Listen Long: Principles for Effective Listening

“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.”

 Peter Senge

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.

Proverbs 18:13

Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

James 1:19

Akoue polu.

Bias, one of the Seven Sages of Greece in Diels-Krantz section 10.



A. Why listening is important

B. Listening Statistics

C. 10 Irritating Habits

D. 10 Bad Habits

E. Reasons for Poor Listening

F. Types of Listening

G. How to Become a Better Listener

H. For Speaker's: How to make your audience better listeners

I. Resources


 A.    Listening is important because . . . (from ILA)

1.     Since the rise of the radio and the development of television, the spoken word has regained much of its lost stature (Bryant).

2.     Being listened to means we are taken seriously, our ideas and feelings are known, and, ultimately, what we have to say matters (Nichols).

3.     Generous listening enhances our own well-being and is the natural perspective of psychology, in which all human behavior is seen as motivated by the agendas of the self (Nichols).

4.     We learn our culture largely through listening; we learn to think by listening; we learn to love by listening; we learn about ourselves by listening (Robinson).

5.     Being listened to spells the difference between feeling accepted and feeing isolated (Nichols).

6.     In our society, listening is essential to the development and survival of the individual (Robinson).

7.     Most people will not really listen or pay attention to your point of view until they become convinced you have heard and appreciate theirs (Nichols).

B.    Some interesting statistics . . . (from ILA)

1.     Some studies indicate that we may be listening at only a 25 percent comprehension rate.

2.     How much of what we know that we have learned by listening? 85% (Shorpe)

3.     Amount of the time we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful? 75% (Hunsaker)

4.     How much we usually recall immediately after we listen to someone talk? 50% (Robinson)

5.     Amount of time we spend listening? 45% (Robinson)

6.     How much we remember of what we hear? 20% (Shorpe)

7.     Amount of us who have had formal educational experience with listening? less than 2% (Gregg)

8.     We listen at 125-250 words per minute, but think at 1000-3000 words per minute. (HighGain, Inc.)

9.     Number of business studies that indicate that listening is a top skill needed for success in business? more than 35 (HighGain, Inc.)


C.    10 Irritating Listening Habits:
Do you ever find yourself falling into any of these habits?

1.     Interrupting the speaker.

2.     Not looking at the speaker.

3.     Rushing the speaker and making him feel that he’s wasting the listener’s time.

4.     Showing interest in something other than the conversation.

5.     Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing her thoughts.

6.     Not responding to the speaker’s requests.

7.     Saying, “Yes, but . . .,” as if the listener has made up his mind.

8.     Topping the speaker’s story with “That reminds me. . .” or “That’s nothing, let me tell you about. . .”

9.     Forgetting what was talked about previously.

10.  Asking too many questions about details.

Larry Barker & Kittie Watson, Listen Up


D.    10 Poor Listening Habits
Effective listeners do their best to avoid these habits:

1.     Calling the subject uninteresting

2.     Criticizing the speaker &/or delivery

3.     Getting over-stimulated

4.     Listening only for facts (bottom line)

5.     Not taking notes or outlining everything

6.     Faking attention

7.     Tolerating or creating distractions

8.     Tuning out difficult material

9.     Letting emotional words or ideas block the message or get us of track

10.  Wasting the time difference between speed of speech and speed of thought

Nichols, R. G. and L. A. Stevens (1957). Are you listening? New York, McGraw-Hill.

E.     Reasons for poor listening (Ehninger, Douglas, et al. Principles and Types of Speech Communication. 9th Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman and Co., 1986.)

1.     Not focusing on the message.

As listeners, we can mentally handle more than 400 spoken words per minute, yet the average speaker produces between 125-175 words per minute. In the excess time, the listener begins to think of other things.

We often bring into the communication setting our past, our feelings, our values, our attitudes. Sometimes the speaker will present a thought or word which triggers a past experience. At that point we start to think about the experience and soon forget the message being presented.

2.     Passive listeners.

Being passive is much easier than concentrating on the speaker’s message, but, unfortunately, it leads to ineffective listening.

