Summary and Keywords
Listening is recognized as a multidimensional construct that consists of complex (a) affective processes, such as being motivated to attend to others; (b) behavioral processes, such as responding with verbal and nonverbal feedback; and (c) cognitive processes, such as attending to, understanding, receiving, and interpreting content and relational messages. Research in the communication studies discipline has focused most heavily on the cognitive processes of listening with the least attention afforded to behavioral components. Although several models of listening have been put forward, scholars still struggle with basic notions of how best to define listening for research purposes and how to incorporate listening into mainstream theoretical frameworks. Contemporary scholarship explores intersections between listening and cultural studies research as communication scholars come to participate in larger discussions of the auditory environment. At the start of the 21st century, listening research is just one of the many sites where communication studies is making a contribution to interdisciplinary research across the humanities and social sciences.
Keywords: information processing, communication competence, social skills, comprehension, auding, language proficiency, interaction involvement, conversational skills, memory, spoken language abilities
Listening represents “a kind of human behavior that almost everyone thinks important” (Weaver, 1972, p. 24). Abilities to comprehend, understand, and respond to spoken language are argued to be some of the most important skills necessary for not only academic and professional success but also personal happiness and longevity. Such claims are not without warrant. Good listening is essential to managing conversations of various stripes, and the positive outcomes of its employment include academic and work success and a range of markers for individual and relational health and well-being (for review see Bodie, 2012). Most commonly, listening is defined as a cognitive phenomenon consisting of processes such as attending to, understanding, receiving, interpreting, and evaluating spoken language. Other conceptualizations place listening as a set of complex affective processes, such that “good listeners” are generally described as more likely to hold certain attitudes like empathic concern and a willingness to listen. Finally, listening is considered a set of complex behavioral processes, such as responding with verbal and nonverbal feedback (e.g., back-channeling, paraphrasing). This latter conceptualization is the least understood and explored in the extant literature (Keaton & Bodie, 2013).
In general, when scholars use the term listening they can be referring to any number of cognitive, affective, or behavioral processes (Halone, Cunconan, Coakley, & Wolvin, 1998). In addition, the term is often used in reference to a set of important skills and abilities needed for personal and professional success (Brownell, 2010). To complicate matters even more, scholars often use terms other than listening (e.g., conversational sensitivity, responsiveness, interaction involvement) to describe essentially the same phenomenon. This section provides a narrative overview of listening research with particular attention to work conducted by scholars of human communication. Of course, because communication scientists have borrowed heavily from other disciplines, this article cannot stay completely self-contained. By the end, readers will have a better understanding of the complexity of listening and be better able to understand the myriad perspectives available for investigating this important life skill. Future research considerations based on the directions offered by contemporary scholarship are offered.
A Brief History of Listening in Communication Studies
Because of its inherent applicability to a range of life settings, listening is a topic of interest that spans the academic landscape. Within communication studies, the history of listening research in many ways parallels the history of the discipline (Beard & Bodie, 2014). Over time, conceptualizations have shifted from representations of listening as a simple, passive activity, to a more active mode of information processing similar in many respects to reading, to a complex phenomenon that can be studied from several theoretical points of view. Table 1 presents a sample of the definitions of listening generated since the early 20th century. The evolution of defining listening from early conceptualizations driven by a linear model of communication to more contemporary conceptualizations that stress behavior in context is traced.
Listening as the Comprehension of Aural Information
Like much of the early work in communication studies, the earliest conceptualizations of listening were based in the framework of speech pedagogy (Beard & Bodie, 2014). In line with the linear conceptualization of communication more generally, early writings discussed listening as a passive activity, something that does not take much effort and that can be controlled by “good” speakers; that is, by crafting a listener-centered message, speakers can dictate how people process and respond to spoken language. Research on public address and debate, for instance, was concerned with the relative effectiveness of variables such as vocal variety and speech content (e.g., factual vs. emotional arguments) on the attitudes and opinions of audiences (e.g., Millson, 1938). Similar interests were apparent in research by mass communication scholars on the impact of different styles of speaking on the radio (e.g., Lumley, 1933). A similar trend carried over to research during World War II that attempted to study how speaker intelligibility and articulation influenced a pilot’s ability to listen “accurately and . . . [report] back accurately what is heard” (Whan, 1944, p. 263) and to work concerned with attitude change that predated mainstream compliance gaining research (e.g., Berlo & Gulley, 1957).
