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Chapter 3

The Process of Listening

We said earlier that the first step in listening effectively is to recognize certain fallacies or false notions. The next step is to understand the process.

Listening is a complex process—an integral part of the total communication process, albeit a part often ignored. This neglect results largely from two factors.

First, speaking and writing (the sending parts of the communication process) are highly visible, and are more easily assessed than listening and reading (the receiving parts). And reading behavior is assessed much more frequently than listening behavior; that is, we are more often tested on what we read than on what we hear. And when we are tested on material presented in a lecture, generally the lecture has been supplemented by readings.

Second, many of us aren’t willing to improve our listening skills. Much of this unwillingness results from our incomplete understanding of the process—and understanding the process could help show us how to improve. To understand the listening process, we must first define it.

Through the years, numerous definitions of listening have been proposed. Perhaps the most useful one defines listening as the process of receiving, attending, and understanding auditory messages; that is, messages transmitted through the medium of sound. Often, the steps of responding and remembering are also included. The process might be diagrammed as shown in figure 1.

The process moves through the first three steps—receiving, attending, understanding—in sequence. Responding and/or remembering may or may not follow. For example, it may be desirable for the listener to respond immediately or to remember the message in order to respond at a later time.

At times, of course, no response (at least no verbal response) is required. And the act of remembering may or may not be necessary. For example, if someone tells you to “watch your step,” you have no need to remember the message after you have completed that step.

       Figure 1. The Listening Process

Let’s look at the parts—the three necessary ones and the two additional ones—one at a time. Consider the following analogy between the listening process and the electronic mail (E-mail) system. Suppose that you are the sender of a message and I am the intended recipient.


This step is easily understood. You may send a message to me by E-mail. It may be wonderfully composed and clear. You may have used effective techniques to organize and support your message. The subject may be one of great interest to me. Imagine further that I both admire and respect you, and that I like to receive E-mail from you.

In short, you have done a good job and I want to receive the message. But if I don’t turn on my computer, I won’t receive it. The message remains somewhere between your computer and mine—between sender and receiver.

Much human listening fails for the same reason. Receivers simply are not connected or “tuned in” to the senders. Sometimes, the problem is a physiological one; for example, the receiver has a hearing deficiency due to a congenital or inherited weakness. Or perhaps the deficiency resulted from an accident, a disease, or prolonged exposure to loud noises.

Sometimes the problem can be corrected through the use of mechanical devices that restore hearing loss, or through hearing aids that amplify sound. Scientists and engineers are constantly developing new products designed to correct and help specific types of hearing loss.

Remember that hearing and listening are not the same. Hearing is the reception of sound; listening is the attachment of meaning. Hearing is, however, a necessary prerequisite for listening and an important component of the listening process.


Let’s continue with the E-mail analogy. When I turn my computer on, it will receive the message that you sent. But I must do more: I must attend to the message if the process is to continue. Perhaps I received a phone call just after I turned my computer on and had to move away from my desk; I do not know that you have sent a message. Or maybe I don’t have an opportunity to read my E-mail that day.

Suppose that I am working on something else when the message arrives. My computer signals that I have mail from you. I want to read it, but I decide that I will do it later. I continue to stay busy on another task, however, and forget to read the message. Later, I may mistakenly “trash it” without ever reading it. Whatever the case, I don’t attend to the message.

Human listening is often ineffective—or does not occur—for similar reasons. Receiving occurs, but attending does not.

At any given time, numerous messages compete for our attention. The stimuli may be external, such as words spoken by a lecturer or printed on paper, or events occurring around us. Or the stimuli may be internal, such as a deadline we must meet tomorrow, a backache we developed by sitting too long at the computer, or the hunger pangs we experience because we didn’t take time to eat lunch. Whatever the source of the stimuli, we simply can’t focus on all of them at the same time. We therefore must choose, whether consciously or unconsciously, to attend to some stimuli and reject others. Three factors determine how these choices are made.

1. Selectivity of attention. We direct attention to certain things to prevent an information overload. A common example makes the point. Suppose you are attempting to read a book and watch TV at the same time. Although some people claim they can do this, actually both activities suffer—and usually one more than the other. The material that is most engaging or interesting will attract your attention. At other times, something may interrupt or disturb your attention.

