6.4 Improving Listening Competence

Many people admit that they could stand to improve their listening skills. This section will help us do that. In this section, we will learn strategies for developing and improving competence at each stage of the listening process. We will also define active listening and the behaviors that go along with it. Looking back to the types of listening discussed earlier, we will learn specific strategies for sharpening our critical and empathetic listening skills. In keeping with our focus on integrative learning, we will also apply the skills we have learned in academic, professional, and relational contexts and explore how culture and gender affect listening.

Listening Competence at Each Stage of the Listening Process

We can develop competence within each stage of the listening process, as the following lists indicate (Ridge, 5–6).

To improve listening at the receiving stage,

  • prepare yourself to listen,
  • discern between intentional messages and noise,
  • concentrate on stimuli most relevant to your listening purpose(s) or goal(s),
  • be mindful of the selection and attention process as much as possible,
  • pay attention to turn-taking signals so you can follow the conversational flow, and
  • avoid interrupting someone while they are speaking in order to maintain your ability to receive stimuli and listen.

To improve listening at the interpreting stage,

  • identify main points and supporting points;
  • use contextual clues from the person or environment to discern additional meaning;
  • be aware of how a relational, cultural, or situational context can influence meaning;
  • be aware of the different meanings of silence; and
  • note differences in tone of voice and other paralinguistic cues that influence meaning.

To improve listening at the recalling stage,

  • use multiple sensory channels to decode messages and make more complete memories;
  • repeat, rephrase, and reorganize information to fit your cognitive preferences; and
  • use mnemonic devices as a gimmick to help with recall.

To improve listening at the evaluating stage,

  • separate facts, inferences, and judgments;
  • be familiar with and able to identify persuasive strategies and fallacies of reasoning;
  • assess the credibility of the speaker and the message; and
  • be aware of your own biases and how your perceptual filters can create barriers to effective listening.

To improve listening at the responding stage:

  • ask appropriate clarifying and follow-up questions and paraphrase information to check understanding,
  • give feedback that is relevant to the speaker’s purpose or motivation for speaking,
  • adapt your response to the speaker and the context, and
  • do not let the preparation and rehearsal of your response diminish earlier stages of listening.

Active listening refers to the process of pairing outwardly visible positive listening behaviors with positive cognitive listening practices and is characterized by mentally preparing yourself to listen, working to maintain focus on concentration, using appropriate verbal and nonverbal back-channel cues to signal attentiveness, and engaging in strategies like note taking and mentally reorganizing information to help with recall.

Listenable Messages and Effective Feedback

We should not forget that sending messages is an important part of the listening process. Although we often think of listening as the act of receiving messages, that passive view of listening overlooks the importance of message construction and feedback. In the following section, we will learn how speakers can facilitate listening by creating listenable messages and how listeners help continue the listening process through feedback for others and themselves.

Creating Listenable Messages

Some of the listening challenges we all face would be diminished if speakers created listenable messages. Listenable messages are orally delivered messages that are tailored to be comprehended by a listener (Rubin, 269). While most of our communication is oral, meaning spoken and intended to be heard, we sometimes create messages that are unnecessarily complex in ways that impede comprehension. Listenable messages can be contrasted with most written messages, which are meant to be read.

The way we visually process written communication is different from the way we process orally delivered and aurally received language. Aside from processing written and spoken messages differently, we also speak and write differently. This becomes a problem for listening when conventions of written language get transferred into oral messages. You may have witnessed or experienced this difficulty if you have ever tried or watched someone else try to orally deliver a message that was written to be read, not spoken. For example, when students in my classes try to deliver a direct quote from one of their research sources or speak verbatim a dictionary definition of a word, they inevitably have fluency hiccups in the form of unintended pauses or verbal trip-ups that interfere with their ability to deliver the content. These hiccups consequently make the message difficult for the audience to receive and comprehend.

