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An Overview of Listening


Why Listen?

          How many times are you asked to listen to someone else? In what situation? At your job? At school? With family and friends? What might be the consequences if you don’t listen well? With these important consequences on the line, have you ever had a class in listening? Or in your educational career have you ever had information given to you on what listening really is or how to listen? You are asked to listen from the time you are very young, and yet you’re given little to no training on how to do it. Think about how much more you could have learned had you been given the tools to understand what listening is and how to become a better listener. Could your classes have been easier? What about your job? Or even your life?

          Listening skills are not only vital to your success in public speaking classes but personally and professionally as well. Employers say listening and communication skills are some of the top skills needed for young people as they enter the workforce.


          Think about your job, how is listening important? As a waiter, if you don’t listen to the order, what could happen? Will the customer be pleased if you get the order wrong? Or a coworker tells you to see your manager before leaving and you leave anyway because you weren’t paying attention. What will happen? Say you are an engineer overseeing a bridge construction project . . . Your client tells you the bridge needs to support large trucks regularly. But you aren’t listening to their needs, what could happen?


        Think about your personal life, how is listening important there? Your significant other tells you they have to work late, and you will need to pick the children up from daycare. But you didn’t listen well—what may happen? Or your best friend asks you to help with moving. But you didn’t listen to the specifics, and you show up at the wrong time. What will happen there?

What is Listening?

          Listening is one of the primary tools in communication. It is the act of taking in a message and actually understanding what is being said rather than just reacting to it. Think of these definitions to the word listening, what do they have in common?  
•    “to pay attention to sound”
•    “to hear something with thoughtful attention—give consideration” 
•    “to be alert to catch an expected sound”
All three definitions require active attentiveness, not just the passive act of hearing. Listening involves more than your ears . . . It involves your eyes, your ears, and your heart. Look at the Chinese character for listening. Each component making up the character represents a part of the person involved in listening. 

          Listening is not hearing—and hearing is not listening. Hearing is a physical process. Sound comes into the ear, but there isn’t meaning taken from it. It is the physical process of the sound waves hitting the eardrum. Listening takes hearing to a deeper level and applies understanding. 

          Generally, we are great “hearers” but not very good at listening to comprehend meaning or understanding. We “hear” sounds, words, music, instructions, and directions. How often do you find yourself hearing the music but not interpreting the meaning the artist is trying to convey? Or you ask someone directions to a particular location, but you aren’t paying attention to the speaker and you still get lost. You may refer to these situations as being zoned out or distracted.

          True listening takes effort and energy. It can even make you tired! For example, do you have a job that requires you to “listen” to someone? Your boss? Customers? Teachers? Your spouse or partner? Your children? Do you find yourself trying to decipher between noise and a true message? Think about how tired you are at the end of the day. Listening is hard work!

Process of Listening

          Listening occurs in the brain. That is where the sound waves are being deciphered to create meaning. Sound comes into the ear, bounces on the eardrum, and then is processed by the brain. The sounds are put with other “like” sounds (compartmentalized) from our frame of reference to eventually create meaning for the listeners. Listening is making sense of the sounds and developing understanding. A specific physical process occurs in our brain when we listen.

The stages of the listening process are:

  1. Receiving – The sound is present and hits the ear and eardrum. This can occur in a combination of two possible ways: seeing and hearing through our senses. You can see the action (or person) creating the sound, speaking. You can hear the action (or words) that is creating the sound. This stage is only the acceptance of the physical sound being transmitted.

  2. Perceiving – You focus on the sound, pay attention to it, and pick up on it. You realize and acknowledge the sound has taken place. 

  3. Interpreting – You attach meaning to the sound based on previous information or your personal frame of reference. You categorize the action by putting it with like information to create meaning and understanding. 

  4. Reacting – You show you understand the sound and the attached meaning by giving your interpreted meaning back to the source of the original sound either verbally or nonverbally.

Review Questions

1) How is listening important in your personal life?

2) What are the three definitions of listening? What do they have in common?

3) Is hearing listening? Is listening hearing? How are they similar? How are they different? 

4) When you are focusing on a sound and acknowledge the sound has taken place, you are what?

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