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Communication, no matter the media, requires a sender and a recipient—a delivery mechanism and a target. The recipient, or target, is responsible for listening to the communication. Without listening there cannot be comprehension or understanding. Listening provides a springboard of information from which to build the framework of a conversation. The only problem with listening is that there simply is not enough of it. The result of not properly listening while communicating is misspoken, misrepresented, or ill-timed responses.

Listening is a five-step process consisting of listening preparation, receiving, constructing meaning, responding, and remembering (Hybels & Weaver, 2007). The first three steps are crucial. Skipping a step can be disastrous.  How accurate of a response can be derived without first preparing to listen followed by receiving information? There could not be enough information to accurately construct a meaning. The first step, preparation, is the foundation for listening. Having the proper mindset and environment are critical. The second step in the active process of listening is receiving. Hybels & Weaver (2007) define receiving as the process of taking in, acquiring, or accepting (p. 80). It is this step where we typically fall short in the art of communication.

Receiving, while mostly associated with the hearing sense, is really a function of all five senses. Using a combination of each of the five senses is active listening. Another form of listening, described by Dalmar Fisher (1999) as “reflective listening,” collects information and interacts with the speaker. A typical interaction might include repeating or rephrasing the information so as to better understand the meaning.

Listening orientation is an important process for gathering, filtering, and reacting to information. The four components of listening orientation are, “empathy, acceptance, congruence, and concreteness” (Fisher, 1999). Empathy, the most difficult component, involves listening accurately and non-judgmentally. Our natural instinct of agreeing or disagreeing based entirely on our own point of view creates an empathy barrier. As long as there are emotions drawn from personal experiences influencing opinion on what we hear, pure empathy is impossible.

Congruence, if practiced by the listener, can encourage the speaker to become more open and direct. Congruence refers to “the openness, frankness, and genuineness on the part of the listener” (Borgatti, 2000). Without congruence, empathy becomes difficult. If you are holding a grudge or upset with the speaker, it is nearly impossible to listen with an open mind.

Acceptance in communication refers to the unconditional respect a listener has for a speaker. Proper active listening identifies acceptance as one of the most important of the four components. Acceptance is closely related to empathy (Borgatti, 2000). If the listener indicates acceptance, the speaker will use more candor.

The final component of listening orientation is concreteness. Being vague in a conversation tends to encourage a volley of abstract phrases as opposed to getting directly to the point and being effective. Sometimes the topic of a conversation might be too sensitive to discuss causing communication to have little to no concreteness.

The four components of listening–empathy, acceptance, congruence, and concreteness—are important for active listening. Moreover, proper active listening is most effective when the speaker recognizes all four components practiced by the listener. Reflection, or reflective listening, reinforces listening orientation. Specifically, reflective responses provide the indication needed by a speaker to recognize an active listener. Borgatti (2000) identifies the following principles of reflective listening.

More listening than talking is a difficult principle to follow—especially for outgoing individuals. Effective listeners ignore impersonal, distant, or abstract comments—and only respond to communication that is relevant and personal. They restate or clarify what the speaker has communicated. Proponents of reflective listening try to understand the feelings contained in what others are communicating and strive to understand the speaker’s frame of reference. They do not use their own frame of reference to interpret what is being communicated. The main thing to remember is to respond only with acceptance and empathy. In the words of Stephen Seckler (2008), “Listening is more powerful than talking.”

A reflective listener responds to feelings as well as content. It is important to consider the substance of a speaker’s message before composing a response. Proper reflective listening requires the listener to respond to not only positive comments, but negative and ambivalent as well. Leveraging the four components of listening orientation will ensure a well-rounded reflective listener.

While stereotyped reactions and pretending to understand are detrimental to the success of reflective listening, not being able to recognize the nonverbal clues means only capturing partial messages. Professor Albert Mehrabian’s (2007) communication model shows only 7% of meaning in a communication is the words that are spoken. The way the words are spoken are responsible for 38% of the meaning in a communication. The lion share of meaning in a communication is non-verbal. Facial expression, posture, and gestures account for 55% of the meaning in a communication. Non-verbal communication accounts for as much as 93% of the meaning in a communication (Hybels & Weaver, 2007).

Mehrabian’s model has become one of the most widely referenced statistics in communication. The theory is particularly useful in explaining the importance of meaning (Chapman, 2009). With 7% of meaning in communication coming from words, along with 38% from tone and inflection, hearing is responsible for less than half of the total meaning of a communication. This leaves four other senses to help properly interpret a communication—to listen.

Hearing is not the only sense capable of listening. All five senses are used in active listening. Silent signals are sent at the same time a verbal communication is taking place. In many cases, these non-verbal messages are unintentional (Hybels & Weaver, 2007). Having the ability to read, understand, and interpret these signals are part of an overall listening strategy. As Hybels & Weaver (2007) point out,  “to be unaware of non-verbal communication is to miss a significant portion of what goes on in any communication situation” (p. 132). Using all five senses to listen—we need more of it.

Following all of the facets of receiving information in the five steps of listening is constructing meaning. With all of the information captured through various senses, a meaning is derived. Properly interpreting the cues, signals, and impulses requires the full and active use of all the senses (Hybels & Weaver, 2007). Misinterpreting any of the information could lead to unnecessary or inaccurate responses.

Responding and remembering are the final two elements in the listening preparation model. Both of these elements are optional. Responding is an important aspect of two-way communication. Listening preparation, receiving, and constructing meaning are all pre-processes of responding. Remembering, while an option, is important for reflecting back on a communication. The speed at which we communicate can make it difficult to construct meaning. Retrospect becomes crucial, but only possible if we are able to retain information from a communication.