This isn’t typically a problem in everyday conversations, because when we speak impromptu, we automatically speak in an oral style. We have a tendency, however, to stray from our natural oral style when delivering messages that we have prepared in advance—like speeches. This is because we receive much more training in creating messages to be read than we do in creating messages to be spoken. We are usually just expected to pick up the oral style of communicating through observation and trial and error. Being able to compose and deliver messages in an oral style, as opposed to a written style, is a crucial skill to develop in order to be a successful public speaker. Since most people lack specific instruction in creating messages in an oral rather than written style, you should be prepared to process messages that aren’t as listenable as you would like them to be. The strategies for becoming an active listener discussed earlier in this chapter will also help you mentally repair or restructure a message to make it more listenable. As a speaker, in order to adapt your message to a listening audience and to help facilitate the listening process, you can use the following strategies to create more listenable messages:

  • Use shorter, actively worded sentences.
  • Use personal pronouns (“I want to show you…”).
  • Use lists or other organizational constructions like problem-solution, pro-con, or compare-contrast.
  • Use transitions and other markers that help a listener navigate your message (time markers like “today”; order indicators like “first, second, third”; previews like “I have two things I’d like to say about that”; and reviews like “So, basically, I feel like we should vacation at the lake instead of the beach because…”).
  • Use examples relevant to you and your listener’s actual experiences.

Giving Formal Feedback to Others

The ability to give effective feedback benefits oneself and others. Whether in professional or personal contexts, positive verbal and nonverbal feedback can boost others’ confidence, and negative feedback, when delivered constructively, can provide important perception checking and lead to improvements. Of course, negative feedback that is not delivered competently can lead to communication difficulties that can affect a person’s self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Although we rarely give formal feedback to others in interpersonal contexts, it is important to know how to give this type of feedback, as performance evaluations are common in a variety of professional, academic, and civic contexts.

It is likely that you will be asked at some point to give feedback to another person in an academic, professional, or civic context. As companies and organizations have moved toward more team-based work environments over the past twenty years, peer evaluations are now commonly used to help assess job performance. I, for example, am evaluated every year by two tenured colleagues, my department chair, and my dean. I also evaluate my graduate teaching assistants and peers as requested. It’s important for us to know how to give competent and relevant feedback, since the feedback can be useful for self-evaluation.

When Giving Feedback to Others

Be specific. I often see a lack of specific comments when it comes to feedback on speech delivery. Students write things like “eye contact” on a peer comment sheet, but neither the student nor I know what to do with the comment. While a comment like “good eye contact” or “not enough eye contact” is more specific, it’s not descriptive enough to make it useful.

Be descriptive. I’d be hard pressed to think of a descriptive comment that isn’t also specific, because the act of adding detail to something usually makes the point clearer as well. The previous “not enough eye contact” comment would be more helpful and descriptive like this: “You looked at your notes more than you looked at the audience during the first thirty seconds of your speech.”

Be positive. If you are delivering your feedback in writing, pretend that you are speaking directly to the person and write it the same way. Comments like “stop fidgeting” or “get more sources” wouldn’t likely come out during verbal feedback, because we know they sound too harsh. The same tone, however, can be communicated through written feedback. Instead, make comments that are framed in such a way as to avoid defensiveness or hurt feelings.

Be constructive. Although we want to be positive in our feedback, comments like “good job” aren’t constructive, because a communicator can’t actually take that comment and do something with it. A comment like “You were able to explain our company’s new marketing strategy in a way that even I, as an engineer, could make sense of. The part about our new crisis communication plan wasn’t as clear. Perhaps you could break it down the same way you did the marketing strategy to make it clearer for people like me who are outside the public relations department.” This statement is positively framed, specific, and constructive because the speaker can continue to build on the positively reviewed skill by applying it to another part of the speech that was identified as a place for improvement.

Be realistic. Comments like “don’t be nervous” aren’t constructive or realistic. Instead, you could say, “I know the first speech is tough, but remember that we’re all in the same situation and we’re all here to learn. I tried the breathing exercises discussed in the book and they helped calm my nerves. Maybe they’ll work for you too?” I’ve also had students make comments like “Your accent made it difficult for me to understand you,” which could be true but may signal a need for more listening effort, since we all technically have accents, and changing them, if possible at all, would take considerable time and effort.

Be relevant. Feedback should be relevant to the assignment, task, and/or context. I’ve had students give feedback like “rad nail polish” and “nice smile,” which although meant as compliments are not relevant in formal feedback unless you’re a fashion consultant or a dentist.


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