A major part of our language activity during a working day is devoted to listening. One estimate puts our listening at 42% of our communication, with speaking, reading and writing taking up 32, 15 and 11%, respectively. Acquiring listening competence while learning a language can be very difficult.
Hearing refers to the sensory experience of receiving aural messages and passing them to the brain.
Listening goes further than that. It activates the mind to receive messages and to analyse and evaluate them. Though speaking and listening are interlinked, there is an important difference. When speaking, you are in control of the communication, but when listening, you have to follow the speaker’s words and ideas. Realizing the importance of listening skills, academic and corporate bodies have included them in training courses.
Another point about listening as communication is that there can be two modes. One is interactive listening and the other is non-interactive. The former mode is used when you are engaged in conversation, participate in a group discussion or negotiate a deal with a customer. For a decision-making situation, this mode of listening is extremely important.
Also Read VR Narayanaswami’s earlier columns
Non-interactive listening takes place when you listen to the radio or watch television or listen to a lecture. The skills that are invoked here are different from those required in the interactive mode. Eye contact and other features of body language on the part of the listener assume less importance here.
The basic purpose of listening is to understand what the speaker is saying. Several micro skills come into play in decoding the message received by you. These include recognizing vocabulary in connected speech, looking for patterns of word order within the grammar of the language and identifying key words that convey the basic ideas of the message. You also need to familiarize yourself with the speaker’s pronunciation, accent and mannerisms.
Listening is not a passive event that just happens. It is an active process. The mind that receives the spoken message is not blank; it has already stored past experience of the topic and knowledge of the speaker. This background knowledge helps you sort and store new information. You are able to interpret what is said and anticipate what the speaker is likely to say next.
Here are some interactive listening situations:
A corporate executive has to meet a financier; the chairperson of the board has invited all the directors and senior executives to discuss some new projects; the employees are unhappy over rescheduling of working hours and the chairperson is to meet them for a discussion of the problem.
The company spokesperson has to adapt listening behaviour to a variety of situations and purposes. In dealing with a volatile situation at the workplace, the chairperson has to listen patiently even to hostile remarks. When it is a client who has to be persuaded, the approach has to be more personal.
Studies of listening comprehension have found that there are certain common obstacles to active listening. People tend to pre-judge the communication as uninteresting or irrelevant. They may be prejudiced against the speaker. A second obstacle is known as “rehearsing a response”. The listener mentally rebuts the argument raised by the speaker and then goes on to think up a sequence of arguments for and against the proposal.
Another obstacle is created by the time differential between speaking and listening. The speaker moves at the speed of words, while the listener moves at the speed of thought. This time difference is used by many listeners to wander into arguments that are not related to the point being made at that moment.
In interactive listening, as when you meet a customer or a prospective client, there are certain other considerations. Besides the words spoken, there are body language and tone of voice contributing to the meaning.
Eye contact, upright posture and facial expression can assure the speakers that you are a receptive audience. That would make them feel important. Listening with empathy is one of the most effective ways of earning trust and building relationships.
In the words of Peter Drucker, “Of the major, basic competencies of a leader, the first is the willingness, ability and self-discipline to listen.”
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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