This article is submitted by Dr. Sunita Agarwal, Assistant Professor, , University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.
People often focus on their speaking ability believing that good speaking equals good communication. The ability to speak well is a necessary component to successful communication but the ability to listen is equally important. Most of us do not realize the importance of listening as a communicative tool. Peter Drucker, a great linguist says
“It is the recipient who communicates. The so called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise.” Communication, as we all know is a two way process. It involves at least two parties – the communicator and receiver, or sender or receiver. The purpose of any communication is not achieved till the receiver receives the message which a communicator/sender wants to put across. Unless the receiver gives his/her response, the process of thought remains incomplete. We often take listening for granted, never realizing that it is a skill that can be learned. Most of us do not realize the importance of listening as a communicative tool. Adair, a language teacher says, ‘Listening has been variously called the neglected art or forgotten skill in Communication.’ (81) Yet studies have shown that we actually spend 50% more time listening than we do talking. In this paper, an effort will be made to look into some of the important questions to underline the importance of listening within human communication (1) is listening to someone the same as hearing? (2) Do we all listen differently? (3) What makes a good listener? (4) How to acquire active, productive listening skills and put them to work— professionally, socially, and personally. The paper will also have a positive bias: listeners are active. It will contend that all listening is and should be an engaged activity for effective communication. With practice listeners can become active and aware rather than passive and unconscious.
Watch someone who listens attentively. He/she makes eye contact and focuses on the other person while he/she listens. He/she listens with his eyes as well as his ears. While listening, he nods or makes attentive noises from time-to-time. This is both a skilled listener and an attentive listener. The person he/she is listening to feels a sense of communication. The first communication skill we engage in the moment we are born is listening. It is how we learn and acquire language. Speaking and listening, then, are always interrelated. However, although it is our first communicative behavior, listening is usually our most underdeveloped communication skill. The International Listening Association (www.listen.org) defines listening as the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages (1996).
Listening is an important aid to communication. In order to communicate effectively we have to be able to hear what the other person is saying. Yes, listening starts with hearing but goes beyond this; when we hear something, its just sound waves reaching our ears and then being forwarded to our brain. If we are actively listening, then we absorb what we hear, we think about it and we store it in our short memory, may be later on, add it to our long term memory. To listen is thus an active effort, hearing is a passive. Brownell (2006) defines “Hearing is essentially a physiological process, involves three interconnected stages: reception of sound waves, perception of sound in the brain, and auditory association (77). While listening is a very complex psychological process. A successful communication takes place only when the receiver participates and listens actively and decodes and interprets what the sender/communicator intends to convey. To listen effectively one needs to go through five separate steps-:
Thompson & Rubin (1996) describes the listening process from an information processing perspective. They write,” it is an active process in which listeners select and interpret information that comes from auditory and visual clues in order to define what is going on and what the speakers are trying to express” ( 331).
In Effective Listening: Key to Your Success Lyman Steil, Larry Barker and Kittie Watson (1983), identify four interconnected activities as essential to the process of listening:
1. Sensing, the first step, is the actual reception of verbal and nonverbal message
2. Interpreting is the practice of understanding the message.
3. Evaluating refers to the process of sorting facts, information that can be verified,
from opinion. Evaluating also involves concurring or rejecting the speaker’s message.
4. Responding is the process of reacting with verbal and nonverbal cues to the message.
In her research on listening comprehension, Caren Feyten (1991) finds that meaning is constructed, by speakers as well as listeners, through communicative exchanges that include linguistics, such as spoken words; paralinguistics, such as tone of voice, intonation and pitch; and via nonverbal communication, such as body language (175).
Good communication is, thus an interactive process. It calls for participation and involvement. It is usually a dialogue not a monologue. Being listened to, and knowing how to listen, are fundamental to the development of good reading, speaking and writing skills. When a child’s ability to listen is well developed, he or she will definitely turn out to be a good reader as well.
