The Definition of Listening and How to Do It Well

girl listening in class
"When people talk," Ernest Hemingway said, "listen completely. Most people never listen.". (Rob Lewine/Getty Images)

Listening is the active process of receiving and responding to spoken (and sometimes unspoken) messages. It is one of the subjects studied in the field of language arts and in the discipline of conversation analysis.

Listening is not just hearing what the other party in the conversation has to say. "Listening means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us," said poet Alice Duer Miller. "You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer."

Elements and Levels of Listening

Author Marvin Gottlieb cites four elements "of good listening:

  1. Attention—the focused perception of both visual and verbal stimuli
  2. Hearing—the physiological act of 'opening the gates to your ears'
  3. Understanding—assigning meaning to the messages received
  4. Remembering—the storing of meaningful information" ("Managing Group Process." Praeger, 2003)

He also cites four levels of listening: "acknowledging, sympathizing, paraphrasing, and empathizing. The four levels of listening range from passive to interactive when considered separately. However, the most effective listeners are able to project all four levels at the same time." That means they show they're paying attention, they show interest, and they convey they are working to understand the speaker's message.

Active Listening

An active listener not only pays attention but withholds judgment during the speaker's turn and reflects on what's being said. S.I. Hayakawa notes in "The Use and Misuse of Language" that an active listener is curious about and open to the speaker's views, wants to understand his or her points, and so asks questions to clarify what's being said. An unbiased listener ensures that the questions are neutral, without skepticism or hostility.

"[L]istening does not mean simply maintaining a polite silence while you are rehearsing in your mind the speech you are going to make the next time you can grab a conversational opening. Nor does listening mean waiting alertly for the flaws in the other fellow's argument so that later you can mow him down," Hayakawa said.

"Listening means trying to see the problem the way the speaker sees it—which means not sympathy, which is feeling for him, but empathy, which is experiencing with him. Listening requires entering actively and imaginatively into the other fellow's situation and trying to understand a frame of reference different from your own. This is not always an easy task." ("How to Attend a Conference" in "The Use and Misuse of Language." Fawcett Premier, 1962)

Impediments to Listening

A basic communication loop has a message going from a sender to a receiver and feedback (such as acknowledgment of understanding, e.g., a nod) going from the receiver to the speaker. A lot can get in the way of a message being received, including distraction or fatigue on the part of the listener, the receiver prejudging the speaker's argument or information, or a lack of context or commonality to be able to understand the message.

Difficulty in hearing the speaker could also be an impediment, though that's not always the fault of the listener. Too much jargon on the part of the speaker can also impede the message.

"Listening" to Other Cues

When communicating, body language (including cultural cues) and tone of voice can also relay information to the listener, so in-person communication can send more layers of information about the topic being relayed than a voice-only means or a text-only method. The receiver, of course, has to be able to properly interpret the nonverbal signs to avoid subtext misunderstandings.

Keys to Effective Listening

Here are a dozen tips to being an effective active listener:

  1. Maintain eye contact with the speaker if possible.
  2. Pay attention and listen for ideas.
  3. Find areas of interest.
  4. Judge content, not delivery.
  5. Don't interrupt, and be patient.
  6. Hold back your points or counterpoints.
  7. Resist distractions.
  8. Pay attention to nonverbal information.
  9. Keep your mind open, and be flexible.
  10. Ask questions during pauses and give feedback.
  11. Listen with empathy to try and see the speaker's viewpoint.
  12. Anticipate, summarize, weigh the evidence, and look between the lines.