In an early review, Gilkinson (1944) highlighted four primary variables used to measure “the influence of a speaker upon an audience” (p. 180), which included attitude scales, opinion polls, retention tests, and ratings (or judgments about the speech). The third class of measures, retention tests, was described as measuring “the amount of detailed content of speeches remembered by audiences” (p. 181), a definition that has been attached to the term listening comprehension ever since.
Table 1. A sample of listening definitions.
The ability to understand spoken language.
The comprehension of expository materials presented orally in a classroom situation.
Brown & Carlsen (1955)
The aural assimilation of spoken symbols in a face-to-face speaker audience situation, with both oral and visual cues present.
The active process involved in attach[ing] meaning to sounds.
The selective process of attending to, hearing, understanding, and remembering aural symbols.
A process that takes place when a human organism receives data orally.
Steil, Barker, & Watson (1983)
Consists of four connected activities—sensing, interpreting, evaluating, and responding.
Wolvin & Coakley (1988)
The process of receiving, attending to, and assigning meaning to aural stimuli.
International Listening Association (1995)
The process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.
The acquisition, process, and retention of information in the interpersonal context.
An overt behavior that conceptualizes the teaching and training process.
Early measures of listening comprehension were derived from existing measures of reading comprehension and focused exclusively on memory for facts (Devine, 1978). Several scholars pointed to important conceptual and operational problems with these measures. One of the most influential was Kelly (1965) who suggested that recall “accuracy perhaps depends primarily upon mental factors that are far from specific to audition” (p. 139). Although most subsequent work cited Kelly, research conducted prior to his work suggested that processing speech was a distinct language ability (for review see Caffrey, 1955). In addition, several large-scale factor analytic studies published around the time of Kelly’s work proposed “a constellation of interrelated listening abilities” (Lundsteen, 1966, p. 311). By the late 1960s, listening scholars began to define listening as a set of cognitive processes, some of which are related to other language facilities like reading, some of which are related to mental acuity and intelligence, and some of which are unique to aural processing (see Weaver, 1972, pp. 9–10).
This line of thinking did two things. First, it positioned listening almost exclusively as a cognitive phenomenon. Indeed, several scholars were quite vocal that “overt responding was part of a new communication cycle, with the response constituting an initiative of the sender” (Ridge, 1993, p. 7). The dichotomization of listening and speaking remains a sticking point for many communication theorists today (Berger, 2011). Second, by separating listening into its constituent parts (e.g., hearing, understanding, remembering), researchers claimed an ability to develop more valid tests that could be shown unique, but complementary to, tests of other language abilities. Test development efforts defined listening research during the 1970s and 1980s, and multidimensional tests of comprehension proliferated.
The development of many of these tests was largely a response to the perceived failings of those that had come before. The most popular target of criticism was the Brown-Carlsen Listening Test (Brown & Carlsen, 1955), which was designed as a comprehensive test and claimed to measure recall of items, recognition of word meanings, ability to follow instructions, lecture comprehension, and inference making. Each multidimensional test developed during the 1970s and 1980s held a similar assumption to prior tests: there exists some identifiable set of skills that can be taught in order for a person to become a good listener. Of course, agreement about which skills to include was far from universal. The two leading tests were the Watson-Barker Listening Test (WBLT; Watson & Barker, 1983), which focused on interpersonal listening abilities necessary within academic settings (e.g., following directions), and the Kentucky Comprehensive Listening Test (KCLT; Bostrom & Waldhart, 1983), developed to reflect the relations among facets of listening and memory. Research using these tests was primarily concerned with issues of validity with particular attention paid to whether the tests factored appropriately. Unfortunately, the validity profiles of these tests raise serious concerns about construct validity (e.g., Applegate & Campbell, 1985; Bodie, Worthington, & Fitch-Hauser, 2011; Fitch-Hauser & Hughes, 1987; Villaume & Weaver, 1996).
