Solved by verified expert:The Importance of ListeningIn a 2-3 page paper, reflect on a situation in your professional or personal life where poor listening skills created a problem. Briefly describe the situation, then spend the bulk of your reflection analyzing what went wrong in terms of listening and how, specifically, effective listening would have made a difference. Be sure you incorporate terms from the text of effective listening skills as you analyze the situation and suggest ways it could have been improved. Your paper should be a 2-3 page paper citing specific examples and providing detailed analysis incorporation reading and textbook material. If outside sources are used, proper citation of the source should be included.
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Anna Deavere Smith is a playwright, an artist in residence at MTV, a recipient of the MacArthur
Foundation “genius” award, a performance studies teacher at Tisch School of the Arts, and a
professor at New York University. She’s won high praise for her one-woman shows, Fires in the
Mirror, which dealt with ethnic turmoil in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; and Twilight: Los Angeles,
which focused on the riots that erupted following the acquittal of the police officers accused of
beating Rodney King. She also played the president’s secretary in The American President and a
paralegal in Philadelphia, and she had a continuing role in the television series The West Wing.
Anna Deavere Smith lists another professional accomplishment on her résumé—teaching
medical students at Yale and law students at New York University. You might wonder what
qualifies her to instruct medical and law students. After all, she’s not a doctor or lawyer.
Anna Deavere Smith is a virtuoso listener. That’s why she was hired to teach medical and law
students. Doctors and lawyers need to listen, and conventional medical and legal training doesn’t
teach them how to listen well. That’s why the school turned to Anna Deavere Smith. She says,
“Listening is not just hearing what someone tells you word for word. You have to listen with a
heart.… It’s very hard work” (Arenson, 2002, p. 35). In teaching prospective doctors and
attorneys how to listen well to patients and clients, Smith emphasizes the need to be fully present
Doctors and attorneys aren’t the only ones who need to listen well. We all do. If you think about
your normal day, you’ll realize that listening—or trying to—takes up at least half your waking
time (Wagner, 2001; Wolvin, 2009). You listen in classes, listen to acquaintances in casual
conversation, listen to your parents during phone calls, listen to clerks in stores, listen to your
supervisor and customers when you’re at work, and listen to friends when they talk to you about
In this chapter, we discuss listening and how to listen effectively. First, we consider what
listening involves. Next, we identify obstacles to effective listening and how we can minimize
them. We also consider some common forms of no listening. The fourth section of the chapter
explains different types of listening and the distinct skills needed for each. We then apply the
ideas we have covered to digital and online environments. To wrap up the chapter, we identify
guidelines for improving listening effectiveness.
The Listening Process
Listening is a complex process that involves far more than our ears. To listen well, we rely on
our ears, minds, and hearts. The multifaceted aspects of listening are reflected in the Chinese
character shown in Figure 6.1, which includes the symbols for the eyes, ears, and heart.
Good Listening = Career Advancement
The costs of poor listening in the workplace can be very high. Doctors who don’t listen fully to
patients may misdiagnose or mistreat medical problems (Christensen, 2004; Nyquist, 1992;
Scholz, 2005; Underwood & Adler, 2005). For this reason, an increasing number of medical
practices hire communication specialists to provide listening workshops for medical
practitioners. They’d rather pay the consultants’ fees than the legal fees for malpractice suits that
can result from poor listening.
Doctors aren’t the only ones who need to listen well. Senior executives in a number of fields
identify listening as a necessary job skill more often than they identify any other skill, including
managerial ability and technical competence (Darling & Dannels, 2003; Gabric & McFadden,
2001; Landrum & Harrold, 2003).
Listening skill is ranked as the single most important feature of effective managers (Winsor et
al., 1997). It’s also the top-ranked communication skill for accountants (Morreale, 2004). Just as
listening skill is associated with career advancement, poor listening is a leading reason that some
people don’t advance in their careers (Deal & Kennedy, 1999).
Although we often use the words listening and hearing as if they were synonyms, actually they
are different. HearingHearingThe physiological result of sound waves hitting our eardrums.
