Listening, Understanding, and Misunderstanding Research Paper

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Listening has been identified as one of the most used and one of the most important communication skills in personal, academic, and professional settings alike (Wolvin & Coakley, 1996, pp. 13–25). The vital role of listening in communication begins with the recognition that listening is the first language skill to be acquired. The fetus listens as it develops in the mother’s womb; henceforth, this listening development plays a central role in one’s language acquisition. Auditory and visual discrimination also are central to the child’s early development of other (including survival, social, and intellectual) skills.



Studies of time spent communicating (Emanuel Adams, Baker, Daufin, Ellington, Fitts, et al., 2008) suggest that people listen for as much as 55% of their day. The primacy of listening is not just a matter of time on the task. Listening is a critical factor in academic success. Federal initiatives to strengthen educational outcomes for secondary school and post-secondary-school students underscore the need for listening proficiency. The U.S. Department of Labor established a commission to identify what critical skills are essential for high school graduates to function effectively in the workplace. The basic skills of mathematics, reading, writing, speaking, and listening were determined to be at the core of preparation for graduates to enter the workplace. In the workplace, listening ability consistently ranks in the top three skills that employers seek in hiring for entry-level positions. Effective listening is recognized as a key to organizational success, because poor listening can be costly.

The study of listening behavior in the field of communication is not a new focus. As early as 1948, Ralph G. Nichols, considered by many to be the “founder” of listening as a field of study, established some dimensions of what constitutes listening behavior, including inference making, listening for the main ideas, identifying the organizational plan, and concentration. Basic to any attempt to define listening, however, is a consideration of how listening is a unique behavior separate from other intellectual behaviors. Early listening research isolated a disparate listening comprehension factor, distinct from the students’ performance in areas such as reasoning, verbal comprehension, attention, auditory resistance, and memory.

The Listening Process

As a communicator, the listener engages in a sequence of behaviors that are generally accepted to characterize the decoding process: receiving; attending; perceiving; interpreting; and responding.


The listener receives messages. During reception, the listener employs auditory and visual sensory receptors. While the listening process can include hearing sounds, listening and hearing are not the synonymous functions that many individuals assume. The auditory reception of the message is itself a detailed process involving the intricate hearing mechanism. The sound must enter the middle ear, set into vibration the tympanic membrane, and be conducted through the inner ear to the brain. Problems with the hearing mechanism can compound the receptive process. Research at the National Institutes of Health suggests that as many as one out of every nine Americans has some type of hearing loss. Exposure to loud music, especially through headsets, has been identified as a major contributor to this situation.

While many researchers and practitioners have focused their definitions and models of listening on listening to auditory-only stimuli, listening also involves the visual channel when the source of the stimuli is in the presence of the listener. The visual channel is an influential communication media, and the other senses (smell, taste, touch) impact the listener as well.


After the message has been received through auditory and visual channels, it must be attended to in the working memory (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). At this point, the listener is required to focus on the auditory and/or the visual stimuli and concentrate on the message received. While researchers differ as to how the short-term memory system receives and holds the information, they do agree that the attention span is quite limited. Cognitive psychologists recognize that attention is a limited resource of a fixed capacity of sensory systems and memory mechanisms combined.

The human attention span today undoubtedly has been limited further by the impact of the media. Many people raised in the television generation, for example, have come to expect a 7- to 10-minute program format with time out for a commercial break. This shortened attention span affects one’s capacity to listen to lectures, to participate in conversation, and generally to function as a listener in all sorts of settings.

A listener’s ability to attend to a message is influenced significantly by attention energy. Kahneman (1973) has determined that attention energy may be distributed according to (1) the difficulty of the mental task; (2) automatic, unconscious communication rules (such as focusing on the speaker who uses the listener’s name); and (3) conscious decisions (such as focusing on one’s supervisor’s message rather than on that from a coworker).