Models of the listening process created during this time also recognized the multidimensional nature of listening. Although there are differences between models, most assumed that listening begins with an ability to hear aural input but goes beyond this skill to involve abilities to understand, appreciate, and interpret the meaning intended by a speaker (Wolvin, 1989). This way of defining listening remains today, most popularly in models based in cognitive psychology (Burleson, 2011; Imhof, 2010).
It should be noted that the focus on skills was not unique to the 1970s and 1980s. Rankin stressed the importance of “[understanding] spoken language” in his 1926 dissertation (Rankin, 1966, p. 25), and the leading definition of listening throughout the early years of the National Communication Association was similar (Beard & Bodie, 2014). The emphasis on developing tests was partially driven by a perceived need to legitimize listening scholarship. Legitimation was a process that involved providing empirical evidence that listening was composed of a unique set of attributes and processes—that is, apart from other, more established language abilities like reading—that could be taught and measured and that ultimately would help students and working adults achieve success (see Steil, Barker, & Watson, 1983).
Research primarily interested in how students comprehend information aurally is most thoroughly studied in the context of second language (L2) listening (Buck, 2001; Flowerdew & Miller, 2010; Rost, 2014). This work has produced several measures of listening comprehension that assess abilities that make language acquisition possible. All of these measures comprise multiple subscales, suggesting that listening comprehension is a complex of skills rather than a unidimensional competency.
Listening as a Complex of Skills
Perhaps the most well-known attempt to identify skills necessary for “good” listening was Nichols’s (1948) study of the factors influencing lecture comprehension. Undergraduates in his study were asked to listen to six 10-minute lectures and answer a multiple choice test after each. Student participants averaged 68% on the composite listening test with higher scores related to both individual (e.g., intelligence) and situational (e.g., listener fatigue) factors. Subsequent interviews with instructors of students scoring in the top and bottom tertiles of the test revealed that good, compared to poor, listeners were “more attentive during classroom activities and more conscientious in their . . . work habits” (p. 160). Nichols used these data to provide an empirical backdrop to the previously articulated argument that listening should be taught, not presumed in the communication process and that there were specific skills and habits that were best taught (Adams, 1938; Nichols, 1947; Wiksell, 1946). Over time, these factors became known as the “Nichols 10” (Nichols, 1987) and were suggested as a universal set of “bad habits” to avoid when attempting to listen to another.
Many of the habits and skills discussed by Nichols are behaviors that can be enacted and observed. Yet, even though the foundation was set with the work of Nichols, the shift from viewing listening as solely an internal (cognitive and affective) process to viewing it also as an overt behavioral process did not begin until the late 1970s (Janusik, 2002, 2010). Indeed, a behavioral view of listening was resisted by several prominent listening scholars, though most of these individuals have since conceded that overt responding is part of the listening process (see Ridge, 1993). Capitulation was largely assisted by the 1978 Elementary and Secondary School Act, which added speaking and listening to reading and writing as basic communication skills necessary for student success. The federal policy revision and the funding priorities that followed ultimately launched a focus within communication studies on how best to define, measure, and teach oral communication competencies, many of which were measurable only by observing behaviors. As stated by Wiemann and Backlund (1980, p. 185),
the focus appears to be shifting from content or subject matter concerns to the identification of specified skills or abilities. More emphasis is being placed on what a student should learn in order to function more effectively in different environments and in different situations. The reorientation has led some educators to the concept of competency as an educational objective. This concept has been an impetus for the identification of “skill” (competency) levels in various disciplines and at several developmental stages.
The competency movement in communication studies served as the backdrop for scholars such as Alice Ridge and Judi Brownell to argue for a behavioral perspective on listening. In general, these scholars argued that listening is best conceptualized not as cognitive activity that is largely undetectable or an affective disposition to pay attention even in the face of “dull” speakers, but as a collection of overt “behaviors that can be learned, observed, and applied” (Brownell, 1985, p. 39). Scholars such as Brownell borrowed heavily from the more general communicative competency literature, arguing that that dimensions of listening competence could “be defined according to discreet, molecular behaviors . . . all readily observable in face-to-face encounters by ‘normal,’ (i.e., untrained) interactants” (Wiemann, 1977, p. 198).
