Listening: Meaning, Purpose, Steps, Types, Styles

Listening: Meaning, Purpose, Steps, Types, Styles

Some communication experts contend that listening is the keystone communication skill for today’s managers. J. Hart Seibert (1990: 119-127) estimates that managers typically spend about 9% of a working day reading, 16% writing, 30% talking, and 45% listening.

Thus, the ability to listen is a vital skill in business. Unfortunately, research evidence suggests that most people are not very good at listening. Communication experts estimate that people generally comprehend about 25% of a typical verbal message (Pearce, 1993: 79-80).

Interestingly, this problem is partly due to the fact that we can process information faster than most people talk.

The average speaker communicates 125 words per minute, while we can process 500 words per minute (Kreitner and Kinichi, 1998: 438). Moreover, the average person remembers only about half of what’s said during a 10-minute conversation and forgets half of that within 48 hours (Morgan and Baker, 1985: 35-36).

But Means (1991: 70-72) mentions that no one is born with the ability to listen; the skill is learned and improved through practice. The understated discussion will help us to develop such skills.

Definition of Listening

Listening involves much more than hearing a message. Hearing is merely the physical component of listening.

Pearson and Nelson (1997: 48) said, “Listening is the process of receiving and interpreting aural stimuli.” Wolvin and Coakley (1988: 91) define “Listening as the process of receiving, attending to, and assigning meaning to aural stimuli.”

That is, listening is using your brain to help you understand the sounds you hear. Your brain helps you give meaning to the sound. You hear with your ears; you listen with your brain. Kreitner and Kinichi (1998: 438) define “Listening as the process of actively decoding and interpreting verbal messages.

Thus, listening requires cognitive attention and information processing.

4 Purposes of Listening

Why do people listen? There are some good reasons for listening. These purposes are discussed below:

To gain new information and ideas

Listening intends to gain new information and ideas that indoctrinate us with increased capacity to deal with situations in business. We can arrive at a conclusion that is true, workable, and acceptable to many people.

To question and test evidence and assumptions

Listening is aimed at testing assumptions and evidence placed by the talker by asking questions and getting justifiable explanations.

To be inspired

Listening is destined to inspire people to go into certain actions. Sales meetings are known for their rousing kickoffs and their enthusiastic openings seeking to motivate and inspire the audience favorably.

To improve your own communication

Listening is done to learn attractive and motivating talking styles from charismatic talkers. Choose the best techniques; listen for and adopt those that are done well. It will improve your communication skills through talking.

4 Interrelated Activities in Listening

Listening is done through five interrelated activities, generally occurring in the following order:


Hearing the message and paying attention to it. Interfering noises, impaired hearing, or inattention can hamper reception. You need to cut out distractions and concentrate on the message.


Decoding and absorbing the message. You should make out the exact meaning of the message. You cannot do so without paying attention to non-verbal signals of the speaker.


Forming an opinion about the message. You should be careful in picking through the speaker’s words, lest your evaluation of the message be affected by the speaker’s looks and personal style.


Retaining the message for future use. You should take a mental reference.


Reacting to the message as you see fit.

11 Importance of Listening

Listening is the vital task and skill of all managers. We spend over half of our communication time listening. This highlights the urgency of listening skills in industrial management. The following statements show the importance of listening:

  1. Listening supports effective relationships within the organization. Good listening makes the talkers and listeners clear to one another and helps in developing mutual understanding between and among employees within the organization.
  2. It enhances the organization’s delivery of products (Simon, 1991:73-74). Good listening skills make clear the expectations of the customers to the organizational people. Thus, it enhances the quality and quantity of the organization’s product delivery.
  3. It alerts the organization to innovation growing from both internal and external forces. Listening helps in acquiring information from various persons, which may make the organization aware of innovations growing in both internal and external forces of the organization. It will help the organization make appropriate strategic actions to cope with the situation in its favor.
  4. It allows organizations to manage the growing diversity both in the workforce and in the customers they serve. Workforce composition, education, expectations, awareness of rights, and association, among other factors, bring about diversity. Socio-economic changes and the rise of consumer rights make customers diversified too. Good listening makes management aware of the nature and characteristics of such diversity and facilitates effective management.
  5. Good listening ability of an individual is likely to lead to success, enhanced performance, raises, promotion, status, and power (Syper, Bastrom, and Seibert, 1996). Listening provides a person with details of certain human and non-human situations, making them capable of handling situations efficiently and effectively. This obviously brings fame, power, promotion, and success.
  6. Good listening leads to helpful, positive attitudes by understanding the hindrances that lie in the way of good listening. It increases listening ability and overall communication skills.
  7. It permits the speaker and listeners to improve communication because each side is more aware of and receptive to the other’s viewpoint.
  8. It indicates through feedback to the speaker that listeners are interested; in turn, the speaker tries harder to give their best presentation.
  9. It helps listeners obtain useful information on which they can make accurate decisions.
  10. It creates a better understanding of others and thus helps listeners work with others effectively and in a congenial manner.
  11. Good listening helps the speaker in talking out a problem. A person needs to receive, as well as give, help.

