Listening Definition and Examples in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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.

"Listening is not merely not talking," 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."

Listening is one of the subjects studied in the field of language arts and in the discipline of conversation analysis.

Examples and Observations

"[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. 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.

"But a good listener does not merely remain silent. He asks questions. However, these questions must avoid all implications (whether in tone of voice or in wording) of skepticism or challenge or hostility. They must clearly be motivated by curiosity about the speaker's views." (S.I. Hayakawa, "How to Attend a Conference." The Use and Misuse of Language, ed. by S.I. Hayakawa. Fawcett Premier, 1962)

10 Keys to Effective Listening

(Adapted from a brochure distributed in the 1980s by the Sperry Corporation, now Unisys)

  1. Find areas of interest
  2. Judge content, not delivery
  3. Hold your fire
  4. Listen for ideas
  5. Be flexible
  6. Work at listening
  7. Resist distractions
  8. Exercise your mind
  9. Keep your mind open
  10. Anticipate, summarize, weigh the evidence, and look between the lines

"Listening is more complex than merely hearing. It is a process that consists of four stages: sensing and attending, understanding and interpreting, remembering, and responding . . .. The stages occur in sequence but we are generally unaware of them." (Sheila Steinberg, An Introduction to Communication Studies. Juta and Company Ltd., 2007)

Elements and Levels of Listening

"There are 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

In addition to the four elements, there are also 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 is, they demonstrate that they are paying attention and making an effort to understand and evaluate what it is they are hearing, and they complete the process by demonstrating through their responses their level of comprehension and interest in what the speaker is saying." (Marvin Gottlieb, Managing Group Process. Praeger, 2003)

Active and Passive Listening

  • "Active listening involves six skills: paying attention, holding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing, and sharing. Each skill contributes to the active listening mind-set, and each skill includes various techniques or behaviors. These skills are not mutually exclusive. For example, paying attention isn't something you stop doing when you start holding judgment. Nor are the skills consistently weighed in importance. In one conversation, clarifying may take much effort and time; in another conversation, gaining clarity and understanding may be quick and easy." (Michael H. Hoppe, Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead. Center for Creative Leadership, 2006)
  • "To be able to listen—really, wholly, passively, self-effacingly listen—without presupposing, classifying, improving, controverting, evaluating, approving or disapproving, without dueling with what is being said, without rehearsing the rebuttal in advance, without free-associating to portions of what is being said so that succeeding portions are not heard at all—such listening is rare." (Abraham H. Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, 1966)

    The Lighter Side of Listening

    "No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you'll see why." (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)