Is Your Listening Tuned to the Right Station?


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

“There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for.”
—James Nathan Miller, Author

Many people think effective communication is simply choosing the right words to say. I submit, however, that poor listening skills create the biggest barrier to good communication.

Effective communicators listen attentively, but even attentive listeners can go astray. If a radio is not finely tuned to the right station, the reception gets garbled. Similarly, to fully understand a speaker’s message, a listener must properly tune in to the purpose of the speaking.

By way of illustration, most of us have whined about a frustrating problem at some point. We often know what to do about our problem, but we want to complain first in the hope of garnering some sympathy. Our frustration increases when listeners respond with suggested solutions to the problem. That wasn’t the kind of listening we wanted.

Many listeners miscue about the appropriate kind of listening required because most of us have a preferred approach that we use until we understand that something else is needed. We need to switch listening approaches to fit various situations.

Research has identified the following five common approaches to listening. By understanding the purpose of different approaches, you can learn to adapt your preferred style to the type most appropriate for particular circumstances.

1.   Appreciative Listening

We use the appreciative approach when we want to enjoy a listening experience. We might be listening to music, a story, a comedian’s performance or an inspirational speech. People who default to appreciative listening like to be entertained. They care more about the experience than the details being presented.

By way of example, my family likes to tell amusing, scary, or unusual stories from the past, again and again. My husband gets frustrated when someone tells a family story he has heard before. Yet everyone else enjoys it, although they have heard it many more times than he has.       He is using the wrong listening style for the situation. The rest of us are not listening to gather facts or to evaluate whether someone was right or wrong in the story. We are listening to enjoy and be entertained by the story. As long as it is told reasonably well, we don’t care whether we have heard it before.

2.   Evaluative Listening

We use evaluative listening to determine whether to believe a speaker’s assertions. We listen for facts and theories that support or contradict the message. Evaluative listeners try to figure out the speaker’s intention, and may mentally develop rebuttals. They tend to quit listening if they don’t like what a speaker is saying. If you change the radio or TV station whenever certain politicians speak, you are probably using evaluative listening.

Evaluative listening is appropriate for making decisions, such as how to vote, which product to purchase, or what the strengths and weaknesses of a case are. Schools train lawyers and paralegals to use evaluative listening, and for many of them, that approach becomes a habit. Evaluative listeners tend to be skeptical of enthusiasm and they usually compare what they hear to their own beliefs.

In a law firm, a senior partner unwittingly put a damper on communications with colleagues and co-workers because he was stuck on evaluative listening. When someone in a meeting made a joke, others laughed, but he didn’t. He wasn’t able to shift into appreciative listening for even a moment. As a result, he didn’t get the joke, and came across as cold, humorless and impatient. Evaluative listening was effective for arguing his cases, but not for fostering rapport and loyalty with his team. By the same token, sometimes a jokester needs to dial down the appreciative listening mode and dial up the evaluative mode to match the tenor of the message being conveyed.

3.   Comprehensive Listening

We use comprehensive listening to find the relationship between the speaker’s points and our existing knowledge, as well as to identify the rationale behind the argument. A comprehensive listener can generally grasp a speaker’s meaning, even when the speaker is disorganized, inarticulate or misspoken. He or she listens for patterns and connections between ideas. He or she may interpret or explain to others or elaborate on what has been said.

I once attended a talk to small business owners by an intellectual property lawyer. I could tell by the audience questions that he was talking over their heads, but he continued blithely on. His responses seemed to create even more confusion for the business owners. Finally, I raised my hand and interpreted the audience questions for the lawyer. I was using comprehensive listening, but the intellectual property lawyer was not.

4.   Discerning Listening

We use discerning listening to gather information and sort out details. Discerning listeners want to decide what is important. They focus closely on presentations and find distractions annoying. They tend to take notes and ask for clarification because they want to make sure they don’t miss something.

A discerning approach is needed in a class lecture or when a speaker is giving us an assignment or instructions. If your assistant rarely comes to your office with a notepad in hand, and frequently forgets or confuses details, he or she probably doesn’t switch to discerning listening when required.

A discerning listener can get into trouble with a team member who prefers comprehensive listening as the team tries to plot a course of action. A discerning listener may keep interrupting the speaker to clarify details of the situation as it is being described. The comprehensive listener can become frustrated because he or she needs to grasp the big picture before relating to the details.

5.   Empathetic Listening

We use empathic listening to support others and understand their feelings. Empathic listeners listen for emotions and often reflect what they hear to let the speaker know they care and comprehend the message. They may recognize what speakers really want before they get clear on it themselves. Unfortunately, most of us tend to use evaluative listening when empathic listing is needed.

When speakers are annoyed or upset, the situation often calls for empathic listening. Using evaluative listening to decide whether emotions are justified, or what the best course of action might be, is not what the speaker needs. As a result, the speakers do not believe they are being understood or listened to and their emotions often escalate.

Clients in divorce or litigation matters often want empathetic listening before they are ready to look realistically at their cases. Evaluative listening employed too much or too soon focuses on the facts and logic of a client’s story, but that can create doubt respecting the listener’s loyalty or concern for the client’s needs. The resulting distrust can make the rest of the case difficult.

You can see how no single listening approach is inherently better than another. The ideal approach depends on the situation. It is not crucial to remember the names or descriptions of the various modes. It is sufficient to realize that a shift away from what you usually listen for may get better results.

Most of us have a default style that we may lean on too heavily. These explanations and illustrations will, perhaps, give you enough guidance to recognize your default style. If things aren’t going smoothly, you can ask yourself what kind of listening is called for and switch your approach accordingly.

Adapted from a post by the author originally published in NALA’s Facts and Findings: Career Chronicle January/February 2012 edition. © 2012 Debra L. Bruce.

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