5 Steps of Listening

Listening is a process involving five related activities, which most often occur in sequence. Steil, Barker, and Watson (1983:21-21) prescribe those five steps in the following manner:


Sensing is physically hearing the message and taking note of it. This reception can be blocked by interfering noises, impaired hearing, or inattention. Tune out distractions by focusing on the message.


Interpreting is decoding and absorbing what you hear. As you listen, you assign meaning to the words according to your own values, beliefs, ideas, expectations, roles, needs, and personal history.

It is also know as filtering. The talker’s frame of reference may be quite different from yours, so you may need to determine what the speaker really means. Pay attention to non-verbal cues but be careful not to assign meanings that aren’t there.


Evaluating is forming an opinion about the message. Sorting through the speaker’s remarks, separating fact from opinion, and evaluating the quality of the evidence require a good deal of effort, particularly if the subject is complex or emotionally charged.

Avoid the temptations to dismiss ideas offered by people who are unattractive or abrasive and to embrace ideas offered by people who are charismatic speakers.


Remembering is storing a message for future reference. You retain what you hear by taking notes or by making a mental outline of the talker’s key points.


Responding is acknowledging the message by reacting to the speaker in some fashion. It involves verbal feedback. It may take the form of applause, laughter or silence. Actively provide feedback to help the speaker refine the message.

9 Types of Listening

Experts have classified listening into the following types:

Active Listening

In active listening, you interrupt the speaker and state your points of view before the speaker can finish. But you must explain your position clearly in your comments to the speaker’s satisfaction. Eventually, though, your objective is to help the speaker’s point of view.

So, you can check from time to time during your interruption if the speaker agrees with your point of view and let this interactive process of listening and interruption go on and on.

All these types of listening can be effective in the workplace, but you have to know how and when to use them.

Active listening refers to listening in which the listener’s total self is involved, including special senses, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and intuitions. Barker (1971:10) said, “Active listening is involved listening with a purpose.” It is characterized by verbal and non-verbal feedback.

The feedback may be one of two kinds: positive or negative. Positive feedback consists of verbal and nonverbal responses intended to affirm the speaker and the speaker’s message. Examples of positive nonverbal feedback are positive facial expressions, attentive looks, smiles, laughing, and leaning forward.

Negative feedback consists of verbal and nonverbal responses intended to disconfirm the speaker and the speaker’s message.

Nonverbal negative feedback can consist of frowning, making negative facial expressions, turning the head and tilting the body away from the speaker, talking to others, reading the newspaper, decreasing eye contact, or responding with glassy-eyed indifference.

Passive Listening

It refers to listening where the listener becomes mainly an organ for the passive reception of sound, with little self-perception, personal involvement, or active curiosity.

Empathic Listening

Empathic listening aims at comprehending the speaker’s feelings, needs, and wants in order to help solve a problem.

In this respect, the message is only a means to understand the mind of the speaker and help the person to let out his or her pent-up feelings. You had better not give any counsel or attempt any solution to the problem posed by the speaker.

Instead, you should give the person all the opportunity to speak out without making any comments. Your role is more of a silent attentive listener than an active problem-solver.

Empathy is the ability to perceive another person’s worldview as if it were your own.

Empathy is perception and communication by resonance, by identification, by experiencing in ourselves some reflection of the emotional tone that the other person is experiencing.

It is the capacity of an individual to feel the needs, aspirations, frustrations, joy, sorrows, anxieties, hurt, and hunger of others as if they were his or her own.

“Empathy” comes from the German word “Einfühlung,” which literally means “feeling into.” So, it can be defined as listening “between the lines.”

When you listen between the lines, you heighten your awareness and interpersonal sensitivity to the entire message a person may be trying to communicate. The goal of empathic listening is to gain a total understanding of the other person.

It serves as a reward or encouragement to the speaker. It communicates your caring and acceptance and reaffirms the person’s sense of worth.

Critical Listening

The objective of this listening skill is to evaluate the message on the following counts:

(i) The reasoning of the argument, solidity of the evidence, and soundness of the conclusions.
(ii) The probable future effects of the message for you or your organization.
(iii) The speaker’s intentions and motives.
(iv) The exclusion of any important or relevant points.

Since listening to the message and evaluating at the same time is difficult, judgment had better be postponed until the speaker finishes with the message. Critical listening is usually interactive, as you try to understand the speaker’s point of view. You can’t help but evaluate the speaker’s trustworthiness anyway. Body language is often your best guide in this respect.

“Critical listening is listening that challenges the speaker’s message by evaluating its accuracy, meaningfulness, and utility,” said Pearson and Nelson (1997:56). It is usually needed when we suspect that we may be listening to a biased source of information.

