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Chapter 4

Types of Listening

Different situations require different types of listening. We may listen to obtain information, improve a relationship, gain appreciation for something, make discriminations, or engage in a critical evaluation.


While certain skills are basic and necessary for all types of listening (receiving, attending, and understanding), each type requires some special skills. Chapter 5 discusses those special skills and presents guidelines to improve listening behavior in all situations. But before we can fully appreciate the skills and apply the guidelines, we must understand the different types of listening.



Informative Listening

Informative listening is the name we give to the situation where the listener’s primary concern is to understand the message. Listeners are successful insofar as the meaning they assign to messages is as close as possible to that which the sender intended.

Informative listening, or listening to understand, is found in all areas of our lives. Much of our learning comes from informative listening. For example, we listen to lectures or instructions from teachers—and what we learn depends on how well we listen. In the workplace, we listen to understand new practices or procedures—and how well we perform depends on how well we listen. We listen to instructions, briefings, reports, and speeches; if we listen poorly, we aren’t equipped with the information we need.

At times, careful informative listening is crucial—remember the aircraft landing report in chapter 1. At other times, careless listening results in only aggravation or misunderstanding—remember my misunderstanding of my daughter, Missy, as presented in chapter 2. Whatever the case, effective informative listening demands that you concentrate squarely on the message—and know its source.

There are three key variables related to informative listening. Knowing these variables can help you begin to improve your informative listening skills; that is, you will become increasingly successful in understanding what the speaker means.

1. Vocabulary. The precise relationship between vocabulary and listening has never been determined, but it is clear that increasing your vocabulary will increase your potential for better understanding. And it’s never too late to improve your vocabulary. Having a genuine interest in words and language, making a conscious effort to learn new words, breaking down unfamiliar words into their component parts—all these things will help you improve your vocabulary.

Another good way to improve your vocabulary is to be sensitive to the context in which words are used. Sometimes, unfamiliar words appear with synonyms: Her attractive, winsome personality won us over. At other times, a contrast is drawn: He is usually quite energetic, but today he seemed lethargic. Occasionally, an unfamiliar word is used to summarize a situation or quality: He passed for over 200 yards, ran for 50 more, and his three punts averaged over 45 yards; he turned in a stellar performance.

Look for these and other contextual clues to help you learn new words and improve your vocabulary.

2. Concentration. Concentration is difficult. You can remember times when another person was not concentrating on what you were saying—and you probably can remember times when you were not concentrating on something that someone was saying to you.

Some years ago my oldest daughter, Teri, interrupted my reading of the newspaper to ask, “Is it OK if I take your car over to a friend’s house to spend the night? I’ll be home before you go to work in the morning.” Without concentrating on what she was asking, I said, “Sure, go ahead.” Several minutes later, I realized what she had said. She was not coming home that night, and I had to leave the house earlier than usual the next morning. I had to drive from Montgomery to Mobile, where I was to give a speech—and all my notes and visual aids were in my automobile. Fortunately for me, Teri had left the telephone number of her friend, and I was able to retrieve my automobile.

There are many reasons people don’t concentrate when listening. Sometimes listeners try to divide their attention between two competing stimuli. At other times, listeners are preoccupied with something other than the speaker of the moment. Sometimes listeners are too ego-involved, or too concerned with their own needs to concentrate on the message being delivered. Or perhaps they lack curiosity, energy, or interest. Many people simply have not learned to concentrate while listening. Others just refuse to discipline themselves, lacking the motivation to accept responsibility for good listening. Concentration requires discipline, motivation, and acceptance of responsibility.

3. Memory. Memory is an especially crucial variable to informative listening; you cannot process information without bringing memory into play. More specifically, memory helps your informative listening in three ways.

a. It allows you to recall experiences and information necessary to function in the world around you. In other words, without memory you would have no knowledge bank.

b. It establishes expectations concerning what you will encounter. You would be unable to drive in heavy traffic, react to new situations, or make common decisions in life without memory of your past experiences.

c. It allows you to understand what others say. Without simple memory of the meaning of words, you could not communicate with anyone else. Without memory of concepts and ideas, you could not understand the meaning of messages.