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, lists of skills that constituted competence in speaking and listening were developed and applied to K–12 (P. Cooper, 1998) as well as higher education (Morreale, Rubin, & Jones, 1998). Others extended the focus beyond educational settings to the workplace (L. Cooper & Husband, 1993). In addition, several measures were developed to assess these skills, most of which asked individuals to report their perceptions of their own general use of specific behaviors or their perceptions of behaviors enacted by one or more close others (e.g., a supervisor) (Bodie, 2013; Fontana, Cohen, & Wolvin, 2015). A close look at the literature shows that lists of specific behaviors that one should enact to be perceived as a “good” listener are similar to lists of specific behaviors that one should enact to be perceived as a “good” communicator or a “socially skilled” individual. More recently, research has attempted to delineate the behaviors that people enact in conversation that are unique to listening competency judgments and those that are shared with or are all together part of other competency judgments (Bodie, Pence, et al., 2015; Bodie, St. Cyr, Pence, Rold, & Honeycutt, 2012). The implications are far reaching, from how we teach (or should teach) listening as a separate or integrated set of communication-based social skills (Janusik, 2002) to how we model and theorize the processes responsible for “competent” listening.
One of the more important discussions sparked by defining listening as a set of identifiable skills is whether a generic set of behaviors can be constructed and applied in several contexts. The assumption that listeners should enact a universal set of behaviors was evident in the writing of Nichols as well as others who seemed to want to deduce a magic formula for listening well (e.g., Steil, Barker, & Watson, 1983). Likewise, listening competency measures are rather similar in scope irrespective of whether they were developed in the workplace or for students enrolled in listening courses at institutions of higher education (Fontana, Cohen, & Wolvin, 2015). These scales assess behaviors such as eye contact, giving feedback, and remembering details (L. Cooper, 1997; Ford, Wolvin, & Chung, 2000); the assumption, of course, is that the skills of listening are similar regardless of whether the conversation is with a supervisor or subordinate or about a relational transgression or what to grab at the grocery store on the way home from work. To date, however, this discussion has not fully moved empirical work in the direction of testing such ideas. Some work does suggest that there are specific behaviors that are more appropriate in supportive contexts but less appropriate in others. Take, for instance, the constellation of behaviors drawn from the work of Carl Rogers and Thomas Gordon labeled “active listening.” While restating what someone has said and validating his or her emotions seems to be good practice in supportive conversations (Bodie, Vickery, Cannava, & Jones, 2015), the same behaviors are not necessarily productive in marital conflict (Hafen & Crane, 2002). Other work has started to question whether certain behaviors found predictive of outcomes in one type of relational context (e.g., therapist-client) are similarly predictive (kind and degree) in other relational contexts (Castro, Alex, Tohar, & Kluger, 2013; Weger, Bell, Minei, & Robinson, 2014; Weger, Castle, & Emmett, 2010). Still other work has suggested that desirable and undesirable aspects of listening may be partly independent (Kluger & Zaidel, 2013).
Listening as a Contextually Situated Activity
When used to refer to an action that occurs in close, personal relationships, listening generally suggests an active presence of another individual who is typically acting with empathic tendencies. In close relationships, listening signals affection, support, empathy, and understanding; “to listen” is a positive characterization made of others who are attentive and empathic during interaction. Listening is an orientation toward openness to being completely aware (i.e., “empty”) to what is happening in and around us. In other words, listening is a relationally constituted process (Rhodes, 1993), something that occurs within a dyadic system and helps to define that system (Halone & Pecchioni, 2001). Using this conceptualization, listening is defined in a manner similar to some definitions of intimacy (Reis, 1990) and social support (Burleson, Albrecht, Goldsmith, & Sarason, 1994).