Attention to the message is affected not only by the listener’s energy in the short-term memory system but also by the listener’s perceptual filter. The perceptual filter serves to screen the stimulus so that one’s predispositions alter the message received. The listener’s frame of reference—all of one’s background, experience, roles, and mental and physical states—makes up the perceptual filter. The frame of reference establishes the perceptual expectations that listeners bring to the communication so that, essentially, we see and hear what we want to see and hear. The listener who understands how the frame of reference shapes his or her listening behavior can function at a more sophisticated level. This understanding should extend to understanding the other communicator(s)— why they are responding as they do. Getting to this level of empathic perception affords the listener a solid frame of reference for interpreting the message.


Once the message has been received and perceived by the listener through the auditory, visual, and attention processors, the message must be interpreted by the listener. This stage of the listening process involves fitting the verbal and/or nonverbal messages into the proper linguistic categories stored in the brain and then interpreting the messages for their meanings. Lundsteen (1979) describes this representational process as one of internal speech. Decoding the verbal and nonverbal language varies according to each individual’s perceptual filter and linguistic category system, so the original intent of a speaker’s message may be misinterpreted, distorted, or even completely changed as the listener’s meaning is assigned.

The assignment of meaning to the message is influenced not only by the linguistic category system but also by one’s cognitive processing. This mental activity is framed by the hemispheric dominance of an individual; by his or her inductive, deductive, or intuitive orientation; and by the long-term memory. As the message is processed, it is analyzed, visualized, and associated according to the linguistic categories in the long-term memory store. As individuals are called on to handle a vast amount of information during the course of any given day, techniques to process and recall information become critical.

Some cognitive psychologists use schema theory to describe this complex task of decoding and interpreting messages. Schema theory posits that humans carry schemata—mental representations of knowledge—in their brains. These organized information structures consist of nodes (concepts, events, objects) and links (relationships of the nodes). New information that listeners receive is first run through existing schemata, or scripts, and then interpreted. Schemata represent the generic concepts that are stored in memory and relate persons or objects to attributes or relate actions to anticipated consequences. Smith (1982) suggests that schemata serve important listening functions in (1) telling us to what we should attend, (2) serving as the framework for interpreting incoming information, and (3) guiding the reconstruction of messages in memory. Cognitive responses to the message, thus, serve to frame the listener’s interpretation of the information received.


After assigning one’s own meaning to the message, the listener responds to it. This phase of the listening process involves moving the received, attended to, and interpreted message from the short-term memory into the long-term memory store for potential retrieval. As memory development specialists stress, retention requires strategy. Familiar techniques such as the use of mnemonic devices, linking, clustering, and chunking are considered by researchers studying the dynamics of short-term memory and recall.

The listener’s response also is external, manifested in the feedback that the listener provides to the source of the message. Though listening constitutes an intricate internal process, attention to feedback is essential to good listening. Research by Leavitt and Mueller (1968) demonstrates that with increased feedback, both listener and speaker gain confidence that the message is communicated with accuracy and experience satisfaction with the communication. Other communicators in an interaction base their assessment of a listener’s effectiveness on the feedback, responses that might take the form of performance on a comprehension test, questions asked, attentive behaviors, or even compliance. Thus, while some listening scholars argue that feedback goes beyond listening and takes the listener back into a sender’s role in the communication transaction, we rely on feedback, albeit unfairly at times, as an indicator of listening “accomplished.”

The complex listening process, including reception, attention, perception, interpretation, and response, may be illustrated as a process model of overlapping circles (Figure 1). While the stages of listening occur in some sequence, in the listener’s “real time,” the dimensions probably occur in close simultaneity. At the core of the process are communication influencers—variables of the speaker, message, channel, environment, and individual listener—that affect the outcome at every stage of this process. It should be apparent, then, that listening behavior is one of the most complex of all human behaviors—and certainly extends far beyond the auditory processing that has been the focus of so many of the earlier listening scholars.

Listening, Understanding, and Misunderstanding Research Paper

Listening Variables

As listeners receive, attend, perceive, interpret, and respond to messages, they are influenced by many variables that can enhance or impede effective listening. Listening researchers have focused on key physiological, social/psychological, and contextual influencers.

Physiological Influencers

Listening physiology certainly plays a major role in how listeners function. Sensory acuity, especially auditory and visual, is basic to listening. Age-related deterioration of sensory mechanisms can lead to loss of both the verbal content and the nonverbal dimensions of the communication. Additionally, the neurological makeup of the listener is a factor. Research on hemispheric specialization, for example, suggests that the left brain may be the more rational, objective, organizing processor, while the right brain is the more emotional, intuitive side.

Age also is an important listening variable. In a body of research on listening across the life span, my colleagues and I have determined that what may characterize competent or effective listening can change as one physiologically, sociologically, and/or communicatively ages (Halone, Cunconan, Coakley, & Wolvin, 1998). A listener acquires differential listening experiences and gains a wider array of general knowledge throughout his or her life span. Significantly, children, adolescents, young adults, older adults, and elders report different listening needs, different listening goals, and different listening strategies as they account for listening expectations and for listening experiences alike.

Just as age is a listening variable, so too is gender. One of the highly perpetuated American stereotypes is that listening is, essentially, “women’s work.” Brain imaging research (Phillips, Lowe, Lurito, Dzemidzic, & Mathews, 2001) does demonstrate that men and women bring some very real differences in attention styles and cognitive processing styles to the communicative interaction. As these researchers explore more deeply the biological influence of the male/female genetic makeup, however, the social influence model continues to dominate our understanding of gender variables. Research reveals that men and women have been found to “learn to listen for different purposes and have different listening goals. The primary contrast appears in task versus interpersonal understanding: Males tend to hear facts, while females are more aware of the mood of the communication” (Booth-Butterfield, 1984, p. 39).

Psychological Influencers

In addition to the physiological influences on listening, listeners bring psychological variables to the communication. The listener’s attitudinal state may well be one of the most significant influences on that person’s listening behavior. A positive listening attitude, along with listening knowledge, is a critical ingredient of effective listening. Positive attitudes give the listener a willingness to listen.

Positive attitudes that facilitate effective listening may be identified. Being interested is probably one of the most significant. Too frequently, listeners tune out with the excuse “Oh, this isn’t interesting.” A high level of interest combines with an active, responsible approach to listening. Unfortunately, Americans are conditioned to listening as a passive act. Good listeners recognize that they are partners in the communication and that they share in the responsibility for meeting the goals of the interaction. Effective listeners also remain open-minded, willing to listen to differing points of view and to speakers whose styles are not necessarily attractive or engaging.

Positivelisteningattitudesarenotdirectedonlyattheother communicator. Positive listening attitudes also influence one’s self-concept as a listener. Sadly, listening is not a highly valued American communication skill; we seldom reward good listening. Rather, we reinforce negative listening behaviors in schools and families alike. “You’re not listening.” “You never listen to me.” “Be quiet and listen.” These admonishments are more prevalent in American speech than “Thanks for listening” or “You’re a good listener.”

Listeners, like speakers, also suffer communication apprehension. Wheeless (1975) has pioneered some study of receiver apprehension, “the fear of misinterpreting, inadequately processing, and/or not being able to adjust psychologically to messages sent by others” (p. 263).

Research on receiver apprehension suggests that listening anxiety stemming from stressful situations can lead to distorted messages and misunderstandings.

Additionally, there is evidence that receiver apprehension can result from inadequate information processing. McReynolds (1976) hypothesizes that the processing of material that is difficult to assimilate tends to accumulate (resulting in “cognitive backlog”) and to produce anxiety. Beatty (1981) has determined that receiver apprehension is a function of unassimilated information that results from processing difficulties because of the cognitive backlog.

The listener who suffers receiver apprehension and/or negative attitudes toward listening is not going to be an efficient listener. Indeed, an unreceptive listener may not be a listener at all. Wheeless, Frymier, and Thompson (1992) have looked at receptivity—being open to influence—as it relates to the listening behaviors of responsiveness and attentiveness. Extending this line of research, Roberts and Vinson (1998) determined that the importance of the topic is the crucial factor in establishing a listener’s willingness to listen.

A listener’s willingness to listen also depends on his or her listening preferences. Listeners choose different ways to listen, choices grounded in habitual responses that evolve over the course of one’s listening lifetime. Watson, Barker, and Weaver (1995) identified four listening styles: (1) a people-oriented style, which focuses on the emotional and relational aspects of a communication; (2) a contentoriented style, centered on processing complex information; (3) an action-oriented style, where the listener prefers clear, efficient information; and (4) a time-oriented style, where the listener has a preference for short, limited messages. Undoubtedly, other listening factors, such as listening type (data driven, structure oriented, vision seeker, human dimension oriented), cognitive style (inductive, deductive, intuitive), introverted/extroverted personality style, conversational sensitivity, and channels, influence listening behavior in significant ways.

Contextual Influencers

While listeners bring significant physiological and psychological variables to their listening behavior, contextual influencers also play a central role in shaping the listening experience. Roles, culture, and time have received the attention of listening researchers.

The context of the communication frequently shapes the roles that communicators must assume in the interaction. We listen in many different communication relationships— personal, academic, professional—which require that we assume different roles as family members, friends, students, workers, or managers. It is noteworthy that listening effectiveness has been correlated with perceptions of good leadership. And listening enhances the sales relationship by creating a trusting climate.

Culture is understood as the set of customs, behaviors, beliefs, and language that distinguish a particular group of people and make up the background, experience, and perceptual filters of individuals within that group. The anthropologist Edward Hall (Hall & Hall, 1989) described how different cultures manage information in different ways. Low-context cultures, such as the United States and Canada, require communicators to give and receive a considerable amount of verbal information, while high-context cultures, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, requires less extensive verbal messages. In high-context cultures, more information is contained in the communication setting and in the communicators themselves than in the words used.

As a result, people listen differently in different cultures. Kiewitz, Weaver, Brosius, and Weimann (1997), for example, compared the listening style preferences of young adults in three different cultures. They discovered that Germans preferred the action style, Israelis were more prone to the content style, while Americans were more oriented to the people and time styles of listening.

Like culture, time is a major variable in listening. Listening communicators are influenced continuously by various dimensions of time. Time is manifested in the aging process itself and how that process affects sensory acuity and the experience level of the listener. The time in which the communication occurs has an effect on listening, because people deal with information differently at different times of the day. Interestingly, verbal information presented in the afternoon may be retained longer than that offered in the morning.

Additionally, the time it takes to listen is a factor. It has been suggested that listeners can listen (and think) about four times faster than the normal conversation rate, so we have a considerable “time gap” in the system for attention to wander and to lose focus. This gap between speech speed and thought speed may be one of the most significant factors.

With the advances in communication technology and information, many listeners today feel overwhelmed with messages. The average American worker confronts as many as 201 messages a day. As a result, we justifiably perceive that we are running out of time.

Listening Typologies

Listeners function in this complex, multidimensional process of listening with a variety of purposes. These purposes have been identified through several typologies by listening scholars. Lundsteen (1971, 1979), one of the first to analyze listening skills as a hierarchy, offered an instructional taxonomy of listening skills in general and of critical listening skills in particular. Lundsteen was concerned with building a listening curriculum, so she stressed the value of looking at levels of listening skills: Level A, the lowest level, is acuity or sound perception; Level B represents basic discrimination among sounds; and Level C is the comprehension of sounds. Skills at these levels may form a hierarchy, stresses Lundsteen (1979), “because persons who fail to discriminate sound differences with finesse probably also fail to symbolize much verbal meaning from those sounds” (p. 54).

Two other categories have been proposed by Barker and by Mills. Barker (1971) defined listening contexts as social and serious. These categories were explicated further as social listening, which includes appreciative, conversational, courteous listening and listening to indicate love or respect, while serious listening was classified as either selective or concentrated. Mills (1974) described listening targets as responsive listening (agreeing with the speaker), implicative listening (identifying what is not being said), critical listening (evaluating the message), and nondirective listening (providing a sounding board for the speaker).

Extending the previous work on the hierarchical nature of listening skills, Wolvin and Coakley (1979) developed a taxonomy of listening functions that correlate with five general purposes of listeners (aligned, of course, with the general purposes of speakers): discriminative, comprehensive, therapeutic, critical, and appreciative. Just as there are specific listening skills unique to each of these listening purposes, these skills operate in a hierarchical sequence—depending on what each listener’s intended objective or objectives for listening might be at any particular time. To listen to comprehend information, for example, the listener must use discriminative as well as comprehensive listening skills. Discriminative and comprehensive listening are the basic types in which listeners engage.At a higher order, then, listeners build on their discriminative and comprehensive listening skills to function as therapeutic, critical, or appreciative listeners.

