Unit 1.6 – Listening Skills

Listening: types of listening, barriers to listening, effective listening skills.


What is “Listening”?

Listening is a process of receiving, interpreting and reacting to the messages received from the communication sender. Effective listening is an art of communication that is often taken for granted and ignored. Like any other forms of art, listening needs to be cultivated consciously and carefully. Unfortunately, our education systems beginning from kindergarten up to college level rarely pays attention to the teaching of effective listening. Poor listening can be a mighty barrier to communication because it hampers effective listening which is fundamental for all types of communication. Listening requires conscious efforts to interpret the sounds, grasp the meanings of the words, and react to the message. Interpreting the sound signals is a cognitive act, involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering) that is dependent on the listener’s knowledge of code signals and their attitude towards the communication sender.

The active listening process begins when the listener pays attention to some audible sound signals and permits himself to interpret those sounds cognitively. It is a conscious process. Every human being possesses the ability to select sounds from their surroundings. However, selective listening is not an automatic process like that of hearing. An individual may hear many sounds, but he may listen to none of them or choose to focus on specific sounds.

Types of Listening

We may ‘sit back’ and listen to a song sung by a little girl or to the music on a radio broadcast, but when we take part in communication, it is necessary to ‘sit up’ and listen carefully. It would be improper to think about how we get other people to listen to us without listening to others.  It is certainly advisable to think about how we can get ourselves to patiently and carefully listen to others because half-listening is likely to result in confusions and misunderstandings as well as a loss of time. This is called active listening. The listener, who asks questions and comments on the views of the speaker, should therefore encourage the speaker to express his ideas fully and enthusiastically.

Not only is it essential to concentrate on what a person is saying, it is also just as important to pay attention to the speaker because physical and non-verbal signs make up a huge part of communication. Though non-verbal signs give us reliable information, the listener should not get carried away with the thoughts on the physical appearance of the speaker. The listener must understand properly the feelings and sentiments of the speaker. Usually we listen to pay attention to the speaker’s message, which is to our advantage; but we should take equal interest in the speeches, which is to the advantage of the speaker.

When it is possible to hear a message clearly without any physical distraction, the listener must become active in attending the message. If noises interfere with the physical reception of the message, the listener has to prepare himself to concentrate on the selected signals and should not allow himself to be distracted by the noises. In such situation, a good listener has to exercise a good deal of mental discipline over himself in order to concentrate properly on the message that is being conveyed by the speaker. A careful listener never jumps to conclusions about what the speaker says until the latter completes his message.

Non-active listeners are poor listeners who only recalls specific facts presented by the speaker and tend to forget the central idea. Tired, bored and lazy listeners may pretend to be attentive through their body languages as they usually rest their chin on hand or bend forward in the chair to show that they really pay attention to the talk, but in fact they may be occupied with some other thoughts. They may drift away thinking about their personal problems and worries.

Some listeners may also pretend to listen while distracting themselves by doing other things such as making notes, reading mail and doing other routine activities. But, effective listening should not be considered as an easy and passive encounter. The non-active listener sometimes avoids the message if he feels it is difficult to understand or if it is too hard to follow. The listener requires mental preparedness and energy to concentrate on the message and on non-verbal communication like body movement, postures, gestures, etc.

Effective Listening Skills

The receiver should carefully listen to the message to feel the pulse of the sender, to understand the mood and reactions and create a congenial atmosphere for listening, which allows freedom of expression from the speaker. Poor listening can create embarrassing situations, which result in  lack of co-ordination and mutual understanding. For instance, manager who is willing to listen to their employees, can give them an opportunity to vent out their emotions. Effective listening helps managers get constructive suggestions from workers. There is greater harmony and cohesion if the sender and the receiver listen to each other messages effectively. Reciprocity can raise their morale and create togetherness.

Some Do’s for the Listeners

  1. Keep quiet while listening
  2. Focus on what the speaker says rather than on his/her looks
  3. Control and screen out the distractions
  4. Show interest in the speaker
  5. Be friendly and patient towards the speaker
  6. Listen first and take notes afterwards
  7. Look for the main theme and key ideas
  8. Let the speaker finish whatever he has to say without interrupting him
  9. Find an area of interest in the speech; look interested in the speech and act interested in listening
  10. Try to repeat the key-ideas during the slow and long speeches
  11. Avoid pondering on a single point
  12. Keep your mind open to every subject and speaker
  13. Choose a quiet place to listen, if possible
  14. Arrive early at the place of a seminar, lecture, and meeting
  15. Empathize with the speaker and try to understand his opinions, views and values.
  16. Try to probe the emotions and feelings of the speaker
  17. Seek out difficult speech presentations to challenge your listening skills
  18. Observe the non-verbal signals, the body movements, facial expressions and gestures
  19. Try to look into the eyes of the speaker
  20. Try to relate the speaker’s message with your personal experience
  21. Try to evaluate the speaker’s message objectively
  22. Try to enrich your vocabulary so that you may understand the exact shade of meaning conveyed by the words of the speaker
  23. Accept criticism without losing your temper
  24. Communicate your feedback to the speaker. Ask questions that encourage the speaker

Barriers to Listening

Listening is an art of communication. In order to master it, the communicator has to learn and acquire the skills of effective listening. He must identify and overcome the following obstacles:

  1. Listener’s resistance to the new ideas in the message
  2. Emotional excitement of the listener
  3. Inattentiveness to the length of an untimely speech
  4. Listener’s distrust in the speaker
  5. Listener’s status consciousness, especially when the listener is superior and the speaker is subordinate
  6. Closed-mindedness of the listener
  7. Conflict of the attitudes and values of the listener with those of the speaker
  8. Mental argument with the speaker before comprehending the entire message
  9. Prejudices against the speaker 
  10. Lack of empathy for the speaker 
  11. Slow, dull and boring speech by speaker
  12. Lack of interest in the subject of speech 
  13. Tiredness of the listener
  14. Listener’s impatience to talk
  15. Physical distractions or ‘noise’
  16. Creative distractions like daydreaming or reading while listening
  17. Listener’s responding to the dress and mannerisms of the speaker 
  18. Listener’s inadequate knowledge of the language used by the speaker 
  19. Wrong perception of the message