Of course, listening does not connote the same types of attributes in non-intimate relationships or in other settings not defined by closeness or affiliation. For instance, people do not necessarily need their cashier to signal affection, though we may need him or her to understand that we have a coupon for cereal. Similarly, we might want to listen for appreciative purposes like when we get lost in our music or a pleasant medley of bird calls in the wild. Of the first to recognize that listeners often direct their resources for different purposes were Wolvin and Coakley (1993) who outlined a typology of five reasons for listening. At the most basic level, they placed discriminative listening, listening in order to monitor our surroundings or attend to specific auditory or visual stimuli, and comprehensive listening, or listening to understand. All listeners are thought to utilize these basic forms of listening, though not all listeners have the same level of ability to do so well. Likewise, in some contexts listeners are called to listen for higher order purposes, namely toward appreciative, therapeutic, or critical means. Appreciative listening is the process of listening to appreciate either what another is saying or sounds for one’s own enjoyment. Therapeutic listening is used to describe listening to others as they talk about stressful or otherwise negative life events. Finally, critical listening requires moving beyond understanding to evaluating and making judgments about a message’s veracity or consistency with other arguments.
Although Wolvin and Coakley’s typology was meant to describe various ways in which listeners could direct their attention (even if there is individual variability in competency within each type), others have proposed that some listeners operate under one or more listening styles or “habits of action” (Imhof, 2003). Based on Shiffrin and Schneider’s (1977) claim that people tend to listen in a habitual manner, Langer (1980) proposed that individuals may be oriented toward listening in particular ways regardless of the situation. Based on this assumption, Watson, Barker, and Weaver (1995) proposed the construct listening style as a set of characteristic or habitual ways of listening. In their framework, listening style was considered an individual difference that explains variability in how people attend to and process information. In particular, Watson and colleagues identified four listening orientations—people, action, content, and time—that individuals habitually orient toward, especially in novel situations (Imhof, 2004). The conceptualization of listening style as reflecting four orientations toward information processing has gained widespread acceptance, appearing in nearly every interpersonal communication textbook with a listening chapter and receiving popular press attention across the globe. To whatever extent these conceptualizations of listening style have been fruitful, however, problems have surfaced in recent work. In particular, studies utilizing the primary measurement instrument, the LSP-16, consistently report reliability estimates in the range of 0.50 to 0.60 for most of the subscales (for a review, see Bodie & Worthington, 2010). These findings call into question the results of past research and may signal scale-related problems. The primary limitation of the LSP-16 is that confirmatory model testing has returned results largely inconsistent with the conceptualization of listening goals outlined by the LSP-16 (Bodie, Worthington, & Gearhart, 2013).
In addition to any “habitual” listening orientations, interpersonal skills such as listening are also valued more in some situations than in others (Spitzberg, 2003), and skill deployment varies according, at minimum, to the function of the interaction (Burleson, 1986) or listener goals (Berger, 2011). Like other trait-based competencies (e.g., information processing), listening is simultaneously the product of typical (not habitual) behavior and contingent on elements of the interactional setting (Daly, 2002). Thus, listening styles may more accurately reflect the goal-driven nature of communication in general.
A recently developed typology of listening goals is similar to the styles of the LSP-16 (and in some ways to Wolvin and Coakley’s typology) but is framed as representing four distinct “goals that listeners have when engaged in situations that call them to be a particular kind of listener” (Bodie et al., 2013, p. 86). In line with arguments made by Imhof (2003, 2004), listening styles are adaptable and pursuing a specific listening goal has considerable implications on how conversational partners may respond. First, a fundamental goal of listening involves connecting with others emotionally and attempting to understand how they feel. Similar to Watson and colleagues’ people-orientation, relational listening (RL) reflects a concern with and awareness of others’ feelings and emotions. The second goal, analytical listening (AL), reflects an intentional focus on the full message of a speaker before coming to judgment. The third goal, task-oriented listening (TOL), reflects concern with the amount of time spent in an interaction, but also represents a desire by the listener for a speaker to stay focused and on topic. Finally, critical listening (CL) refers to purposeful attention to accuracy and consistency of a speaker’s message. A recent study (Gearhart, Denham, & Bodie, 2014) demonstrated that listening styles change according to demands of the interaction as a function of empathy, depth, and perspective taking. The relevancy of these characteristics was attributed to the relational quality of the narratives provided by participants. Thus, listening “styles” seem to represent cognitive schemas people hold for situational listening in that they are purposefully deployed according to the demands of the interaction and goals of the listener.