It should be recognized that these listening purposes are not always discrete categories. There are times when an individual may listen for multiple purposes while receiving, attending, perceiving, interpreting, and responding to messages.

Discriminative Listening

Discriminative listening involves distinguishing the auditory and/or visual stimuli. Discriminative listening requires careful concentration on, and sensitivity to, the various stimuli to differentiate between/among them accurately. Effective discriminative listening demands sensitivity to the verbal and nonverbal cues offered by the communicator and a concerted effort to identify the auditory and the visual messages.

The importance of listening to discriminate is significant. Parents quickly learn discriminative listening skills when listening to the cries of their newborn infant.Auditory discrimination serves as the base for reading readiness programs for young children. Panhandlers are experts at visually discriminating an “easy mark” on the street. Auto mechanics rely on sound discrimination to understand the malfunctioning of a car. Musicians must discriminate sounds to perform at a professional level. And speech and hearing specialists work to distinguish speech sounds in order to assist clients in dealing with speech disorders.

Discriminative listening serves as the basis for all other purposes of listening behavior. The receptive stage in the process requires the listener to identify and interpret carefully the auditory and visual cues in order to deal effectively with the information being received.

Comprehensive Listening

Listening for comprehension extends from the discrimination of the stimulus to an understanding of the message. Comprehensive listeners listen to lectures, briefings, reports, conferences, television and film documentaries, telephone messages, traffic alerts in order to comprehend the information presented. Much of the educational process at all levels is based on comprehensive listening. Students are asked to listen carefully to lectures and class discussions in order to understand and retain vast amounts of information.

The effective comprehensive listener actively strives to understand and to retain the information in the message. Essentially, the listener is after listening fidelity, a concept identified by listening scholars as the “degree of congruence between the cognitions of a listener and the cognitions of a source following a communication event” (Mulanax & Powers, 2001, p. 70). To assign the meaning intended by the speaker instead of assigning his or her own meaning, the listener avoids critical judgment of the message, the speaker, the channel, or the language used. In addition to not being evaluative, the listener requires proficiency at listening for comprehension by having a well-developed vocabulary, skill at making accuracy checks though questioning, and even note-taking strategies. Understanding and retaining the information presented requires the listener to develop memory skills—skills that enable the listener to initially hold the incoming information in the short-term memory, to rehearse the information in order to ensure that it is placed in the long-term memory store, and to draw on the long-term memory store to assign meaning. All these memory strategies depend on intense concentration, an essential key to effective listening comprehension. Given the fluctuating nature of attention, an effective comprehensive listener must work to refocus and maintain focus on the speaker’s message. Using internal summaries and identifying the speaker’s “signposts” may assist in this concentration process.

Therapeutic Listening

Therapeutic listening (also referred to more narrowly as “empathic” listening) requires that the listener serve as a “sounding board” to provide the speaker with the opportunity to talk through a problem, ideally to the speaker’s own solution to it. Effective therapeutic listening builds from discrimination and comprehension of the message for the listener to provide the necessary supportive behaviors and responses that enable the speaker to talk through the problem. While serious psychological problems must be handled by qualified therapists, an empathetic ear can be all the assistance required for many people to deal with daily concerns. An effective therapeutic listener must be careful not to evaluate or judge what is said. The therapeutic listener must operate from a high level of empathy—understanding why the speaker is responding as he or she does—to understand the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. By applying principles of nondirective listening, the listener offers just the necessary responses (verbalizations such as “uh huh” and nonverbalizations such as head nods) to keep the speaker communicating without directing him or her to any one particular solution.