To make this listening effective, you must listen and be able to identify the point the speaker is trying to make, then listen for and evaluate the method of support the speaker uses to prove that point. Critical Listening requires critical thinking, cause analysis, and decision-making.

Pleasurable Listening

Pleasurable listening refers to a pleasurable or enjoyable listening experience. It includes movies, plays, television, music, and many other forms of entertainment.

Discriminative Listening

This is a more serious type of listening and is primarily used for understanding and remembering. It includes most of the serious listening situations in which we find ourselves—in the classroom, listening on the job, to instructions, and many others.

Comprehensive Listening

It is listening to understand the material presented. We listen for comprehension many times each day. We listen to the details of an invitation to a party that we might want to attend.

Appreciative Listening

It refers to listening for appreciation or recreation. People listen appreciatively and with enormous intensity to music.

Content Listening

This skill requires you to concentrate on the key points of the message. You listen for clues to the structure of the message, then form a mental contour of the speaker’s remarks. Subsequently, you go over what you’ve learned.

You may take notes sparingly so that you can focus your attention on the main points. It is not essential for you to agree or disagree. What matters is whether you’ve understood the message as the speaker intended.

It refers to listening to understand and retain information imparted by a speaker. Your job is to identify the key points of the message, so be sure to listen for clues to its structure: preview, transitions, summaries, enumerate points.

Good and Bad Listeners

Manning, Curtis, and McMillen have given a comparative picture of the distinguishing features of good and bad listeners. It is a good guideline for a person who tries to improve his/her listening skills. It will keep them aware of the bad habits of bad listeners.

Keys to Effective ListeningThe Bad ListenerThe Good Listener
Capitalize on thought speedTends to daydreamStays with the speaker, mentally summarizes the speaker, weighs evidence, and listens between the lines.
Listen for ideasListens for factsListens for central or overall ideas
Find an area of interestTunes out dry speakers or subjectsListens for only useful information
Judge content, not deliveryTunes out dry or monotone speakersAssesses content by listening to the entire message before making judgments
Hold your fireGets too emotional or worked up by something said by the speaker and enters into an argumentWithholds judgment until comprehension is complete
Work at listeningDoes not expend energy on listeningGives the speaker full attention
Resist distractionsIs easily distractedFights distractions and concentrates on the speaker
Hear what is saidShuts out or denies unfavorable informationListens to both favorable and unfavorable information
Challenge yourselfResists listening to presentations of difficult subject matterTreats complex presentations as exercises for the mind
Use handouts, overheads, or other visual aidsDoes not take notes or pay attention to visual aidsTakes notes as required and uses visual aids to enhance understanding of the presentation

3 Listening Styles

Bennett and Wood (1989:45-48), two prominent communication experts, identified three different listening styles: Results-style, Reasons-style, and Process-style. Their research indicated that people prefer to hear information that is suited to their own listening style. People also tend to speak in a style that is consistent with their own listening style. Because inconsistent styles represent a barrier to effective listening, it is important for managers to understand and respond to the different listening styles.

Results Style

Results-style listeners are interested in hearing the bottom line or result of the communication message first and then like to ask questions. They don’t like any beating around the bush. The following behaviors identify results-style listeners:

  • They sound direct. Everything is right out front, so you never have to wonder. They may sound blunt or even rude sometimes.
  • They are action-oriented.
  • They are present-oriented.
  • They love to problem-solve. They are usually good crisis managers because of their love of fixing things and their action orientation.
  • Their first interest is the bottom line.

Reasons Style

Reasons-style listeners want to know the rationale for what someone is saying or proposing. They must be convinced about a point of view before accepting it. Typical behavior exhibited by reasons-style listeners include:

  • They are most concerned with whether or not a solution is practical, realistic, and reasonable for the situation.
  • They weigh and balance everything.
  • If asked a direct question, they frequently answer, “It depends.”
  • They argue, out loud or internally.
  • They expect people to present ideas in an organized way. They have little tolerance and no respect for a “disorderly” mind.
  • Their first concern is, “why?”

Process Style

Process-style listeners like to discuss issues in detail. They prefer to receive background information prior to having a thorough discussion and like to know why an issue is important in the first place. You can identify process-style listeners by watching for these behaviors:

  • They are people-oriented. They are highly concerned about relationships, believing that people and relationships are the keys to long-term success.
  • They like to know the whole story before making a decision.
  • They have a high concern for quality and will hold out for a quality solution to a problem, even if it seems unrealistic to others.
  • They are future-oriented. They are not only concerned about the future but also predict what may happen in the future due to decisions made today.
  • They have ongoing conversations. They continue subjects from one conversation to the next.
  • Their language and messages tend to be indirect. They imply rather than state the bottom line.
  • Their primary interests are how and benefits.


Listening tops the list of managerial do’s. Managers obtain most of the information through listening to perform their jobs.

On the other hand, the lack of listening skills at all levels triggers major work-related problems. Most of us like to think of ourselves as good listeners. But the fact is that we cannot continue listening for long without breaks in attention.