3.     A physical communication setting that works against listening.

Just as your other thoughts can invade your internal perceptual field, so also can distractions outside your body invade your external perceptual field, drawing your attention away from the speech.

4.     Listener’s own needs that may compete with the speaker’s ideas.

Perhaps you didn’t sleep well, have a cold, or are hungry. All of these personal factors compete for your energy and focus. Again, your physical needs as an individual win out over your intellectual needs as a listener.

5.     Unfamiliar language.

It takes mental and physical energy to deal with words or concepts that we don’t know, it is easier to turn off the listening process when the speaker uses unfamiliar language. Unfamiliarity requires energy that listeners may not be willing to expend.

6.     Preset ideas about the topic, the speaker, or the occasion

Many speakers are not given a fair hearing because the audience accepts conclusions about them or their topics beforehand.

F.     Types of Listening (Wolvin and Coakley in Ehninger, Douglas, et al. Principles and Types of Speech Communication. 9th Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman and Co., 1986.)

1.     Types

a.      Appreciative listening

undertaken by people principally concerned with something other than the primary message.
come to hear and enjoy a “famous” speaker
like to hear a good presenter
like to be in the audience on a special occasions

b.     Discriminative listening

auditors are attempting to draw inferences about unstated matters—about what speakers “really” think or believe or feel.
an important dimension of listening—especially of listeners’ judgments regarding emotional impact, speaker credibility, the urgency of some problem—has to do with relatively sophisticated inferences auditors draw from (rather than find in) speeches.

c.      Therapeutic listening

auditor acts as a sounding board for the speaker as that person attempts to talk through a problem, work out a difficult situation, or express deep emotional stress or confusion
actually is more typical of interpersonal than of public communication
special social bonding between speaker and listener occurs; the speaker-audience relationship itself becomes recognized and even celebrated.

d.     Listening for comprehension

most common auditory activity
the listener wants to gain additional information or insights being provided by the speaker
in a meeting or classroom

e.      Critical listening

most sophisticated kind of listening
demands that auditors become fully engaged with the message in order not simply to understand it, but to interpret it, judge its strengths and weaknesses, and assign some worth to it
evaluate commercials, political campaign speeches, advice given you by career counselors, or arguments offered by people for or against some plan of action on the job

2.     To some extent, the type of listening for a given auditor will depend on the occasion, speaker and topic as well as the listener.

a.      Al Capp, who drew Li’l Abner for years, was known to be a humorist, and when he tried to talk seriously about America’s political problems in the 1960s, he generally disappointed student audiences; they wanted him to make them laugh, and they would laugh, no matter what he said.

b.     William F. Buckley, Jr., is known for his intellectual sneer and well-turned phrases; his audiences wait for both, and were he not to provide them, people would leave his speeches wondering what was wrong with him.

G.    How to become a better listener:

1.     Ask yourself some questions to be a better listener (Ehninger, Douglas, et al. Principles and Types of Speech Communication. 9th Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman and Co., 1986.)

a.      Listener Analysis of Self

i.       What is my purpose in listening?
1.)   gain information and understanding
2.)   make a critical decision based on the speaker’s presentation
3.)   Think about your listening behavior when a teacher announces “This material will be on the next test.”
4.)   By recognizing why you are listening, you can better analyze the message. If the message has personal importance, you will be more likely to give it your attention.
ii.     Am I impartial about the topic being presented?
1.)   Set aside your prior feelings until the speaker has had a chance to develop a position.
2.)   Suspend judgment until all of the ideas have been developed.
iii.   How much do I know about the topic?
1.)   Not a lot, you can better direct your attention to listening.
2.)   A lot already, be prepared to compare the speaker’s information to your knowledge.
iv.   What do I expect from this message?
1.)   Don’t burden the speaker with expectations that the person is not prepared to fulfill.
v.     What do I know about the speaking situation?
1.)   Get set for the expecting length of the message, whether there will be Q&A, whether you’ll have to give a response.
vi.   What can I expect from the listening environment?
1.)   Become aware of the physical environment: temperature and sounds of the room.
2.)   Deal with them before the message, if possible.
3.)   If not, at least you can put them in perspective.
vii. What “trigger” words or ideas cause me to stray from the listening situation?
1.)   Take note of special words that seem to pull you away from the speaker’s message. Look them up in a dictionary afterward.