From Listening Is to Listening As
Although the subtitles used thus far in this article suggest listening has always been viewed this way, much of the history of listening scholarship has been marked by debate over defining the term—attempting to finish the sentence with listening is as opposed to listening as. Early work was occupied by disentangling listening from related mental constructs like memory and related language abilities like reading. Sparked largely by Glenn’s (1989) content analysis of the existing definition of listening, the 1990s were marked by efforts to create a consensual definition of listening and, subsequently, measures that assess all of its constituent parts (International Listening Association, 1995). Indeed, the prevailing view, and one that exists in the minds of several contemporary scholars, was that “in order to develop a theory we must first agree upon a definition of the [construct]” (D. R. Barker, Barker, & Fitch-Hauser, 1987, p. 15).
Arguments over “the correct” definition of listening seem quite similar to arguments about communication more generally. Early communication scholarship was marked by attempts to find “the correct” definition of communication, attempts that were subsequently replaced by an attitude that values multiple perspectives on inquiry (Fisher, 1978). The ideal that a single, all-encompassing definition of listening should be created and sustained is slowly being supplanted by the view that listening should be treated as a theoretical term and thus defined “from the part it plays in the whole theory in which it is embedded, and from the role of theory itself” (Kaplan, 1964, p. 56). The genesis of this shift is two-fold. First, its roots are imbedded in research on implicit theories of listening that suggested lay individuals think of listening as simultaneously cognitive, affective, or behavioral activities (Halone, Cunconan, Coakley, & Wolvin, 1998). Some work by Imhof and Janusik (2006) and their resulting Listening Concepts Inventory (LCI) has further found that people see listening as similar to cognate activities such as relationship building, learning, information acquisition, and critique of others’ ideas. Second, several leading listening scholars have argued convincingly for the advancement of listening theory (Janusik, 2004, 2007) and away from more variable analytic research that is indicative of published literature in the 1990s and early 2000s (Wolvin, Halone, & Coakley, 1999).
When treated as a theoretical term, listening is allowed to take on various meanings depending on the practical purpose pursued by an individual or team of scholars (Bodie, 2010b, 2012). It also moves scholars away from concerns over definitional harmony and toward attempting to understand listening in all its complexity, as simultaneously a cognitive, affective, and behavioral phenomenon (or as primarily one of these as the theory dictates; see Table 1). Within communication studies, listening is often portrayed as a key component of effective communication and is cast as a fundamental competency in close, personal, and professional relationships as well as for students of all ages. Even so, because the term has yet to be fully incorporated into a variety of theoretical frameworks that pose distinct roles and functions for the cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of this complex social skill, the potential of its impact is not fully realized (Floyd, 2014). Most notable is the fact that as a result of attempting to create and sustain a single, all-encompassing definition of listening, the theoretical association between listening and other phenomena has largely been ignored (King, 2008). As summarized previously, listening research has been conducted primarily in the service of creating lists of skills and competencies that can be taught and measured (putatively in similar ways regardless of context). Although assessment rubrics and comprehension tests have been constructed in line with theoretical frameworks, the lion’s share of listening research has been conducted void of theoretical concern. Fortunately, the landscape is changing.
From Studying Listeners to Studying Listening in Action
Of the research on listening conducted to date, cognitive and affective components have been afforded greater attention than behavioral components (Keaton & Bodie, 2013). As a cognitive phenomenon, listening has been primarily measured with comprehension tests given after the presentation of some aural stimulus, usually a monologue. Scores are then compared for different groups of listeners or correlated with listener characteristics. For instance, comprehension has been shown to vary as a function of delivery rate, such that increasing the speed of speech causes a direct linear decrease in retention (King & Behnke, 1989). Likewise, work with individuals situated in conversation with others finds that listeners retain the gist of the conversation much better than specific details (e.g., Stafford & Daly, 1984). Indeed, as shown by Janusik (2005, 2007), listeners remember and respond to ideas, not complete sentences.
