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). Because we cannot physically shut down our auditory perceptions, it might be easy to assume that we are always in a state of listening. Individuals, however, have the ability to appear to be listening when they are actually just hearing. What is the difference between hearing and listening? The terms hearing and listening are often used interchangeably in everyday life, but in order to learn how to listen effectively, it is important to understand the differences between both activities. Until quite recently, not very much was known about the process of listening. While speech instruction is common—we teach our children how to speak a language, for example—there has been little instruction related to listening.
Hearing, essentially a physiological process, involves three interconnected stages: reception of sound waves, perception of sound in the brain, and auditory association (Brownell, 2006, 77). The mechanics of hearing, of course, are a prerequisite to all listening purposes. Studies conducted in the late 1960s, however, have demonstrated that hearing proficiency is largely unrelated to listening competency. In other words, levels of hearing ability have very little to do with listening skills. It is important to keep in mind that regardless of hearing levels, individuals can—and often do–tune out any noise that causes them boredom or discomfort.
It would be accurate to say that individuals with some hearing loss might actually be more competent listeners than individuals with normal levels of hearing. Though the same series of studies found differences between listening for facts and creative listening, in general, effective listening skills overall were correlated with intelligence. (Ross, 1964). Thus, while hearing is mostly physiological in nature, listening is a psychological act. What are the psychological characteristics of an effective listener? Judi Bromwell (2006) finds that effective listeners “are open-minded and interested in a wide variety of subjects. They tend to like people and have a generally positive attitude” (52). Therefore, “willingness” to listen is crucial for competent listening, as well as a positive psychological disposition. On the other hand, anxiety and stress interfere with the ability to listen (Bromwell, 2006).
Other listening scholars have also researched the traits and characteristics of competent or effective listeners. Michael Purdy, author of Listening in Everyday Life, has found that effective listening skills increase individual power, as after all, “speakers have little power without listeners.” Purdy conducted a study of 900 college students ages 17 to 70 in the late 1990s, which highlighted the twelve characteristics of competent and ineffective listeners. These are, in order of importance:
A competent listener:
An ineffective listener: