Listening is an important skill that allows us to receive, understand and evaluate information that is communicated to us. As human beings, we seek to interact on a daily basis with each other. This interaction, consists of the two key elements of speaking and listening. According to Nadig (2010) “[speaking] is only half of the communication process needed for interpersonal effectiveness. The other half is listening and understanding what others communicate to us.”
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The art of listening when practiced properly, leads to the improvement of a person’s ability to communicate effectively in everyday life. Firstly we must explore the concepts of human communication and what role listening plays in it. There are also different levels and modes of listening that can be applied in different situations. Listening also plays an important part in allowing an individual to perform tasks in a business environment. Not only is proper listening important for the listener but it is an integral part of the “aizuchi” process (enhances the speaker’s role in communication). Also, understanding and overcoming the barriers to listening is essential in facilitating highly effective communication skills.
What is human communication and where does listening fit into this process? Human communication can be defined as “The process by which meanings are exchanged between people through the use of a common set of symbols (i.e. usually language).” (Adair, 2003). This is precisely what takes place when humans decide to communicate with one another. In an effort to relay information, exchange ideas or thoughts, voice an opinion or even to fulfill a need, the sender initiates communication by encoding a message and sending it via a channel to the receiver. However, for the sender to be successful in transmitting the message, the receiver must be listening. The receiver may have heard the message but did not necessarily listen to it. Hearing is the aural reception of the words and sounds we have heard. Listening however, requires concentration so one can process and give meaning to what has been heard. Listening allows the receiver to understand and interpret the message that has been received.
Listening is also a tool that helps us to tailor our approach when communicating with others on different levels and gives us the ability to either present or receive response. Everyone’s level of listening is different given variables such as time, place, feelings, beliefs etc. The appropriate level of listening and the amount of importance assigned to the interaction can also are determined by the purpose of the communication and the relationship with the other person. For example, a stranger can ask us the time and get a response, or we can listen to a spouse’s problem and try to offer a solution. In the above settings, one would use a higher level of listening when communicating with one’s spouse than the level used when giving a reply to a casual question.
In human communication, there are three basic modes of listening. Firstly, there is competitive listening. This is used when we pretend to listen to someone else’s point of view but believe that ours is better. We listen hoping to find areas to attack and looking for opportunities to present our beliefs to the speaker. An example of this is during political debates when candidates only pretend to listen to their opponent while planning their rebuttal. The second mode of listening is called attentive listening. This is when we concentrate on what the speaker is saying and show genuine interest in the topic. We assume that we have understood what was said but we do not verify the information we are given. The final mode of listening used is perhaps the most important and useful one. This is known as active or reflective listening. Active listening is distinguished from other modes of listening because of the feedback process that is involved. Active listening is practiced when the audience is able to genuinely grasp what the speaker is saying and checks their interpretation and understanding via the process of feedback. The audience does not merely listen but also verifies what they have understood by paraphrasing the information, mirroring what the speaker has said or by asking for clarification on the subject. These actions demonstrate to the speaker that the audience has made a genuine effort to listen to his message and understand it. Therefore, active listening is believed to be effective in facilitating successful communication.
In the workplace, employees who practice listening in an effective manner, perform better at their respective duties. “For example, when a group of adults were asked to identify the most important on-the-job communication skills, listening ranked at the top of the list.” (Sypher, Bostrom and Seibert, 1989). Since effective listening leads to increased knowledge and understanding, more information will be shared among staff and they will be better equipped to answer questions, find solutions and resolve conflict in the organization. This will eventually result in increased productivity in the organization and in turn more profits, clients etc.
Apart from paying attention to what the speaker says, an employee who is able to listen effectively will also listen to what is not being said. Non-verbal cues such as body language and eye contact allow the listener to grasp the underlying meaning of what is being conveyed to them. If the communication however is not face-to-face, but is facilitated over the telephone, the listener must pay careful attention to the paralanguage that is used. Paralanguage refers to voice pitch, volume, silences etc. An example of this in the library setting can occur when a patron calls with a reference query and the librarian who is listening effectively can gauge how much the patron already knows about the subject or the specific kind of information they require just by paying attention to the paralanguage used while requesting information. This type of listening can result in a successful reference query.
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Since communication is an interactive process it is only fair that the speaker reap some rewards as well. One reward would be the improved relationship between the speaker and the audience through the use of empathic listening. Learning to be an empathic listener means that we listen without judging and provide the other person with a forum to share what they believe or feel. “Empathic listening is total response. You reassure, comfort, express warmth, and show unconditional positive regard for the other party.” (Stewart and Cash, 2000). When a person feels that they are being listened to, they will feel inclined to form a relationship with the listener. If the audience is able to give the speaker feedback and indicate that they are listening, it will encourage the speaker to continue talking. This is known to the Japanese as “aizuchi” (interjections during conversation that indicate that the listener is paying attention and that he cares). This in turn, will also make the speaker feel more confident, therefore, resulting in open and honest discussion which enhances communication. Another advantage would be that the speaker together with his audience will be able to reach a mutual understanding about what each other hopes to gain from the shared communication. Listening aids the speaker not only in his efforts to share his message but it also contributes to the effectiveness of his presentation.
There are many barriers to listening that can cause the communication process to be ineffective and these can be broken into two groups: external and internal. The external barriers include such things as a noisy environment and hearing impairment. These barriers are beyond the control of the listener; he is unable to overcome them. On the other hand, internal barriers such as “mental noise” (thinking about other things), negative mindset towards the speaker, competitive listening, selective listening, stereotyping etc. are all within the power of the listener to improve by practicing proper listening skills. These obstacles impede the flow of information to the listener who does not receive the subtleties of the intended message. An example of this would be if one has a negative preset opinion of a speaker, one will not give the speaker his full attention and will therefore miss out on the valuable points that were made, and this therefore results in miscommunication.
Listening aids human beings not only in the quest to share their message but it also contributes to the improvement and growth of communication skills. We are born with the ability to hear but not to listen. Listening is not a natural gift but we can work towards improving it. It is shown that most people listen ineffectively and they do not fully understand what is conveyed to them on a daily basis. This lack of effective listening leads to misunderstanding, confusion and finally conflict among persons. If sufficient effort is made to improve it, one’s listening will eventually become effective. Once this is achieved, the human communication process can function successfully.
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