As for individual characteristics associated with comprehension scores, research has explored intelligence (Stromer, 1954), cognitive complexity (Beatty & Payne, 1981), personality (Bommelje, Houston, & Smither, 2003), and various information processing dispositions (e.g., styles of thinking; Bodie, 2010a, Study 3). In addition, there is a large literature on individual differences in listening anxiety (Schrodt, Wheeless, & Ptacek, 2000), reported competency in listening (Wolvin & Coakley, 1994), and related terms such as interaction involvement (Villaume & Cegala, 1988), conversational sensitivity (Daly, Vangelisti, & Daughton, 1988), perceived understanding (Schrodt & Finn, 2011), and conversational narcissism (Vangelisti, Knapp, & Daly, 1990). Other work suggests that listeners who engage in meta-cognitive strategies, that is, actively thinking about how they are listening and can improve, may have an advantage over those who are more mindless with respect to their listening (Janusik & Keaton, 2012). All of these attitudes toward listening (the affective part of the triad) are most commonly studied with self-report scales and correlated with other traits as well as behaviors that constitute the act of listening.
As a behavioral act, listening refers to what people do as they attempt to understand and retain information shared by others. What people do involves a range of individual verbal and nonverbal behaviors that function to demonstrate attention, understanding, responsiveness, and empathy; to encourage continued expression of thoughts and feelings of an interlocutor; and to aid in relational maintenance. Although specific behaviors are likely enacted to different degrees as well as have different impacts on outcomes depending on conversational, relational, and cultural contexts, much interpersonal scholarship draws from the framework of Carl Rogers on person-centered therapy and his humanistic approach to listen “actively” (Rogers, 1955, 1957, 1980).
In terms of nonverbal behaviors, active listening is typically cast as nonverbal immediacy (NVI)—behaviors such as head nods, eye contact, and forward body lean that reflect the degree of psychological distance between (or closeness with) others (Andersen & Andersen, 2005). These behaviors communicate approach (vs. avoidance) (Jones & Wirtz, 2006) and signal involvement, attentiveness, and awareness (Coker & Burgoon, 1987). In addition to showing nonverbal warmth, active listeners also signal attentiveness through a range of verbal behaviors, the most common of which are paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, assumption checking, and asking questions. Interestingly, although the benefits of various active listening strategies are rather well documented in certain literatures such as counseling and therapy (Hill, 2009; Norcross, 2011), interpersonal communication scholars often generalize beyond these contexts with little empirical backing.
Take as illustration the notion of active listening within supportive communication scholarship. Rogers’s philosophy permeates this literature with Burleson and colleagues’ person-centered theory highly illustrative (Jones & Bodie, 2014). Person centeredness includes “a repertoire of behavioral strategies and tactics” (Burleson, 2003, p. 580) that are considered behavioral manifestations of active listening like those listed above. Evidence for the connection between person-centered comforting and active listening comes from research that has shown people with higher levels of interpersonal cognitive complexity (ICC) are more adept at producing highly person-centered messages, those that explicitly acknowledge and validate expressed thoughts and feelings (Burleson & Caplan, 1998).
Not only should active listening help a support provider enact more sophisticated comfort, actively listening to another also conveys distinct relational messages of caring, concern, value, and appreciation. Recently, Floyd (2014) proposed listening as an expression of affection, arguing that (p. 1):
When we listen to others, we offer not only our time but also our psychological presence, our cognitive attention, and our emotional responsiveness, all of which are finite and thus valuable interpersonal resources. Extending the effort to listen to someone may therefore be conceptualized as an expression of affection for that person, at least in situations when listening is not otherwise expected or compensated (e.g., as with a therapist).
As such, the act of listening should be tied to several important outcomes of conversations, including individual and relational health and well-being.