Relationship Listening

The purpose of relationship listening is either to help an individual or to improve the relationship between people. Therapeutic listening is a special type of relationship listening. Therapeutic listening brings to mind situations where counselors, medical personnel, or other professionals allow a troubled person to talk through a problem. But it can also be used when you listen to friends or acquaintances and allow them to “get things off their chests.” Although relationship listening requires you to listen for information, the emphasis is on understanding the other person. Three behaviors are key to effective relationship listening: attending, supporting, and empathizing.

1. Attending. Much has been said about the importance of “paying attention,” or “attending” behavior. In relationship listening, attending behaviors indicate that the listener is focusing on the speaker. Nonverbal cues are crucial in relationship listening; that is, your nonverbal behavior indicates that you are attending to the speaker— or that you aren’t!

Eye contact is one of the most important attending behaviors. Looking appropriately and comfortably at the speaker sends a message that is different from that sent by a frequent shift of gaze, staring, or looking around the room. Body positioning communicates acceptance or lack of it. Leaning forward, toward the speaker, demonstrates interest; leaning away communicates lack of interest. Head nods, smiles, frowns, and vocalized cues such as “uh huh,” “I see,” or “yes”—all are positive attending behaviors. A pleasant tone of voice, gentle touching, and concern for the other person’s comfort are other attending behaviors.

2. Supporting. Many responses have a negative or nonsupportive effect; for example, interrupting the speaker, changing the subject, turning the conversation toward yourself, and demonstrating a lack of concern for the other person. Giving advice, attempting to manipulate the conversation, or indicating that you consider yourself superior are other behaviors that will have an adverse effect on the relationship.

Sometimes the best response is silence. The speaker may need a “sounding board,” not a “resounding board.” Wise relationship listeners know when to talk and when to just listen—and they generally listen more than they talk.

Three characteristics describe supportive listeners: (1) discretion—being careful about what they say and do; (2) belief—expressing confidence in the ability of the other person; and (3) patience—being willing to give others the time they need to express themselves adequately.

3. Empathizing. What is empathy? It is not sympathy, which is a feeling for or about another. Nor is it apathy, which is a lack of feeling. Empathy is feeling and thinking with another person. The caring, empathic listener is able to go into the world of another—to see as the other sees, hear as the other hears, and feel as the other feels.

Obviously, the person who has had more experience and lived longer stands a better chance of being an effective empathic listener. The person who has never been divorced, lost a child to death, been bankrupt, or lost a job may have a more difficult time relating to people with these problems than one who has experienced such things.

Risk is involved with being an empathic relationship listener. You cannot be an effective empathic listener without becoming involved, which sometimes means learning more than you really want to know. But commanders can’t command effectively, bosses can’t supervise skillfully, and individuals can’t relate interpersonally without empathy. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “I feel sorry for the man who cannot feel the stripes upon the back of another.” Truly, those who cannot feel with another person are at a disadvantage in understanding that person.

Empathic behavior can be learned. First, you must learn as much as you can about the other person. Second, you must accept the other person—even if you can’t accept some aspects of that person’s behavior. Third, you must have the desire to be an empathic listener. And you must remember that empathy is crucial to effective relationship listening.

Appreciative Listening

Appreciative listening includes listening to music for enjoyment, to speakers because you like their style, to your choices in theater, television, radio, or film. It is the response of the listener, not the source of the message, that defines appreciative listening. That which provides appreciative listening for one person may provide something else for another. For example, hard rock music is not a source of appreciative listening for me. I would rather listen to gospel, country, jazz, or the “golden oldies.”

The quality of appreciative listening depends in large part on three factors: presentation, perception, and previous experience.