Unlike listening, hearing is a passive process.
The physiological result of sound waves hitting our eardrums. Unlike listening, hearing is a
passive process. is a physiological activity that occurs when sound waves hit our eardrums.
People who are deaf or hearing-impaired receive messages visually through lip reading or sign
language. Listening has psychological and cognitive dimensions that mere hearing, or physically
receiving messages, does not.
The International Listening Association (1995; see the ILA website at http://www.listen.org)
emphasizes that listening is an active process, which means we must exert effort to listen well.
We can define listening listening A complex process that consists of being mindful, hearing,
selecting and organizing information, interpreting communication, responding, and
remembering. Listening is a very different process from hearing, which is simply a
A complex process that consists of being mindful, hearing, selecting and organizing information,
interpreting communication, responding, and remembering. Listening is a very different process
from hearing, which is simply a physiological action. as an active, complex process that consists
of being mindful, physically receiving messages, selecting and organizing messages, interpreting
messages, responding, and remembering.
Mindfulness Being fully present in the moment. A concept from Zen Buddhism; the first step of
listening and the foundation of all the other steps.
The first step in listening is to make a decision to be mindful. Mindfulness is being fully present
in the moment. It’s what Anna Deavere Smith teaches medical and law students. When we are
mindful, we don’t check text messages, let our thoughts drift to what we plan to do this weekend,
or focus on our own feelings and responses. Instead, we tune in fully to another person and try to
understand what that person is communicating, without imposing our own ideas, judgments, or
feelings. Mindfulness grows out of the decision to attend fully to another. Physically, this is
signified by paying attention, adopting an involved posture, keeping eye contact, and indicating
interest in what the other person says (Bolton, 1986).
Because mindful listening involves taking the perspective of another, it fosters dual
perspective—a cornerstone of effective communication. In addition, mindfulness enhances the
effectiveness of the other person’s communication. When people sense we are really listening,
they tend to elaborate on their ideas and express themselves in more depth.
Mindfulness is a choice. It is not a technique, nor is it a talent that some people have and others
don’t. No amount of skill will make you a good listener if you don’t make a commitment to
attend to another person fully.
I always thought I was a good listener until I spent 2 years living in Japan. In that culture there
is a much deeper meaning to listening. I realized that most of the time I was only hearing others.
Often, I was thinking of my responses while they were still talking. I had not been listening with
my mind and heart.
Physically Receiving Messages
The second process involved in listening is hearing, or physically receiving messages. As we
noted earlier, hearing is a physiological process in which sound waves hit our eardrums so that
we become aware of noises, such as music, traffic, or human voices. For people who have
hearing impairments, messages are received in other ways, such as writing, lip reading, and
American Sign Language.
Communication in Everyday Life:Social Media
The Illusion of Competence
Think you get more done when you multitask? Think you can absorb a class lecture while texting
friends and checking eBay’s latest offerings? Think again. Researchers have amassed
considerable evidence that multitasking doesn’t increase efficiency or productivity. In fact, it’s
very clear that the human brain simply isn’t capable of engaging in two conceptual tasks
simultaneously (Brown, 2010; Gallagher, 2009; Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001). When you
think you are multitasking, actually your brain is switching quickly from one task to another.
Each time the brain switches, it has to reorient itself, which takes time and mental energy. Again
and again, experiments show that people perform tasks more quickly and accurately when they
do them one at a time rather than trying to do them simultaneously (Klingberg, 2008; Foerde,
Knowlton, & Poldrack, 2006; Nass & Yen, 2010; Opir, Nass, & Wagner, in press; Rubinstein et
Many people feel they are operating at peak level when they multitask. They get a buzz from
jumping in and out of tasks. That’s what David Glenn (2010) calls the “illusion of competence,”
and he says it is particularly evident in students who often send text messages and check
Facebook while in classes. They feel hyped and assume they’ve absorbed what happens in a
class. But when it comes to recalling information or synthesizing and analyzing it, they’re at a
disadvantage because they didn’t really grasp the information.