Brownell (2006) identifies the following nonverbal behaviors as behaviors that will say “I’ll listen”:
1. Direct eye contact.
4. Eyes wide open.
5. Forward lean.
6. Positive facial expression.
On the other hand the following behavioral patterns impede effective communication:
3. Looking away.
4. Nervous habits, fidgeting.
5. Shaking the head negatively.
6. Moving away from speaker.
7. Negative facial expression, such as frowning or pouting.
8. Crossed arms.
Every individual has reasons and objectives for listening and these depend on goals, interest, and the situation. We are constantly engaged in interpretation and meaning-making as we listen, and our listening engagement depends mainly on our environmental contexts and our listening goals. Researchers describe many different types of listening behaviors.
1. Discriminative listening is that type of listening in which individuals separate proved facts and Information from opinions, which is more subjective and ambiguous.
2. Comprehensive listening is to gain information. It takes place when we listen to receive information or to acquire an answer to a definite problem or question. It helps in enriching our personal perspective
3. Critical or evaluative listening is used to evaluate a message before accepting or
rejecting it. The aim of critical listening is not only to understand but also to evaluate the information and the details at several levels: the logic of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the validity of the conclusion, the implication of the message, the speaker’s intention and motives, and omission of any relevant information etc.
4. Therapeutic listening or emphatic or supportive listening allows the individual to listen without judging. The purpose of therapeutic listening is to help the speaker change or progress in some way. The goal of emphatic listening is to understand the speakers’ feelings, needs and wants so that one can appreciate his/her point of view, regardless of the fact whether one shares that perspective or not. By listening emphatically one helps the individual vent the emotions that prevent a calm clear headed approach to the subject. A lot of times people just want someone to listen to them, they do not want any advice or suggestion or conclusion
5. Appreciative listening allows individuals to listen for entertainment or enjoyment, such as when we listen to poetry or music, drama, watch movies, listen programs on radio or T.V.etc.
6. Content Listening- the primary goal of content listening is to understand and retain the speaker’s message. In content listening the emphasis is always on information and understanding.
In his work, Carl Rogers (1962) writes eloquently of the need to abandon an egocentric perspective when listening, which better allows us to comprehend the opposing point of view. Such listening, in his view, challenges preconceived assumptions as individuals are to take in the world around them. As a result of a deeply engaged active listening, individuals gradually experience greater listening competency as well as growth towards valuable modes of understanding. Secondly, they must develop an empathetic attitude, in which one individual identifies with another, in other words, as Hobart and Fahlberg, (1965,) say “one feels with and for that person” (596). Individuals will stop listening if they become angry or defensive. An effective speaker has the power to coax its audience closer to a model of emphatic listening. If a speaker wants to be really effective, he or she must be more concerned with communicating and encouraging an open and active listening behavior than an egocentric behavior such as lecturing the audience.
In the listening process there are things that interfere with or get in the way of effective listening. We call these situational thoughts and actions barriers to listening. In any situation, barriers prevent effective communication. These barriers can be within ourselves (psychological), in the communication situation or environment (such as noise or other distractions), or they can be learned from our social or cultural associations and influences (like reactions to stereotypical labels or ethnocentric rituals).
- Psychological Barrier- These can include intrapersonal distractions such as interior “noise,” semantic noise, information overload, perceptions of the speaker, or self perceptions and personal biases that get in to the way of listening to others
- Situational or environmental Barrier (such as noise or other distractions), or they can be learned from our social or cultural associations and influences (like reactions to stereotypical labels or ethnocentric rituals)
Teaching listening skills is one of the most difficult tasks for any ESL teacher. This is because successful listening skills are acquired over time and with lots of practice. Students also get confused and show lack of interest in acquiring this skill because there are no rules as in grammar teaching. Speaking and writing also have very specific exercises that can lead to improved skills. This is not to say that there are not ways of improving listening skills though they are difficult to enumerate. Students can improve their communications skill by becoming active listeners. By listening to a teacher carefully they can learn ways of effective communication. In Developing the Fine Art of Listening, Hal Ritter Jr. and Patricia Wilson (2006) explain that when engaged in active listening, the listener mirrors or reflects the information by re-stating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said, followed by a question to check for the accuracy of what he thought he heard. Such listening behavior greatly reduces miscommunication and errors in perception by clarifying the message and creating common ground. These are some techniques and ways to improve the listening skills-:
- Eliminate distractions and improve your concentration on what is being said. Give 100% Attention: Prove you care by suspending all other activities.
- Locate key words, phrases, and ideas while listening
- Cut through your own listening biases
- Interpret body language clues.