1. Presentation. I just mentioned that I prefer gospel music to hard rock. But I don’t enjoy all gospel. For example, I don’t enjoy gospel music when it is presented in a “glitzy” setting—or when it is performed by someone who fails to demonstrate an understanding of the music’s meaning. (I might add that I don’t usually enjoy gospel when it is off-key or poorly done—but there are exceptions, such as the time I heard a 103-year-old man sing “Amazing Grace.” Never have I enjoyed it more!)

I enjoy gospel music when I hear it in the little churches of rural Alabama. I also enjoy it when it is presented in the large church I attend in Montgomery. I also very much enjoy presentations of gospel music on radio, on television, or in concert by well-known performers who understand its meaning.

I enjoy hearing good speakers, speakers whom I admire, and speakers who have expertise. I frequently attend lectures at Air University by speakers who have all three of these characteristics. Among the speakers I have heard there recently: General Charles “Chuck” Horner, the air component commander of Desert Storm—a war dominated by airpower; Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr John White; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell; and US Ambassador to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick. I have heard many other outstanding speakers at Air University, of course—these four simply came to mind readily as examples of speakers who had all three of the characteristics mentioned above: all were good speakers; all had my admiration; and all had a great deal of expertise.

Presentation encompasses many factors: the medium, the setting, the style and personality of the presenter, to name just a few. Sometimes it is our perception of the presentation, rather than the actual presentation, that most influences our listening pleasure or displeasure. Perception is an important factor in appreciative listening.

2. Perception. For years, I did not care to listen to jazz music. I had always believed that people like me—from a conservative rural midwestern background—wouldn’t like jazz. Then I started to work for a new boss—a general officer who enjoyed jazz. I admired him very much. My mind was now open to listen to jazz. My perception was changing, and I began to enjoy jazz music.

Expectations play a large role in perception. If I attend a concert under duress with no expectation of enjoying the music (perhaps my wife insists that I attend, or my position in the community makes it the thing to do), I may be pleasantly surprised. But I stand a lot better chance of enjoying the concert if I expect to enjoy it.

Perceptions—and the expectations that drive them—have their basis in attitudes. Our attitudes determine how we react to, and interact with, the world around us. There was a time, not many years ago, when I did not want a personal computer (PC) in my office. I did not want to even be around a PC. I did not enjoy working with computers.

Six years ago, I wrote a book called Speaking Effectively: A Guide for Air Force Speakers.* The book you are now reading is a companion volume to that one. I wrote the first book in longhand; I’m composing this one on my PC. Fortunately for me, my attitude toward computers has changed. If my attitude had changed six years sooner, I could have written the earlier book in less time—and saved both time and effort for the publisher.

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*John A. Kline, Speaking Effectively (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989).

Perceptions influence all areas of our lives. Certainly, they are crucial determinants as to whether or not we enjoy or appreciate the things we listen to. Obviously, perceptions also determine what we listen to in the first place. As we said earlier, listening is selective.

3. Previous experience. The discussion of perception makes it clear that previous experience influences whether we enjoy listening to something. In some cases, we enjoy listening to things because we are experts in the area. Sometimes, however, expertise or previous experience prevents us from enjoying a presentation because we are too sensitive to imperfections. Previous experience plays a large role in appreciative listening.

Many people enjoy the sounds of large-city traffic. Perhaps their growing up in a large city was a happy experience for them. The blare of horns honking, the sound of roaring engines accelerating, even the shrill shriek of sirens piercing the air—all these things may remind them of pleasant times in their lives. They appreciate hearing these sounds.

Others, having grown up on a farm or in a small town, have learned to enjoy the sounds of nature. For them, a walk in the country produces sounds of enjoyment: the rustle of leaves in the breeze, the song of a robin, the babble of a brook.

Usually, if we associate a sound or other experience with pleasant memories, then we appreciate or enjoy it. However, if the sound or experience is associated with unpleasant memories, we probably will not appreciate or enjoy it.