Successful therapeutic listening demands a supportive communication climate in which the speaker feels free to express his or her feelings and thoughts without judgment. Likewise, the therapeutic listener must work to remain an empathetic listener without offering a great deal of advice. This is a difficult task, because many individuals will say, “What do you think I should do?” and we have a natural tendency to want to respond with “If I were you, I would . . .” Unfortunately, such advice then imposes your solution on another’s problem, and that may not be the most productive. People need help in solving their own problems.

Critical Listening

Unlike therapeutic listening, critical listening requires that a listener evaluate/judge what is being said. Once the critical listener has discriminated and comprehended the message, it is necessary then to form judgments about the message in order to accept or reject the persuasive appeals. It is important to determine when critical listening is required. Unfortunately, too many listeners go to a critical evaluation prematurely or inappropriately, passing judgments on speakers and messages before comprehending them.

Listeners respond to persuasive messages at various levels. The credibility (trustworthiness, dynamics, and believability) of the speaker is influential. Furthermore, listeners respond to the structure and support of the speaker’s arguments. Since effective persuasive communicators will use a variety of psychological appeals to get listeners to respond at the appropriate need levels, the conscientious critical listener must know what speakers are doing to develop persuasive messages and, consequently, how he or she is responding to them.

Critical listeners do well to train themselves in recognizing argument fallacies, particularly hasty generalizations drawn from too little or no evidence. And emotional language can distract listeners if they are not careful to recognize the “red flags” that lead to strong emotional responses. Furthermore, critical listeners should be able to assess the impact that the speaker may be having on their responses to the persuasive messages. Effective critical listening, thus, involves sound judgment and awareness of the persuasive strategies being used.

Appreciative Listening

Appreciative listening is listening to enjoy or to gain a sensory impression from the material. Listening to music, to environmental sounds, to a book on tape, or to a television presentation all represent forms of appreciative listening.

Although listening for appreciation also builds from discrimination and comprehension of appreciative experiences, it results from a very individual response. Listeners’ tastes and standards for appreciation vary widely. Some specialists argue that awareness of the background and the style of the material may provide a more meaningful basis for appreciating that material. Thus, music appreciation courses, for example, frequently stress music history, form, and composition. Other specialists, however, encourage listeners to “go with the experience” and not be terribly concerned about analyzing the elements.

The effective listener, then, will make some determination as to what purpose for listening is appropriate in any given communication situation and adapt his or her listening responses accordingly. Although these categories are not discrete (a person may both appreciate and evaluate some material, for example), the taxonomy of listening purposes has been helpful to listeners in understanding their own listening behavior and in developing strategies for functioning more effectively with the different purposes.

While the taxonomy serves as a useful instructional frame, Arnold (1990) argues against this (or any) classification system by suggesting that “these distinctions do not hold up in practice and they provide little insight into the processes of listening” (p. 3). As a result, he proposes to look as listening as a continuum from listening for information on the left side (of the continuum) to listening with empathy on the right side. However, as we have described the listening process, listening with empathy is integral to all forms of listening. For the listener to best interpret any message, he or she must bring a certain level of empathetic understanding to his or her perception of what the speaker is communicating.

Whether viewed as a continuum or as a taxonomy, listening is a complex communication behavior. The listener functions at different purposes depending on his or her objective as well as the speaker’s goal in the communication. Because listening is such a complex human behavior, because as a covert behavior it is difficult to investigate, and because research on listening is still at a relatively exploratory stage, conceptualizing the process of listening continues to occupy the attention of many listening scholars.

Given the multidimensionality of listening, FitchHauser and Hughes (1992) call for the establishment of some agreed-on operationalizations of listening. Yet most listening tests have focused only on the recall abilities of listeners who are aware that they are being tested.

Listening Competency

Traditionally, listening researchers and educators have focused on a skills-based approach to listening. Nichols’s (1948) work on listening established 10 principles for good listening, which for decades became the benchmarks for skills in listening. These “ten commandments” for skilled listening formed a familiar base for much of the writing and teaching about listening:

  1. Find an area of interest.
  2. Judge content, not delivery.
  3. Hold your fire (withhold evaluation until you comprehend the message).
  4. Listen for ideas.
  5. Be flexible in note taking.
  6. Work at listening.
  7. Resist distractions.
  8. Exercise your mind (don’t avoid difficult material).
  9. Keep your mind open.
  10. Capitalize on thought speed (productively use the gap between speech rate and listening/thinking rate).