Listening and hearing are two different components of communicating. You hear with your ears, but listen with all of your senses. Hearing is the act of perceiving sound by the ear, while listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences (Treuer, 2006). Most people tend to be hard of listening as opposed to hard of hearing. Listening expands on hearing when we pay attention to the meaning of what we hear. To listen properly, we need to be open to the meaning of the other person’s words. We need to “enter into the experience those words are meant to convey” (Sherven & Sniechowski, 2009). Listening is not automatic. It takes a concentrated effort to listen. Sometimes we choose to listen selectively.

Selective attention is sometimes worse than not listening at all. Only absorbing bits and pieces of information and filling in the rest with your imagination can lead to an unjust response. Hybels & Weaver (2007) define selective attention as, “the ability to focus perception” (p. 82). Everyone wants to be understood. Sometimes too much information in a short amount of time makes it nearly impossible to construct meaning. Few people can give attention to a message for more than 20 seconds (Hybels & Weaver, 2007).

Listening is an art. Developing a mastery of this art takes commitment and practice. Improving your listening efficiency is an ongoing process. Our listening efficiency is affected by our own culture, lifestyle, and emotion. “Effective listening is knowing the difference between what is said, what you hear, and what is meant” (Steele, 2009).  Our minds have the ability to listen many times faster than a person can talk. Steele (2009) identifies four stages of listening to become an effective listener. By looking directly at the person speaking, we can better sense and interpret the message. Sensing, the first stage, is learning to read body language, tone, and inflection. Interpreting the message is closely related to the receiving element of listening preparation. Evaluating or understanding and ultimately responding to a communication round out the four stages of listening (Steele, 2009).

There should be a certain amount of responsibility on the part of the speaker. Realizing there are four listening styles, a speaker should be able to communicate with everyone. The analytical listeners will be thoughtful and skeptical while attaching themselves to every word. The driver style of listener requires a speaker to be at a faster pace and quicker to the point. Amiable listeners appear to hang onto every word and care about the speaker. An expressive listener likes to be involved and be a part of what is going on (Steele, 2009).

A breakdown in communication can affect many aspects of your life. An inability to properly communicate can be devastating to both personal and professional relationships. There are noted differences by gender in the methods and effectiveness of communication. The average woman uses 25,000 words per day, while a man uses less than half (Steele, 2009). This could explain certain problems in a relationship.

The non-verbal aspects of communication vary drastically by gender. Women in North America initiate more eye contact than men (Hybels & Weaver, 2007). Because of this, it is more apparent that women have a better chance of interpreting the 93% of a communication that is non-verbal. Eye contact means observing, reading, and interpreting, facial expressions, posture, and gestures that accompany words. Women prove to be better listeners because they use several senses simultaneously to communicate. For example, women use touch more than men while communicating (Hybels & Weaver, 2007).

Overall, listening is more than hearing words, nodding, smiling, and even responding. The important thing to remember is that it is not always necessary to respond. It is, however extremely important to listen. The goal is to open the meaning of the words we hear by listening with all of our senses. “It is no longer about sound but about the thoughts, feelings, point of view, expectations, memories, sensations, beliefs—the whole of the other person—or at least as much of the whole as is available at the moment” (Sherven & Sniechowski, 2009).

Listening takes practice and intention. Listening expands on hearing and leverages all of the five senses to properly interpret a communication. The benefits of listening, as opposed to hearing, are endless. Communication is an integral part of our lives. In our relationships, we communicate one on one with our partner. The level, quality, and frequency of communication in business can affect the bottom line. Whether resolving problems, socializing, or closing a business deal, you cannot succeed without communicating.

Listening makes simple communication effective communication. Proper listening techniques–empathy, acceptance, congruence, and concreteness—guarantee effective communication. Anxiety and cognitive dissonance are two barriers that could keep us from listening and properly comprehending a communication. Other barriers include laziness, closed-mindedness, insincerity, boredom, and inattentiveness. Listening becomes easier if the person speaking uses techniques such as assertiveness and getting to the point before the audience loses interest.

While we cannot control how people communicate with us, we can choose to listen. When interaction is required, we can be better prepared to compose a response. We should all communicate with individuals at a level they understand. And above all, we should listen. Simply put, there should be more of it.


Borgatti, Stephen. (2000). Active Listening. MB119: Interpersonal Communication. Retrieved May 10, 2009, from http://www.analytictech.com/mb119/reflecti.htm

Chapman, Alan. (2009). Mehrabian’s Communication Research. Retrieved May 10, 2009, from http://www.businessballs.com/mehrabiancommunications.htm

Fisher, Dalmar. (1999). Communication in Organizations. Mumbai, India: Jaico Publishing House.

Hybels, Saundra & Weaver II, Richard L. (2007). Communicating Effectively. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.

Mehrabian, Albert. (2007). Nonverbal Communication. Edison, NJ: Transaction Publishers, Inc.

Seckler, Stephen. (2008). Counsel to Counsel: Listening is More Powerful than Talking. Retrieved May 10, 2009, from http://www.counseltocounsel.com/2008/03/listening-is-more-powerful-than-talking.html

Sherven, Judith & Sniechowski, Jim. (2009). There is a Real Difference Between Hearing and Listening. Retrieved May 11, 2009, from WomenTodayMagazine.com at http://womentodaymagazine.com/relationships/listening.html

Steele, Jonathan. (2009). The Art of Listening. Retrieved May 11, 2009, from http://www.speechmastery.com/art-of-listening.html

Treuer, Paul. (2006). Hearing vs. Listening. Retrieved May 10, 2009, from http://www.d.umn.edu/kmc/student/loon/acad/strat/ss_hearing.html