It was the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who first observed that nature had provided two ears but one tongue that we might hear from others twice as much as we speak. While the wisdom and practical values of listening have been understood throughout history, attempts to study listening as a social science and to include listening instruction in curricula are relatively recent phenomena, gaining some popularity with the early work of Ralph Nichols, including his groundbreaking text Are you listening? (Nichols & Stevens 1957). Nichols and Stevens describe an early study conducted by Paul Rankin that divided the act of communication into four distinct behaviors: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In this survey, listening was used more extensively than the other communicative modes. Similarly, Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) model of communication included the receiver as an independent component in the communication process. Possibly due to the focus of this early work, listening was reified as distinct and unique, functioning independently of other communicative behaviors.
Listening And Information Processing
Over time, the view of communication as a linear process, neatly divisible into speaker, listener, and message components, gave way to the conceptualization of communication as a transaction in which meaning is constructed and message encoding and decoding occur simultaneously. Similarly, efforts to measure listening as a distinct behavior (as listening comprehension) were deemed invalid (Kelly 1967). Scholars began to describe listening in terms of multiple forms of information processing, such as hearing, attention, memory, and various aspects of message interpretation and evaluation. Because listening was originally conceived as unitary and distinct, while our current understanding is that it involves a large number of information-processing skills, efforts to define listening have been numerous and agreement on a common definition does not exist. In an excellent review of these issues, Bostrom (1990, 7) concludes simply that “the term, ‘good listener’ has become a synonym for a caring, other-oriented person.”
Educators who teach and study listening have tended to engage in certain arbitrary short cuts: studying message reception in relative isolation from message encoding, or studying the auditory (hearing) aspects of message reception in relative isolation from the visual aspects of communication. However, there are practical benefits to be gained from this approach: it permits educators to focus on specific information-processing behaviors that can be improved, which has proven fruitful (Brownell 1990). Today, many listening texts continue to be more practical than theoretical: oriented toward improved relationships, improved message comprehension, and improved retention of information. The expectation is that this practical study will reap rewards in school, at work, and in one’s circle of friends and family.
Early attempts were made to measure listening as a simple, unidimensional concept of message comprehension (actually, message retention). When the validity of these tests came into question, several multidimensional tests of listening effectiveness were developed. Among these are the Kentucky Comprehensive Listening Test (Bostrom & Waldhart 1980), the Watson-Barker Listening Test (Watson & Barker 1983), and the Communication Competency Assessment Instrument (Rubin 1982).
Each of these approaches involves measuring several types, or aspects, of listening: for example, following instructions, remembering information presented in short talks, recognizing central ideas, correctly inferring the meaning of statements from both verbal context and nonverbal cues, resisting distractions, and differentiating facts from opinions. All three tests require participant responses to specific auditory and visual recorded stimuli. Thus, an objective test rather than simple self-assessment is utilized. Significant questions concerning the validity and the reliability of listening assessment remain and need to be addressed by future research. Doubtless, as previously discussed, many of the methodological issues trace back to the difficulty in defining and operationally conceptualizing a construct as expansive as listening.
Listening And Empathy
It would be remiss of any review of the term “listening” to not include a humanistic perspective. In common parlance, listening is often used synonymously with terms such as empathy, decentering, or human compassion. To listen is to attend, to care, and to value. An effective listener not only processes information effectively, but also and often more importantly demonstrates interest in the speaker. While this approach has frequently been the subject of scholarly inquiry and reflection (Weaver & Kirtley 1995), it is most often seen in clinical and instructional materials in areas such as counseling, interviewing, mentoring, mediation, and general interpersonal communication. There have been efforts made to develop psychometric instruments useful in determining listening empathy and empathic styles (Drollinger et al. 2006).
An excellent example of this applied, humanistic approach to listening is Carl Rogers’s active listening (Rogers & Farson 1973). This general approach to listening (Rogers strongly resisted terming it a “technique”) is also widely known as nondirective therapy and has been cited in literally hundreds of books and articles in the fields of communication, psychology, education, and business. The approach stresses the elimination of any evaluation of the speaker or the speaker’s comments, the importance of an appropriate level of empathy, and the avoidance by the listener of directive communication such as substantive comments and questions. Instead, the listener is encouraged to use mirror statements (repeating a few of the speaker’s words) and to paraphrase the speaker’s meanings and apparent feelings. Active listening has met with widespread acclaim for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its sensitivity to the maxim “First, do no harm.” Today, it has become pervasive in the field of clinical psychology (Bozarth et al. 2002).
Current Trends And Future Directions
One of the most notable trends in the study of listening is its conceptual integration with the study of social cognition. Research and instruction in listening can benefit dramatically from the theoretical sophistication found in social cognition research. In turn, social cognition scholarship tends to be composed primarily of pure, or conceptual, research, and may benefit by application in the practical, everyday contexts of listening. In short, social cognition research can provide the conceptual depth lacking in the field of listening, and listening can provide the real-world contexts sorely needed in social cognition research.
An example can be shown in the area of information load. Nichols’s original assertion that there was a thought-speed/speech-speed differential that led to problems in listening was accepted without question for many years. In other words, since listeners’ minds (presumably) were capable of processing information at much faster speeds than normal spoken communication rates, listeners tended to daydream. In addition, it was assumed that spoken material could be time-compressed to almost twice normal speed with little or no loss of comprehension.
This “accepted fact” stood in stark contrast to capacity theory (Kahneman 1973) and other advances in information-processing theory. King and Behnke (1989) demonstrated that, while increases in communication load (information divided by time) did not affect listening tasks relying on short-term memory or interpretation of paralinguistics, load increases had a direct, linear relationship to listening tasks involving long-term memory. In other words, any increase in the speed of the stimulus led to a concomitant decrease in retention. The implications of this finding are very important in an academic discipline where debaters regularly speak at extremely high rates of speed, wrongly assuming that such delivery has no impact on audience listening.
Increases in communication load have also been shown to impact levels of affect and anxiety toward the information being presented. Finally, the effect of communication load on listening has been shown to vary during a specific listening assignment (probably due to the build-up of a cognitive backlog), with higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of affect being experienced the longer one listens (King & Behnke 2004). Interestingly, this pattern of listening behavior is a mirror opposite of the patterns of anxiety and affect normally experienced during public speaking. In a world where information overload has become a daily frustration, such research may prove valuable.
Future research should seek to integrate listening, or the cognitive processes typically associated with message reception, into research that simultaneously deals with social cognition and message encoding. In fact, scholars are now examining the nexus between message decoding and encoding, and have documented differing patterns of language when thinking for (the purpose of ) speaking and thinking for listening (Dipper et al. 2005). And just as theories of message production and processing account for nonconscious message encoding (Greene 1997), understandings of message reception should account for largely automatic forms of listening behavior.
The topic of listening, however defined, has become enormously popular. Proficiency in listening is a major concern in business and industry (Wolvin & Coakley 1991). Formed in 1979, the International Listening Association supports the professional activities of members from 49 US states and 15 other countries. The association sponsors a scholarly journal, the International Journal of Listening, and holds an annual convention. Listening instruction, once neglected, has become increasingly common. So, in response to Ralph Nichols’s original question, “Are you listening?” the answer today is a qualified “yes.”
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