In 1974, I was teaching at a large midwestern university. The fad of “streaking”—in which a stark-naked (or nearly naked) student dashes through a gathering of people—had hit the campus. One day as I was lecturing to a thousand students in an auditorium, a streaker dressed only in combat boots and a football helmet ran across the stage. Needless to say, I lost the attention of the audience. I tried for several minutes to regain their attention, then finally decided to dismiss the class 10 minutes early. I had always believed that I was a good lecturer and could hold the audience’s attention, no matter what; I was wrong!

Selectivity of attention explains why you “perk up” or pay attention when something familiar to you, such as your hometown or your favorite hobby, is mentioned. In fact, you may have been listening intently to a conversation when someone in a different conversation mentions your name. Immediately, the focus of your attention shifts to the conversation in which your name was mentioned.

2. Strength of attention. Attention is not only selective; it possesses energy, or strength. Attention requires effort and desire. In the example of reading a book and watching TV, the receiver (reader/watcher) directed his or her primary attention toward either the book or the TV. Complete attention can be given to only one stimulus at a time, and necessary attention to only a limited number of stimuli at the same time. If we spend too much energy on too many stimuli, we soon will not be paying attention to any of them. We are all familiar with aircraft accidents that were caused at least in part by controllers in the tower having to process too much information.

Consider also how we can be so attentive to a newspaper, a TV program, a personal computer, a sports event, or another individual that we are oblivious to things around us. Watch a young couple in love sometime: You’ll see a good example of intensity, or strength of attention.

Still another measure of attention strength is the length of time that the memory of something continues to influence us. I still remember vividly the baptism of my first grandchild, the first major league baseball game I attended, and the first time I kissed my wife—not necessarily in that order, of course. Strength of attention is important.

3. Sustainment of attention. Just as attention is determined by selectivity and strength, it is affected by time of sustainment. Our attention wanes, and this fact is important to an understanding of listening.

For example, we can listen to some public speakers far longer than we can listen to others. Duration may depend on the subject, the setting, the way the speech is packaged, and on the speaker’s delivery. But no matter how articulate and skilled the speaker, or how interesting the content, our attention finally ends. If for no other reason, the human body requires sleep or attention to other bodily needs. The mind can only pay attention for as long as the body can sit still.

Selectivity, strength, and sustainment determine attention. Receiving and attending are prerequisites to the rest of the listening process. The third step in that process is understanding.


Someone has said, “Communication begins with understanding.” How true! A message may have been sent and received, and the receiver may have attended to the message—yet, there has been no effective communication. Effective communication depends on understanding; that is, effective communication does not take place until the receiver understands the message. Understanding must result for communication to be effective.

Let’s return to the E-mail analogy. Suppose I received the E-mail message, “opened” it, and read it. Has effective communication occurred? Not necessarily. Even though I read every word of your message, I may not have understood what you meant.

There are several possible reasons for the misunderstanding. Perhaps I expected the message to say something that it didn’t say; my understanding of it may therefore be more in line with my own expectations than what it actually said. We often hear or read what we expect rather than what was actually said or written. (As was illustrated by the story about my daughter, Missy, in the preceding chapter.)

Or perhaps the real point of the message was “tucked away,” obscured by several other tidbits of information. And I missed the point. In listening, the key point is sometimes missed. A worker may tell a supervisor several things that happened while the supervisor was out of the office. While relating all the events, the worker mentions that the boss asked that the supervisor call upon his return. The supervisor missed this important piece of information because he was not “ready” for it; that is, he was trying to understand the other parts of the message. Later, he asks the worker why he had failed to tell him that his boss wanted to see him. But the worker had told him; he just didn’t understand.

Our expectations and/or our failure to get the point often lead to misunderstanding. But the major reason for my not understanding the E-mail I received from you was probably something else: the words you used and the manner in which you arranged them. Neither of us was necessarily “at fault”; we simply attached different meanings to the words. You attached one meaning to those words, I attached another. We communicate effectively with each other only insofar as we share meanings for the symbols—verbal or nonverbal—that we are using.

With E-mail, the message is limited to words or other visual symbols that represent words. In listening, both verbal and nonverbal symbols are crucial to understanding. Consider the roles they play.

1. Verbal symbols. Verbal communication means communicating through the use of words, whether spoken or written. Two barriers obstruct our understanding of verbal communication.

Barrier #1: The same words mean different things to different people. This barrier is a common one, and it may be experienced whenever any two people attempt to communicate.