- One of the largest inhibitors for students is often mental block. While listening, a student suddenly decides that he or she doesn’t understand what is being said. At this point, many students just tune out or get caught up in an internal dialogue trying to translate a specific word. Some students convince themselves that they are not able to understand spoken English well and create problems for themselves.
- The key to help students improve their listening skills is to convince them that not understanding is OK. This is more of an attitude adjustment than anything else, and it is easier for some students to accept than others.
- Another important point that I try to teach my students (with differing amounts of success) is that they need to listen to English as often as possible, but for short periods of time. Students must not expect improved understanding too quickly.
- Students must have the patience to wait for results. If a student continues this exercise over two to three months their listening comprehension skills will greatly improve.
- They should ask constructive, non-threatening questions that elicit real information if they have any query or any problem.
- Respond: Responses can be both verbal and nonverbal (nods, expressing interest) but must prove you received the message, and more importantly, prove it had an impact on you.
- Get others to listen to you
- Master a whole range of listening skills that they can use on the job and in their personal life
- Speak at approximately with the same energy level as the other person…then they’ll know they really got through and don’t have to keep repeating.
- Prove understanding: To say “I understand” is not enough. People need some sort of evidence or proof of understanding. Prove your understanding by occasionally restating the gist of their idea or by asking a question which proves you know the main idea.
If a student listens attentively and carefully in the classroom, then he also pays attention to all other non verbal and paralinguistic skills and these skills help him in developing good communicative skills. When he interacts and responds to someone or engages in communication with someone he is always attentive and careful to follow these non verbal, kinesics and paralinguistic features of communication. By using certain tasks, exercises and activities we can make them good listeners and good listeners make good communicators. These two listening activities which I use in my ESL class help them in enhancing their communication skills. Students are divided into four groups and each group is made to listen to a part of the story on a tape recorder, video or T.V.and the next group listen to the other part of the story and after listening the story attentively and carefully, all the four groups are asked to narrate the story in their own words in the class. The other students then can be asked to frame certain questions on the basis of their listening to the story narrated by their class-mates. Thus the whole class can be engaged in this task and students do find it interesting as each one is involved in some activity or other. Secondly, we can show them a film script, a play or something else and then we can ask them to review it. In my comprehension class again I ask one of the students to read the passage and before reading the passage I discuss the theme, focus and structure of the passage and what is expected from them and thus the purpose of listening is made clear. The students can decide and determine their own strategy and this facilitates learning and later on questions related to vocabulary, content and multiple choices can be framed and asked. This kind of activity promotes literal, interpretive and critical responses from the students. In this way students are motivated and a way for the smooth process from listening to speaking takes place in a natural way. Thus teachers can build up on listening tasks to provide speaking practices.
Listening to and acknowledging other people may seem deceptively simple, but doing it well, particularly when disagreements arise, takes true talent. As with any skill, listening well takes plenty of practice Listening is hard work: It takes focus and concentration to listen to what someone else is saying. There are few rewards for listening well. The rewards one gets may be subtle, but they are invaluable – like gaining information and felicitating in good oral communicative skills.
Adair Brownell, Judi. Listening: Attitudes, principles and skills. 3rd Ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2006.
Feyten, Caren. M. The power of listening ability: An overlooked dimension in language acquisition. 1991 The modern language journal 75, no. 2: 173-180.
Hobart Charles, Nancy Fahlberg. The measurement of empathy. 1965.The American journal of sociology 70, no. 5: 595-603.
Ritter, Hal and Patricia Wilson. 2001. Developing the fine art of listening (October),
http://www.texasbar.com/customsource/wrapper/globals/tbj/2001/oct01/ritter.asp (April 9, 2007).
Rogers, Carl. On becoming a person: The client-centered perspective. New York:Houghton Mifflin. 1961.
Steil, Lyman., Larry Barker, and Kittie Watson. 1983. Effective listening: Key to your success. Reading: Addison-Wesley. Study skills: Mind mapping. James Cook University, http://www.jcu.edu.au/studying/services/studyskills/mindmap/index.html, (accessed April 30, 2007).
The International Listening Association(www.listen.org.)
Thompson, I., & Rubin, J. (1996). Can strategy instruction improve listening comprehension? Foreign Language Annals, 29 (3), 331-342.