Listening is actually a complex of processes and skills and so it’s convenient to divide the listening process into stages or steps. This is a five-stage model and seems to get at most, if not all, of the essential listening processes and, more important, enables us to identify the relevant skills at each stage. Here five stages are identified: Receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding.
Listening at the Receiving Stage
The first stage in the process of listening is receiving the message. At this stage you listen not only to what is said (verbally and nonverbally) but also to what is omitted. You receive, for example, your boss’s summary of your accomplishments as well as the omission of your shortcomings or, perhaps, vice versa. Effective reception, then, consists of receiving what is as well as what is not said. Here are just three suggestions for improving your listening reception:
1. Focus your attention on the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal messages, on what is said and on what isn’t said. Avoid focusing your attention on what you’ll say next; if you begin to rehearse your responses, you’re going to miss what the speaker says next.
2. Avoid distractions in the environment; if necessary, shut off the stereo or and turn off your cell phone. Put down the newspaper or magazine; close your laptop.
3. Maintain your role as listener and avoid interrupting. Avoid interrupting as much as possible. It will only prevent you from hearing what the speaker is saying. This is not to imply that you should give feedback cues—minimal verbal or nonverbal responses (“I see,” “you’re right,” head nodding, widening of your eyes)—that say, “I’m listening.”
Listening at the Understanding Stage
The second stage of listening is understanding the message. That is, after receiving the message, you process it; you extract the meaning from the message. You can improve your listening understanding in a variety of ways.
1. Avoid assuming you understand what the speaker is going to say before he or she actually says it. If you do make assumptions, these will likely prevent you from accurately listening to what the speaker wants to say.
2. See the speaker’s messages from the speaker’s point of view. Avoid judging the message until you fully understand it as the speaker intended it.
3. Ask questions for clarification, if necessary; ask for additional details or examples if they’re needed. This shows not only that you’re listening—which the speaker will appreciate—but also that you want to learn more. Material that is not clearly understood is likely to be easily forgotten.
4. Rephrase (paraphrase) the speaker’s ideas into your own words. This can be done silently or aloud. If done silently, it will help you rehearse and learn the material; if done aloud, it also helps you confirm your understanding of what the speaker is saying and gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.
Listening at the Remembering Stage
The third stage of listening is remembering the message. It would help little if you received and understood the message but didn’t remember it. If you want to remember what someone says or the names of various people, this information needs to pass from your short-term memory (the memory you use, say, to remember a phone number just long enough to write it down) into long-term memory (or relatively permanent memory). Short-term memory is limited in capacity—you can hold only a small amount of information there. Long-term memory is unlimited. To facilitate the passage of information from short- to long-term memory, here are FOUR suggestions:
1. Focus your attention on the central ideas. Even in the most casual of conversations, there are central ideas. Fix these in your mind. Repeat these ideas to yourself as you continue to listen. Avoid focusing on minor details that often lead to detours in listening and in conversation.
2. Organize what you hear; summarize the message in a more easily retained form, but take care not to ignore crucial details or qualifications. If you chunk the material into categories, you’ll be able to remember more information. For example, if you want to remember 15 or 20 items to buy in the supermarket, you’ll remember more of them if you group them into chunks—say, produce, canned goods, and meats.
3. Unite the new with the old; relate new information to what you already know. Avoid treating new information as totally apart from all else you know. There’s probably some relationship and if you identify it, you’re more like to remember the new material.
4. Repeat names and key concepts to yourself or, if appropriate, aloud. By repeating the names or key concepts, you in effect rehearse these names and concepts, and as a result you’ll find them easier to learn and remember. If you’re introduced to Alice, you’ll stand a better chance of remembering her name if you say, “Hi, Alice” than if you say just “Hi.”
Listening at the Evaluating Stage.
Once you’ve received, understood, and have the message in memory, you need to evaluate it. After all, not all messages are equal—some are lies, some are truths; some are significant, some are trivial; some are constructive, some are destructive. In evaluating messages consider these suggestions.
1. Resist evaluation until you fully understand the speaker’s point of view. This is not always easy, but it’s always essential. If you put a label on what the speaker is saying (ultraconservative, bleeding-heart liberal), you’ll hear the remainder of the messages through these labels.
2. Distinguish facts from opinions and personal interpretations by the speaker. And, most important, fix these labels in mind with the information; for example, try to remember that Jesse thinks Pat did XYZ, not just that Pat did XYZ.
3. Identify any biases, self-interests, or prejudices that may lead the speaker to slant unfairly what is said. It’s often wise to ask if the material is being presented fairly or if this person is slanting it in some way.
4. Recognize fallacious forms of “reasoning” speakers may use. Some of the more popular ones are:
• Name-calling: applying a favorable or unfavorable label to color your perception—“democracy” and “soft on terrorism” are two currently popular examples.
• Testimonial: using positively or negatively viewed spokespersons to encourage your acceptance or rejection of something—such as a white-coated actor to sell toothpaste or a disgraced political figure associated with an idea the speaker wants rejected.
• Bandwagon: arguing that you should believe or do something because “everyone else does”.
Listening at the Responding Stage
After you evaluate the message, you’re likely to respond in some way. And, of course, a speaker expects a response. Here are just a few suggestions for improving your responding to another’s messages.
1. Support the speaker throughout the speaker’s conversation by using (and varying) listening cues, such as head nods and minimal responses such as “I see” or “mm-hmm.” Using the “like” icon, poking back, reposting, and commenting on another’s photos or posts will also prove supportive.
2. Own your responses. Take responsibility for what you say. Instead of saying, “Nobody will want to do that” say something like “I don’t want to do that.” Use the anonymity that most social networks allow with discretion.
3. Resist “responding to another’s feelings” with “solving the person’s problems” (as men are often accused of doing) unless, of course, you’re asked for advice. Oftentimes, people simply want to vent and just want you to hear what they have to say.
4. Focus on the other person. Avoid multitasking when you’re listening. Show the speaker that he or she is your primary focus. You can’t be a supportive listener, if you’re also listening to a CD, so take off the headphones; shut down the iPhone and the television; turn away from the computer screen. And, instead of looking around the room, look at the speaker; the speaker’s eyes should be your main focus.
5. Avoid being a thought-completing listener who listens a little and then finishes the speaker’s thought. This is especially inappropriate when listening to someone who might stutter or have word-finding difficulties. Instead, express respect (and a real willingness to listen) by giving the speaker time to complete his or her thoughts. Completing someone’s thoughts often communicates the message that nothing important is going to be said (“I already know it”).