Listening competence, however, has come to be understood as more than behavioral technique. Ridge (1984) concludes that “competence in listening is acquired by knowing and doing, and is evidenced by appropriate feedback or response” (p. 4). Rhodes, Watson, and Barker (1990) articulate a similar view of listening competence: Competent listening cannot be defined as only possession of knowledge; effective, or competent, listening is a behavioral act, and like other behavioral acts, listening can be improved with practice and feedback” (p. 64).

Competence in listening, then, demands both knowing about listening and doing or engaging in appropriate listening behavior. Clearly, there are cognitive, behavioral, and affective dimensions to listening competency.

My colleagues and I have argued that listening competence must extend beyond knowledge and skills to the development of listening attitudes. The listeners’ motivation and willingness to participate in communication transactions are essential to all listening experiences. Bostrom (1990) supports the incorporation of attitude as a listening dimension, because willingness to listen is such an inherent part of the process. Given that listening is not a simple, passive communicative act, it becomes important that the listener engage as a fully functioning communicator in the communication process. Indeed, we argue that successful listeners must assume at least 50% (if not 51%) of the responsibility for the outcome of the communication.

The engaged listener is generally referred to as the “active” listener, the listener who does take his or her communication responsibilities seriously. Of necessity, accepting responsibility works into the attitudinal frame—being willing to listen. And the listener has to know what he or she is doing as a listener to understand how he or she is functioning in this complex process. The knowledgeable listener must understand not only the process itself but also the enhancers and the deterrents to functioning in this process at any given point—reception, attention, perception, interpretation, and response—while engaged in the act of listening.

Our research (Halone et al., 1998) provides an inventory of what listeners do. Individuals in different age groups across the life span, responding to open-ended questions about their listening, enabled us to develop a multidimensional profile of listening competency. We have established five listening dimensions: cognitive (what listeners know); affective (listeners’ attitudes); behavioral/verbal (listeners’ verbal responses); behavioral/nonverbal (listeners’ nonverbal responses); and behavioral/interactive (listeners’ relationship behaviors with speakers).

To expand our understanding of listening behaviors, Imhof (1998, p. 95) asked students in the Introduction to Psychology course at German universities to describe their listening strategies. The student self-reports enabled Imhof to design a profile of listening strategies before, during, and after listening. In further research, Imhof (2000) discovered that listeners who engage in strategic mental activities raise their motivation levels and their comprehension. The listeners’ mental strategies include intentionally monitoring interest in a topic, listing a set of questions before approaching a listening task, elaborating on the material during listening, constructing a mental model of the orally presented text, and integrating the material into existing knowledge structures.

Another useful profile of the competent listener emerges from Stein’s (1999) research using the thinkaloud protocol, in which students were asked to describe their thoughts and feelings as they were listening. After coding the listeners’ observations and the researchers’ observations of the listeners, Stein developed an inventory of what listeners do. Her inventory breaks out the cognitive, affective dimensions into a (similar to Imhof’s) prelistening (constructs goals and prepares to listen), listening (evaluates, expresses affective reactions, infers, interprets, monitors and activates comprehension repair strategies, selectively attends, integrates, and takes notes), and postlistening (evaluates retrospectively, notes goals’ relevance, asks questions, and retrospectively interprets, infers, monitors, integrates and expresses affective reactions) profile.

It is possible that Stein’s use of the think-aloud protocol and the resulting inventory will enable listening researchers to get closer to determining the cognitive, behavioral, and affective dimensions of listening so that listening assessment and listening training can be targeted more specifically to what listeners actually do when they listen. Just as reading researchers have used the protocol to determine what expert readers do, so too, it will be helpful to create a profile of how expert listeners function when they listen.

Listening Practice

Practice is crucial to listening proficiency. But that practice must be good practice. Listeners must be prepared to practice correct listening skills. And they must be prepared to practice listening skills throughout their communication life spans. Just as good speakers, writers, and readers practice and polish their communication skills across their lifetimes, so too do good listeners monitor, adapt, change, and polish their listening skills.