I may tell my colleague that the temperature in the office is quite comfortable. My “quite comfortable,” however, is her “uncomfortable”: 75 degrees is comfortable for me; 70 degrees is comfortable for her. The same word can mean different things to different people. A friend tells me he will be over in five minutes. To him, five minutes means “soon”—perhaps any time in the next half hour. I, on the other hand, attach a literal meaning: Five minutes means five minutes.

Some years ago, I was speaking at a civilian university. My wife, Ann, had accompanied me and had gone shopping while I was speaking. I had asked her to pick me up at noon. There was an attractive circular drive at the front of the building where I was speaking. To the rear of the building was a small circular drive used mostly by service and delivery vehicles. In my message to Ann, I had said simply, “Pick me up at the circular drive.” Ann immediately thought of the nice drive in front of the building; I was thinking of the one at the back. Fortunately, it didn’t take us too long to discover the mistake.

In the previous examples, the same words having different meanings for different people caused only minor irritation. The consequences can be more severe, as described in the following story told by a fire inspector.

The fire inspector said that workers exhibit great caution when they are working around gasoline drums. They take great care not to smoke or ignite matches nearby. But when the drums are emptied, and labeled “empty gasoline drums,” caution is thrown to the wind. Workers feel comfortable in striking matches and smoking cigarettes in the area. Ironically, vapors that emanate from “empty” drums are much more volatile than liquid gasoline.

The word “empty” holds a different meaning for the workers than for the experienced fire inspector, who knows that the potential for disaster is present. The next example shows how a misunderstanding of one word’s meaning can lead to tragic consequences.

A traveler stopped at a convenience store to ask directions. The man behind the counter pointed to a traffic signal a block away and said, “Go to that intersection, take an immediate left, go about a mile. It will be the big red building on your right.”

The traveler repeated, “Go to the traffic light, take an immediate left, go a mile to the red building on my right. Is that it?”

“That’s right,” said the convenience store operator.

Unfortunately, the traffic light was on the corner heading into the intersection and the man in the store had neglected to mention the grassy median that separated northbound and southbound lanes. The traveler took an “immediate left” and headed south in the northbound lane. Less than one block later, he slammed headfirst into an eighteen-wheeler and was killed.

When the same words mean different things to different people, misunderstanding occurs. But there is another barrier to effective verbal communication that can cause just as much trouble.

Barrier #2: Different words sometimes mean the same thing. Many things are called by more than one name. For example, when my adolescent son, Marc, and I went to a restaurant in the South shortly after we had moved here from the Midwest, Marc asked the waiter to bring him a “pop.” The waiter didn’t understand until Marc said, “You know—pop, it comes in a bottle or a can; you shake it and it fizzes.” The waiter said, “Oh! You mean a soda.” But “soda” meant quite something else to Marc, and there were a few more moments of confusion until the waiter and Marc understood one another. Soft drink, soda, and pop all mean the same thing when used in the same context. The name used depends on who is doing the talking. How many things in the English language are called by more than one name? For a starter, consider that the 500 most commonly used words in our language have a total of about 15,000 definitions—an average of 30 per word. The following sentence will serve to illustrate the point.

Fred has been crestfallen since he fell out of favor with the Fall Festival Committee last fall after he had a falling out with Joe because Joe had fallen in with a new crowd of people rather than falling in love with Fred’s sister, Fallina.

Not a great sentence, but it illustrates a few of the more than 50 meanings of “fall.” Our language is marked by its multiusage. If you doubt it, describe some object or animal in detail to several talented artists and ask them to draw what you describe. Chances are that each one will draw a distinctively different picture.

These two barriers—same words meaning different things and different words meaning the same thing—can be overcome if you realize the following fact: Meanings are not in words, meanings are in people. We listen more effectively when we consider the message in relation to its source. Good listeners always consider who the sender of the message is. Knowing something about the sender pays big dividends when it comes to understanding the message.

2. Nonverbal symbols. We use nonverbal symbols to transmit many times more information than our verbal symbols carry. We communicate nonverbally through action factors, nonaction factors, and vocal factors. Each suggests a barrier to listening.

Barrier #1: Misinterpretation of the action. Eye contact, gestures, and facial expression are action factors that affect the meaning we attach to a message. For that matter, any movement or action carries meaning.