The human brain uses two parts of the brain for learning. When working on a single task, the
hippocampus takes over helping us to acquire information in ways that we can recall and apply.
When the brain is asked to work on two or more tasks at the same time, it relies more on the
striatum, which controls habitual learning and is limited in its ability to apply the information
(Foerde et al., 2006). Thus, when a person tries to do more than one thing at a time, he or she is
relying on a part of the brain that is less able to manage information flexibly and complexly.
Receiving messages is a prerequisite for listening. For most of us, hearing is automatic and
unhindered. However, people with hearing impairments may have difficulty receiving oral
messages. When we speak with someone who has a hearing disability, we should face the person
and ask if we are coming across clearly.
Hearing impairments are not the only restriction on physically receiving messages. Hearing
ability tends to decline when we are fatigued from concentrating on communication. You may
have noticed that it’s harder to pay attention in classes that run 75 minutes than in classes that
run 50 minutes. Background noise can also interfere with hearing. It’s difficult to hear well if
loud music is playing, a television is blaring, cell phones are chiming, or others are talking
Women and men seem to differ somewhat in their listening. As a rule, women are more attentive
than men to the whole of communication. Thus, many men tend to focus their hearing on specific
content aspects of communication, whereas women generally are more likely to attend to the
whole of communication, noticing details, tangents, and relationship-level meanings. Judy
Pearson (1985), a prominent communication scholar, suggests that this could result from the
brain’s hemispheric specializations. Women usually have better-developed right lobes, which
govern creative and holistic thinking, whereas men typically have better-developed left lobes,
which control analytic and linear information processing. Recent research also indicates that
women tend to use both lobes of their brain to listen, but men tend to engage only their moredeveloped left lobes (“Men Use,” 2000). This doesn’t mean that one sex listens better than the
other, but it does mean they tend to listen somewhat differently.
My girlfriend amazes me. We’ll have a conversation, and then later one of us will bring it up
again. What I remember is what we decided in the talk. She remembers that, too, but she also
remembers all the details about where we were and what was going on in the background and
particular things one of us said in the conversation. I never notice all of that stuff, and I sure
don’t remember it later.
Selecting and Organizing Material
The third element of listening is selecting and organizing material. As we noted in Chapter 3, we
don’t perceive everything around us. Instead, we selectively attend to only some messages and
elements of our environments. What we attend to depends on many factors, including our
interests, cognitive structures, and expectations. Selective listening is also influenced by culture;
even in utero, fetuses become attuned to the sounds of their language (“Babies Seem,” 2013).
Thus, people who learn a second language later in life may have difficulty recognizing sounds
that weren’t in their first language (Monastersky, 2001).
We can monitor our tendencies to attend selectively by remembering that we are more likely to
notice stimuli that are intense, loud, unusual, or that otherwise stand out from the flow of
communication. This implies that we may overlook communicators who speak quietly and don’t
call attention to themselves. Intan, an Asian American student, once told me that Americans
often ignore what she says because she speaks softly and unassertively. If we’re aware of the
tendency not to notice people who speak quietly, we can guard against it so that we don’t miss
out on people and messages that may be important.
I had to have outpatient surgery on my knee last year. My doctor told me to bring an adult with
me for the surgery. I said my friend Jake was going to bring me and come back to pick me up.
The doctor said, “No, he must stay here with you the whole time.” The doctor explained that I
wouldn’t be able to listen carefully to instructions because of anxiety and the anesthesia. I
thought he was wrong, but he wasn’t. After the surgery, I thought I was alert and normal when
the doctor explained how to take care of the knee and what was normal and not normal after this
surgery. By the time Jake drove me home, I couldn’t remember a thing the doctor had said.