And good listening requires commitment. Americans assume far too passive a role as listeners. We expect speakers to do all the work. We don’t value listening as a leadership quality. Recent political campaigns are illustrative. Running for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, Hillary Clinton launched her successful campaign with a “listening tour” in the summer of 1999. While the vote may still be out on listening politicians, the information demands of the 21st century require that we take another look at listening skills. We live in a global economy, connected around the world by computers and cell phones.

Information travels so fast and changes so fast that written documentation takes too much time. Organizations today rely on oral briefings with presentation graphic support as a primary means for managing information. Skilled oral briefers need skilled listeners.

Some institutions have recognized the importance of preparing skilled listeners for the 21st century. Alverno College in Milwaukee, for example, prepares all its students to listen and reinforces good listening competencies throughout its 4-year curriculum. As such listening training becomes more central to communication studies, it also becomes more sophisticated. Given the multidimensionality of listening competency, higher-order theory, and research about listening offer a substantial cognitive, affective, and behavioral frame for training listeners.

Listening Research

As should be apparent, the multidimensional, complex nature of listening makes this challenge even more complex from a research perspective. Research in listening has focused on the measurement of listening comprehension and on perceived listening effectiveness. The first major research study to do this, as has been noted, was the seminal study in 1948 by Nichols, in which he subjected University of Minnesota students to a battery of tests to develop a profile of how effective listeners do (and don’t) behave while listening to lecture material. How listeners function has continued to receive the attention of quantitative scholars.

Expanding from Nichols’s focus on listener behaviors, some empirical scholars have developed tests to assess listening skills. Bostrom and Waldhart (1983) developed the Kentucky Comprehensive Listening Skills Test, a measure of a listener’s ability to comprehend audio messages. Watson and Barker (1984) designed a broader listening assessment (delivered via video) that taps into five dimensions: listening for message content; listening to dialogues/conversations; listening to lectures; listening for emotional meaning; and listening for directions and instructions. Steinbrecher and Wilmington (1993) published a video test that is designed to assess comprehensive, empathic, and critical listening skills.

Other empirical scholars have explored, from a qualitative research perspective, how listeners listen in different personal and professional contexts. Ross and Glenn (1996), for example, looked at how grown children and their parents listen to each other. Wolvin and Coakley (1993) used survey methods to profile the status of listening training in Fortune 500 corporations.

Empirical research in listening is drawing on more sophisticated models and methodologies today. Janusik (2005), for instance, explores how working memory influences listeners, expanding listening research beyond behaviors to cognitions. Consistent with communibiology theory, researchers (Phillips, Lowe, Lurito, Dzemidzic, & Mathews, 2001) are making use of brain imaging to determine how listeners respond to various stimuli.

Humanistic scholars also bring perspectives to critical interpretations of listening behaviors. Cornwell and Orbe (1999), for example, have used the concept of dialogic listening to explicate the impact of hate speech on culturally diverse listeners. Wolvin (2005) has used a leadership model to analyze the effectiveness of Hillary Clinton’s 1999 listening tour at the beginning of her U.S. Senate campaign.

The considerable body of research on listening enables scholars to better frame the pedagogy and practice of listening in the communication process. Bodie (2007) suggests that this research can be conceptualized as listening as a process (i.e., an information processing, cognition model) and listening as a product (i.e., a communicative function). Exploring the intersections of these two research perspectives and applying appropriate methodologies can expand the research agenda of listening scholars, who are found not only in the communication field but also in related disciplines such as psychology, religion, business management, education, and leadership.

Clearly, the study of listening offers interesting, challenging opportunities to better understand what listeners do cognitively and behaviorally and how those cognitions and behaviors are affected by a host of factors that influence the communicative outcome of the listening act. As scholars apply more sophisticated research and instructional strategies to understand this complex process, the significant role of listening in today’s fast-paced communication world undoubtedly will be recognized and respected. Advances in technology and economic globalization have significantly altered the act of listening in the 21st century. “These changes are far reaching,” observes Bentley (2000), “and have significant implications for how we will study and teach listening skills in the future” (p. 130).


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