.

. Appreciative listening is listening for pleasure - such as listening to music or a play.

. Therapeutic listening is sometimes called empathetic listening. You're listening because you care about the person speaking. Like a psychiatrist, the best tactic in therapeutic listening is getting the speaker to keep going.

. Critical listening adds judgment to attending and understanding. You need to make a critical evaluation of the message, which is especially important when the purpose of the message is to persuade. The basics on this is to identify what the message is, how it is conveyed and whether it presents a logical, plausible argument.

Congratulations to all of you who've made it this far. You've just finished with the basics of listening. Future "mini-tutorials" available on the Listening Web Site will go into more detail about critical listening and the listening environment. Considering it took me three months to post this tutorial, if you have any questions, don't wait - just ask!

Remember: If you practice good listening, you will become a better listener. Identifying and breaking bad habits while reinforcing good habits is a great start.

Habits to Break

. interrupting the speaker (verbally or mentally)

. sending inappropriate feedback (verbal and visual)

. engaging in multiple activities while listening

. agreeing to listen when you're not going to

Habits to Reinforce

. concentrate on the message, not the speaker

. attend only one message at a time

. create a supportive atmosphere

. provide appropriate feedback

. withhold judgment until speaker's done

Return to the Listening Homepage.
created May 12
by Liz Lavallee © 1996