But we can change! Let’s return to the example of how I learned to enjoy listening to jazz. I did not enjoy jazz music when I first heard it. Then I worked for a man who enjoyed it. More than once when we were TDY, I sat with him in the evenings listening to jazz combos or jazz pianists . . . and I learned to like jazz. We should not shut our minds to the fact that we can learn to like, enjoy, and appreciate new and different things. We can learn to be better appreciative listeners.

Critical Listening

The ability to listen critically is essential in a democracy. On the job, in the community, at service clubs, in places of worship, in the family—there is practically no place you can go where critical listening is unimportant. Politicians, the media, salesmen, advocates of policies and procedures, and our own financial, emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual needs require us to place a premium on critical listening and the thinking that accompanies it.

The subject of critical listening deserves much more attention than we can afford it here. But there are three things to keep in mind. These three things were outlined by Aristotle, the classical Greek rhetorician, more than 2,000 years ago in his treatise, The Rhetoric.* They are as follows: ethos, or speaker credibility; logos, or logical arguments; and pathos, or psychological appeals.

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*Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric (NEW YORK: Viking Penguin, 1992).

1. Ethos. Credibility of the speaker is important. The two critical factors of speaker credibility are expertness and trustworthiness. A speaker may be expert or competent and still not be trustworthy. For example, an autocratic dictator of a certain third world country might be an expert on the question of his country’s possession of nuclear arms; but I would not trust him to tell me. On the other hand a person might be trustworthy, but not be an expert on the subject. I trust my best friend; he would tell me the truth about nuclear arms in that third world country, if he knew and I asked him. But his information would be of questionable validity since he is simply not an expert in such things.

When listening to a message that requires a critical judgment or response, ask yourself, “Is the speaker a credible source, one who is both an expert on the subject and one who can be trusted to be honest, unbiased, straightforward?” Remember that a person may have personality or charisma. But these do not take the place of credibility. A person may even be highly competent and an expert in one area and simply not be informed in another.

Returning to the example of speakers at Air University, I trust General Horner. He is an expert on the use of airpower, and he is trustworthy. I listen intently when he speaks on the subject. But I would not expect him to be an expert on buying used cars, knitting, or nutrition. He may be an expert on any or all of these things, but I would want to “check it out” before I put too much stock in his ideas on these subjects.

Effective critical listening requires careful judgment about the expertness and trustworthiness of the speaker. In fact, ethos or speaker credibility may be the most important single factor in critical listening and thinking. However, ethos without logos is not enough.

2. Logos. Even speakers with high ethos often make errors in logic, not by intention, but by accident, carelessness, inattention to detail, or lack of analysis. Critical listeners have a right to expect well supported arguments from speakers, arguments that contain both true propositions and valid inferences or conclusions.

When evaluating arguments, listeners should ask several questions about the proposition or statements made:

a. Are the statements true?

b. Are the data the best that can be obtained?

c. Are the sources of the data known to the listeners? In other words do listeners know where the information came from?

d. Is the data accurately portrayed?

e. Is the data representative? That is, would all the data, or at least a preponderance of it show the same thing?

The above questions may all be answered to your satisfaction, yet the logic may be faulty. For perhaps the data do not lead to or justify the inferences or conclusions drawn. Listeners should ask themselves the following questions:

a. Is the conclusion a certainty or are exceptions possible?

b. Were all cause-effect relationships established beyond doubt?

c. Does the data justify the inference drawn or the conclusion given?

d. Does the inference or conclusion “follow” from the data, or is there a non sequitur, which means literally, “it does not necessarily follow”?

e. Is there evidence of strong logical thinking by the speaker?*

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*In Speaking Effectively (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989), I discuss the concept of logical thinking in more detail than is given here.

Both ethos and logos are crucial elements of critical listening. But reliance on just these two elements without consideration of pathos would be akin to attempting to sit on a three-legged stool with one leg missing. Pathos is the third leg.

