By Elizabeth Fagan, Departments of History and Anthropology and Teaching Consultant at the Chicago Center for Teaching 

The importance of listening

Communication takes place along four modalities: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. It is common for instructors to teach speaking, writing, and reading skills, and yet, listening is at once the least understood and most important of these competencies.  

Listening is an important communication competence that includes complex cognitive processes like understanding and interpreting messages, affective processes like being motivated to pay attention, and behavioral processes like responding with both verbal and nonverbal feedback.  In other words, to be an effective listener, the listener has to take into consideration what he or she is thinking about the communication being received, what he or she is feeling about the communication and also the context of the conversation, and what he or she will do in the process and as a result of the communication.

The characteristics of effective listening thus range across these cognitive, affective, and behavioral frames.

Cognitive characteristics of effective listening

  • Probing
  • Paraphrasing                    
  • Summarizing

Asking questions to follow up or for clarification, paraphrasing the individual communications, and summarizing the conversation are all activities that show the listener’s cognitive engagement in the conversation, indicating his or her attempts to fully understand and correctly interpret the messages being relayed.

Affective characteristics of effective listening

  • Focusing of attention
  • Acceptance
  • Empathy

The effective listener can also signal his or her affective engagement in the conversation by making it the sole focus of attention, and by receiving communications with acceptance and empathy.  Receiving communications with empathy requires that the listener try to avoid projecting his or her own opinions, feelings or prejudices onto the speaker, and that the listener accept the speaker’s communications without simultaneously trying to craft a response.

Behavioral characteristics of effective listening

  • Non-verbal behavior
  • Advice

Action is also part of effective listening. The listener should communicate his or her attention through non-verbal means like eye contact, erect posture, nodding, and other positive body language.  The listener can also demonstrate engagement by broadening the range of the conversation, such as by inquiring about or suggesting alternatives to the topic or conclusions at hand.

Teaching effective listening

In a dynamic classroom, both the instructor and the students need to be effective listeners.  Perfecting listening skills will foster learning in the classroom by helping students master the content of the course, ask incisive questions, and learn to think critically about the content of the course.  Listening skills also play a crucial role in personal and professional success and are especially important to master for students for whom the language of instruction is not their first language.  Because listening is such a complex activity, or a broad field of activities, inculcating good listening habits in students requires the instructor to address each of these types of listening processes. 

Resources for teaching effective listening

For enabling effective listening in students whose first language is not English:

For in-class listening exercises:

Peterson, S. (2012) “The labor of listening.” International Journal of Listening, 26:2, 87-90.

Thompson, K., Leintz, P., Nevers, B., & Witkowski, S. (2004) “The integrative listening model: an approach to teaching and learning listening.” The Journal of general Education, 53:3-4, 225-246.

Additional references on listening in general:

  1. Bodie, G.D., Worthington, D., Imhof, M. & Cooper, L.O. (2008) “What would a unified field of listening look like? A proposal linking past perspectives and future endeavors.” International Journal of Listening, 22:2, 103-122.
  2. Edwards, R. (2011) “Listening and message interpretation.” International Journal of Listening, 25:1-2, 47-65.
  3. Jones, S. M. (2011) “Supportive listening.” International Journal of Listening, 25:1-2, 85-103.

Additional references on effective listening in particular:

Charactertistics of Effective Listening, Stanford Teaching Commons