Once we’ve selected what to notice, we then organize the stimuli to which we’ve attended. We
try to understand not just content but also the person speaking. Is she or he anxious or calm, open
to advice or closed to it, and so on? Does she or he want to vent and may not want advice until
after having had a chance to express their feelings? Finally, we decide how we should proceed in
It’s important to remember that we construct others and their communication when we use our
schemata to make sense of situations and people. In other words, we create meaning by how we
select and organize communication. Remembering this reminds us to keep perceptions tentative
and open to revision. In the course of interaction, we may want to modify perceptions.
The fourth step in listening is interpreting others’ communication. The most important principle
for effective interpretation is to be person-centered so that you understand another person’s
perspective on her or his terms. Certainly, you won’t always agree with other people’s ideas or
how they see themselves, others, and situations. Engaging in dual perspective doesn’t require
you to agree with others’ perspectives; however, it does require you to make an earnest effort to
To interpret someone on her or his own terms is one of the greatest gifts we can give another.
Too often, we impose our meanings on others, try to correct or argue with them about what they
feel, or crowd out their words with our own.
I’d been married and working for years when I decided I wanted to come back to school and
finish my degree. When I mentioned it to the guys I worked with, they all came down hard on me.
They said I was looking for an easy life as a College Joe and trying to get above them. My dad
said it would be irresponsible to quit work when I had a wife and child, and he said no selfrespecting man would do that. It seemed like everyone had a view of what I was doing and why,
and their views had nothing to do with mine. The only person who really listened to me was
Elaine, my wife. When I told her I was thinking about going back to school, the first thing out of
her mouth was, “What would that mean to you?” She didn’t presume she knew my reasons, and
she didn’t start off arguing with me. She just asked what it meant to me, then listened for a long,
long time while I talked about how I felt. She focused completely on understanding me. Maybe
that’s why we’re married.
Effective listening also involves responding, which is communicating attention and interest. As
we noted in Chapter 1, interpersonal communication is a transactional process in which we
simultaneously listen and speak. We don’t respond only when others have finished speaking;
rather, we respond throughout interaction. This is what makes listening such an active process.
Good listeners let others know they are interested throughout interaction by adopting attentive
postures, nodding their heads, making eye contact, and giving vocal responses such as “mmhmm” and “go on.” These nonverbal behaviors demonstrate engagement. On the relationship
level of meaning, responsiveness communicates that we care about the other person.
The final aspect of listening is remembering, which is the process of retaining what you have
heard. According to communication teachers Ron Adler and Russell Proctor (2014), we
remember less than half of a message immediately after we hear it. As time goes by, retention
decreases further; we recall only about 35% of a message 8 hours after hearing it. Because we
forget about two-thirds of what we hear, it’s important to make sure we retain the most important
third. Effective listeners let go of a lot of details to retain the more important content. Later in
this chapter, we discuss strategies for retaining material.
Obstacles to Mindful Listening
We’ve seen that a lot is involved in mindful listening. Adding to the complexity are hindrances
to effective listening. There are two broad types of barriers to mindful listening: obstacles in the
communication situation and obstacles in the communicators. (Did you notice that ideas to be
discussed in this section were organized into two broad classes to aid your retention of the basic
Many barriers to mindful listening are present in communication situations. Although we can’t
always control external obstacles, we can be aware of them and try to compensate for the noise
The sheer amount of communication we engage in makes it difficult to listen fully all the time.
Think about your typical day. You go to classes for 3 hours. How much you learn and how well
you do on examinations depend on your ability to listen mindfully to material that is often
difficult. After listening for 50 minutes in a history class, you listen for 50 minutes in a
communication class, followed by 50 more minutes in a business class. A great deal of
information comes your way in those three periods. After classes, you read three texts from
friends—you need to remember them and respond before the day ends. You start doing research
on the Web and find more than 300 sites for your topic—how can you possibly process all the
information they offer? Then you go to work, and your supervisor informs you of a new
procedure. Feeling rushed, your supervisor describes the procedure quickly, and you are
expected to understand and follow it.
We often feel overwhelmed by the amount of information we are supposed to understand and
retain. To deal with the overload, we often screen the talk around us, much as we screen calls on
our answering machines, to decide when to listen carefully and when to attend more …
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