3. Pathos. The psychological or emotional element of communication is often misunderstood and misused. Simply said, speakers often use psychological appeals to gain an emotional response from listeners. Effective critical listeners carefully determine the focus of the speaker’s message.

Speakers may appeal to any one or several needs, desires, or values that are important to us including: adventure, thrift, curiosity, fear, creativity, companionship, guilt, independence, loyalty, power, pride, sympathy, altruism. There are many others, of course; the list is a long one.

There are several questions critical listeners should ask themselves when assessing the pathos element:

a. Is the speaker attempting to manipulate rather than persuade me?

b. What is the speaker’s intent?

c. Is the speaker combining logos with pathos?

d. Am I responding merely to the pathos?

e. Next week or next year will I be satisfied with the decision I am making today?

Effective critical listening depends on the listener keeping all three elements of the message in the analysis and in perspective: ethos, or source credibility; logos, or logical argument; and pathos, or psychological appeals.

Discriminative Listening

The final type of listening is discriminative listening. It may be the most important type, for it is basic to the other four. By being sensitive to changes in the speaker’s rate, volume, force, pitch, and emphasis, the informative listener can detect even nuances of difference in meaning. By sensing the impact of certain responses, such as “uh huh,” or “I see,” relationship listening can be strengthened. Detection of differences between sounds made by certain instruments in the orchestra, or parts sung by the a cappella vocal group, enhances appreciative listening. Finally, sensitivity to pauses, and other vocal and nonverbal cues, allows critical listeners to more accurately judge not only the speaker’s message, but his intentions as well.

Obviously, many people have good discriminatory listening ability in some areas but not in others. Our middle daughter, Nanette, has always been very adept at picking up minute differences in a person’s voice that might signal feelings. She has a gift for discriminating and applying what she hears to relationship listening. But her ability to discriminate among the different sounds that come from an automobile engine is practically nil. One weekend she pulled into the driveway, fan belt squealing. I said, “Nanette, can’t you hear that? You’re wearing out a belt. You’re lucky you got home.” “Oh that,” she said. “I wondered what that was. I had no idea.”

Although discriminative listening cuts across the other four types of listening, there are three things to consider about this type of listening.

1. Hearing ability. Obviously, people who lack the ability to hear well will have greater difficulty in discriminating among sounds. Often this problem is more acute for some frequencies, or pitches, than others. For example, a person may be less able to discriminate when the sound is coming from a bass voice than from a higher pitched one.

2. Awareness of sound structure. Native speakers become quite proficient at recognizing vowel and consonant sounds that do or do not appear at the beginning, middle, or end of words. For example, a listener might hear “this sandal” when what the speaker said was “this handle”; but since English words do not begin with “sb,” one would not mistake “this bean” for “this sbean.”

Attention to the sound structure of the language will lead to more proficient discriminatory listening. A person who pays attention to sound structure would recognize that a rapidly spoken “Idrankitfirst” could mean either “I drank it first” or “I’d rank it first.” Recognition of the two meanings would cause the listener to seek clarification.*

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*I am indebted for these examples and other ideas to Andrew Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley, Listening (Madison, Wis.: Brown and Benchmark, 1996).Gen John M. Loh, “What It Takes to Be a Commander,” Air Force Times, 17 October 1994, 41.

3. Integration of nonverbal cues. The previous chapter pointed out how action, nonaction, and vocal factors were important in understanding messages. Nowhere is attention to these factors more important than in effective discriminative listening. Words don’t always communicate true feelings. The way they are said, or the way the speaker acts, may be the key to understanding the true or intended meaning.

Effective listening, whether informative, relational, appreciative, critical, or discriminative, requires skill. In some cases, the skills are the same for the various types of listening; in some cases, they are quite different. The next chapter will give you guidelines for better listening. It will also tell you which skills are especially critical for each type of listening.