When someone walks quickly away from a conversation or taps a pencil on the desk during a conversation, we may conclude that the person is in a hurry or is bored. Our conclusions may or may not be correct, however. We may conclude that speakers who twitch, or otherwise seem to us unsure, are nervous when, in fact, they may not be.

Barrier #2: Misinterpretation of nonaction symbols. The clothes I wear, the automobile I drive, and the objects in my office—all these things communicate something about me. In addition, my respect of your needs for time and space affects how you interpret my messages. For example, if I am to see you at noon but arrive 15 minutes late, my tardiness may affect how you interpret what I say to you. Or if I “crowd” you—get too “close” to you emotionally—when speaking, you may “tune me out”; that is, you may “hear” but not “listen to” my message.

Barrier #3: Misinterpretation of the voice. The quality, intelligibility, and variety of the voice affect the listener’s understanding. Quality refers to the overall impression the voice makes on others. Listeners often infer from the voice whether the speaker is happy or sad, fearful or confident, excited or bored. Intelligibility (or understandability) depends on such things as articulation, pronunciation, and grammatical correctness. But variety is the spice of speaking. Variations in rate, volume, force, pitch, and emphasis are some of the factors that influence our understanding of the speaker’s message.

Receiving, attending, and understanding are all crucial if effective listening is to occur, for communication can accurately be defined as the sharing or understanding of meaning. Often, however, the steps of responding and remembering are part of the listening process. Responding and remembering are indicators of listening accuracy.


The listening process may end with understanding, since effective communication and effective listening may be defined as the accurate sharing or understanding of meaning. But a response may be needed—or at least helpful. And there are different types of responses.

1. Direct verbal responses. These may be spoken or written. Let’s continue with the E-mail analogy. After I have received, attended to, and understood the message you sent, I may respond verbally. If your message asked a question or sought my coordination, I might type a response on my computer and reply to you. Perhaps you requested that I call you or come to see you, in which case I do so. Or you might have asked me to write a position paper or think about an issue and give you some advice, in which case I might send a quick E-mail response indicating that I will get back to you later.

2. Responses that seek clarification. I may use E-mail to ask for additional information, or I may talk to you either on the telephone or face-to-face. I may be very direct in my request, or I may just say, “tell me more about it.”

3. Responses that paraphrase. I may say something like, “in other words, what you are saying is. . . .” A paraphrase gives the sender a chance to agree, or to provide information to clarify the message.

4. Nonverbal responses. Many times, a nonverbal response is all that is needed; indeed, it may even be the preferred type of response. The knowing nod of the head, an understanding smile, or a “thumbs up” may communicate that the message is understood.

Responding, then, is a form of feedback that completes the communication transaction. It lets the sender know that the message was received, attended to, and understood.


Memorization of facts is not the key to good listening. Yet memory is often a necessary and integral part of the listening process. Some would go so far as to say, “if you can’t remember it, you weren’t listening.”

This statement is often untrue. Think for example, of the times you heard a good joke but can’t remember it long enough to get home and tell it; or the number of times you have gone to the grocery store and couldn’t remember what you were asked to buy. And the most frustrating situation of all—you were introduced to someone and can’t recall the name five minutes later. We often say, “I can remember faces, but I can’t remember names.” At times, something will “jog” our memory, such as hearing another joke, seeing a similar product on the grocery store shelf, or meeting someone else with the same first name.

What is the relationship between memory and listening? Understanding the differences between short-term memory and long-term memory will help explain the relationship.

With short-term memory, information is used immediately—within a few seconds, for example, as with a phone number that we look up. Short-term memory has a rapid forgetting rate and is very susceptible to interruption. And the amount of information that can be retained is quite limited, though it varies somewhat with variations in the material to be retained. For example, most of us can remember only very few random numbers (4, 13, 9, 53, 274, 6, 491, 713, 2810, 1, 7555, 111). But if there is a pattern (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048), the task is much easier.

Long-term memory allows us to recall information and events hours, days, weeks—even years—later. You remember, for example, things that happened to you when you were growing up, songs you learned, people you knew. You may have been unaware of those memories for long periods of time, and then the right stimulus caused you to recall them. Perhaps the aroma of a freshly baked pie called to mind your grandmother, who used to make great apple pies years ago.

The next chapter discusses the five basic types of listening; chapter 5 tells how you can be a better listener in different types of situations.