The Importance of Listening
Understanding how listening works provides the foundation we need to explore why we listen, including various types and styles of listening. In general, listening helps us achieve all the communication goals (physical, instrumental, relational, and identity) that we learned about in Chapter 1 "Introduction to Communication Studies". Listening is also important in academic, professional, and personal contexts.
In terms of academics, poor listening skills were shown to contribute significantly to failure in a person’s first year of college.Wendy S. Zabava and Andrew D. Wolvin, “The Differential Impact of a Basic Communication Course on Perceived Communication Competencies in Class, Work, and Social Contexts,” Communication Education 42 (1993): 215–17. In general, students with high scores for listening ability have greater academic achievement. Interpersonal communication skills including listening are also highly sought after by potential employers, consistently ranking in the top ten in national surveys.National Association of Colleges and Employers, Job Outlook 2011 (2010): 25.
Poor listening skills, lack of conciseness, and inability to give constructive feedback have been identified as potential communication challenges in professional contexts. Even though listening education is lacking in our society, research has shown that introductory communication courses provide important skills necessary for functioning in entry-level jobs, including listening, writing, motivating/persuading, interpersonal skills, informational interviewing, and small-group problem solving.Vincent S. DiSalvo, “A Summary of Current Research Identifying Communication Skills in Various Organizational Contexts,” Communication Education 29 (1980), 283–90. Training and improvements in listening will continue to pay off, as employers desire employees with good communication skills, and employees who have good listening skills are more likely to get promoted.
Listening also has implications for our personal lives and relationships. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of listening to make someone else feel better and to open our perceptual field to new sources of information. Empathetic listening can help us expand our self and social awareness by learning from other people’s experiences and by helping us take on different perspectives. Emotional support in the form of empathetic listening and validation during times of conflict can help relational partners manage common stressors of relationships that may otherwise lead a partnership to deteriorate.Robert M. Milardo and Heather Helms-Erikson, “Network Overlap and Third-Party Influence in Close Relationships,” in Close Relationships: A Sourcebook, eds. Clyde Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 37. The following list reviews some of the main functions of listening that are relevant in multiple contexts.
The main purposes of listening are Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 182.
- to focus on messages sent by other people or noises coming from our surroundings;
- to better our understanding of other people’s communication;
- to critically evaluate other people’s messages;
- to monitor nonverbal signals;
- to indicate that we are interested or paying attention;
- to empathize with others and show we care for them (relational maintenance); and
- to engage in negotiation, dialogue, or other exchanges that result in shared understanding of or agreement on an issue.