b.     Listener Analysis of Speaker

i.       What do I know about this speaker?
1.)   If your previous experience with the speaker has been favorable, you will be more likely to be receptive to the message.
2.)   If you have had a disagreement with the person or if the person is someone you do not respect, you may allow that prior knowledge to filter and color the way you understand the message.
3.)   Without listening carefully, you may never consider worthwhile ideas which deserve your attention.
ii.     How believable is the speaker?
1.)   You need to listen for the main ideas presented; the detail will follow.
2.)   If you know that the speaker has reported false information, you should weigh that when considering and evaluating the message after it has been fully presented.
iii.   Has the speaker prepared for the occasion by conducting adequate research and by considering relationships among ideas?
1.)   Is the evidence sound?
2.)   Does he/she address critical issues?
iv.   What is the speaker’s attitude toward this presentation?
1.)   Look for behaviors that give clues.

c.      Listener Analysis of Message

i.       What are the main ideas of the speech?
ii.     How are the main ideas arranged?
iii.   What sorts of supporting materials are used to develop the main ideas?
1.)   If there is a discrepancy between your knowledge and the ideas presented by the speaker, find out why it exists. This should help you clarify the differences and reach a conclusion about the validity of the total message.
2.)   Are they valid and appropriate?
3.)   Are they used credibly?

d.     Review, relate, and anticipate.

i.       Review what the speaker has said.
Take a few seconds to summarize the content of the message, to think about the way the materials have been developed. Mentally add to the summary review each time the speaker initiates a new topic for consideration.
ii.     Relate the message to what you already know.
Consider how important the message is to you and how you might use the information at some future time.
iii.   Anticipate what the speaker might say next.
Given the development of the materials to that point, what is the speaker likely to say next? Use the anticipation stage as a way of continuing to focus on the content of the message. It’s not important if you are right or wrong-the important element is that you have directed your attention to the message.
iv.   By reviewing, relating, and anticipating you can use up the extra time generated by the speech-thought lag and keep your attention focused on the message.

2.     Overall tips

a.      Resist distractions

b.     Don’t be diverted by appearance or delivery

c.      Suspend judgment

d.     Focus your listening

i.       listen for main points
ii.     listen for evidence
iii.   listen for technique
iv.   develop note-taking skills

H.    Tips for speakers: How to make your audience listen more (from Ehninger, Douglas, et al. Principles and Types of Speech Communication. 9th Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman and Co., 1986.)

1.     Overall: Make connections to what they already know.

2.     Planning tips

a.      Cover the issues that are important to the audience

b.     Use a pattern that makes sense to the audience

c.      Use previews, transitions, internal summaries and signposts to make the structure conspicuous.

d.     Use support material that is memorable and valid

e.      Limit non-essential details that may throw listeners off track.

f.       Stick to their expectations—length, format, topic.

g.      Give an agenda and stick to it

3.     Make it interesting

a.      Set realistic goals

b.     Get their attention and keep

c.      Use variety—support, delivery—everything

d.     Use stories and examples liberally. It is better to say a lot about a little than a little about a lot.

e.      Whatever tires you will certainly tire them.

f.       When speaking to a non-technical audience (outside our your specialty), generalize at a level that makes you squirm.

g.      Be fluid in your delivery.

h.      Use nonverbals that support your message.

i.       Make your delivery appropriate to the topic and occasion.

4.     Make it fit the audience

a.      If things are working, change—even in the middle of the presentation.

b.     Add examples, comments, etc. that are unique to your audience or occasion

c.      Put yourself in their seat—remember what it’s like to be a listener.

I.       Resources

1.     International Listening Association,

2.     Books on Listening

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