To be person-centered ultimately means that the listener accommodates the other person, suggesting listening shares conceptual space with other terms used to describe behavioral involvement including adaptation, coordination, expressiveness, immediacy, and interaction management (Bodie, Cannava, Vickery, & Jones, 2016; Bodie & Jones, 2012; Coker & Burgoon, 1987; Ebesu Hubbard, 2009). Janet Bavelas and her colleagues have spent several decades exploring how listeners constitute a “full partner in creating the dialogue” (Bavelas & Gerwing, 2011, p. 180). The operation of various listener behaviors are viewed by Bavelas and colleagues through Clark’s collaborative model and the notion of grounding, a sequential process engaged in collaboratively by speaker and addressee that results in mutual understanding (Clark, 1996). Research suggests that when listeners are allowed to freely participate in grounding (e.g., by not being distracted), the speaker tells a more coherent story (primarily fostered by behaviors such as back-channeling) (for review see Bavelas & Gerwing, 2011).
Future Directions and Conclusions
Reading the contemporary literature on listening suggests that scholars are taking seriously the need to integrate listening into viable theoretical frameworks (Janusik, 2007). This trend seems poised to continue, as does the study of listening in more applied contexts. Research has investigated the role of listening in various workplace settings with particular emphasis on the impact of perceived supervisor listening on subordinate job satisfaction and motivation. Likewise, a large literature exists exploring listening in healthcare, sales, classroom, and other settings as well as how listening changes across the lifespan. A final direction within interpersonal communication scholarship seems to be the integration of listening with neuroscience (Spunt, 2013).
Without a doubt, listening is a critical facet of human communication. Listening is important across the lifespan and within a range of contexts and relationships—to “be heard” and “listened to” is important from the cradle to the grave. Even so, the attention afforded listening by scholars of human communication wanes in comparison to other processes (e.g., message production), even though “these processes are intimately intertwined” (Berger, 2011, p. 105). Contemporary scholarship suggests several fruitful avenues for theoretically rich and pragmatically important research.
Listening has been the subject of intense, focused scrutiny, especially in the postwar period of American communication scholarship. At the same time, it has been a phenomenon visible only indirectly, by its effects on other areas of communication research. We can see this split, for example, in mass communication research. Most mass communication research focuses on the message: on critical interpretation of the message, on the effects of certain types of messages, and on locating the message within larger cultural and economic systems (Lang, 2013). The role and activities of the listener are only sometimes under direct scrutiny. Most of the time, the role of the listener is a presupposition of the research—a background element, unquestioned and unexamined (Bodie, 2010b, 2011). Indeed, the listener is often conceptualized as a mere receptor of information, someone acted upon versus an active participant in the meaning making process.
The history of listening research can be arranged by intellectual problem set. The first problem set is represented by scholarship published in communication journals prior to World War II (a period usually presumed to be barren of research on listening) focused on the speech teacher as (a) the master listener, (b) diagnostician for speech defects, and (c) expert judge of quality. Audiences were presumed passive recipients of speech; the master speech teachers strove to teach students to listen as they listened, to be carefully and mindfully attuned to the audience in an effort to adapt speeches for maximum effect. The second problem set occurs at midcentury, to the study of listening competence. Empirical research in student listening practices was the core of this research and drew attention to best practices for listening, stemming from the larger communications movement in the wartime and postwar period. Work during this second period was motivated, in part, by changes to federal policy and funding priorities such as the need to educate massive amounts of veterans and the 1978 Elementary and Secondary School Act. The third problem set includes research that attempts to study listeners. This thread of research asks scholars to account for the actual behaviors of listeners. While scholars in communication studies presume that empirical study of listeners and “participatory culture” in media is a recent development, in fact, this research is among the oldest strands in communication scholarship. Finally, there is more contemporary scholarship that explores intersections between listening and cultural studies research as communication scholars come to participate in larger discussions of the auditory environment. At the start of the 21st century, listening research is just one of the many sites where communication studies is making a contribution to interdisciplinary research across the humanities and social sciences.
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