Effective Listening

Listen up: you can use your ears to write better. It’s true; improving listening skills can go a long way toward improving writing skills. Many people who scoff at such advice probably overlook the subtle, but significant distinction between hearing and listening. The difference between hearing and listening is as real as the contrast between talking and public speaking. Hearing, like talking, comes naturally, but to be effective, listening, like public speaking, takes training and practice. One’s ability to listen effectively can make or break a story. Writers must initially be effective listeners to achieve accuracy.Good writing is like a healthy meal; both require quality ingredients. Shopping for the necessary ingredients for a good story, many writers turn to interviewing. Interviewing is an indispensable research tool which thrives on effective listening. Imagine, for example, that you are being interviewed for a story about an upcoming event. You notice that the interviewer does not appear to really listen to your responses. If you are like most people, you will probably become concerned about the potential accuracy of the story. Not listening effectively will therefore erode credibility and may likely result in an interviewee providing only short, carefully worded responses. The goal of a successful interview, to achieve a conversation to gather quality information, will most likely be only partially achieved at best.

For novice writers, the hazards of poor listening multiply; for example, writers who have yet to master effective listening skills may likely and unwittingly, perpetuate propaganda. Politicians and others who have public agendas to posit are often skilled in using interviews to bring attention to their position without actually responding to the writer’s questions. Interviewers who are too busy preparing for their next question to practice effective listening skills may overlook this tactic, and the result will likely be an inaccurate, one-sided article.

Seasoned writers may also face challenging obstacles to effective listening. Upon hearing a source react to a controversial issue, for example, the veteran writer, may rush to judgment and unfairly categorize a response incorrectly. Thus a potential source might be immediately discounted without being given a legitimate opportunity to be heard. The resulting article will probably be unfair and incomplete.

For the writer who seeks to cover a speech or a meeting, other obstacles to effective listening can emerge. Because people can think four times faster than a speaker can speak, writers must learn to compensate for this time discrepancy. A writer can use the extra time to jot down observations or make relevant personal notes in preparation for writing the article.

Effective note taking skills can overcome obstacles to effective listening. These skills include highlighting material the speaker emphasizes, grouping related items, categorizing information as key points or supporting material, identifying information that needs to be verified, etc. To maximize listening efficiency, writers must be determined to resist internal distractions such as hunger or anxiety concerning an unrelated problem and external stimuli such as noise or the speaker’s physical appearance (if it is unusual).

Writers who are gathering information for an article must avoid being passive listeners. Passive listening is the listening mode associated with listening for entertainment purposes. A more proactive listening mode is comprehensive listening. At the comprehensive listening level, a writer listens to understand a source, taking into consideration what is being said, how and why it is being said, and who is saying it. Analytical listening is also a valid mode for writers.

Analytical listening puts into gear one’s critical thinking skills and creates a necessity to accept or reject the validity of information. A writer who is seeking to determine the honesty of a speaker, for example, should employ the analytical listening mode.

A writer, who is an active listener, sends important feedback signals to the speaker. A dazed look might signify to the speaker that the presentation is too complicated. A sleepy look might indicate that the presentation is boring. An inquisitive look might cause the speaker to elaborate. As with any interpersonal communication, feedback is important for the speaker to assess and perhaps modify his timing, delivery, content, pace, style, and vocabulary. Habits that defeat effective listening are especially difficult for some writers to overcome. Writers may find that when they hear information to which they can relate, they daydream or interrupt the speaker to share their personal experiences. Also, when gathering information for stories, writers are supposed to disregard their feelings and strive for objectivity. However, writers will feel strongly about certain issues. Some writers may be inclined to argue with a source as opposed to listening to a point of view contrary to that of the writer. In daily conversation, these habits may be viewed as annoying, but for writers gathering information for stories, these habits can be downright counterproductive.

Hearing comes naturally for most writers. Listening, on the other hand, is a skill that must be honed to be effective. For many writers, giving complete and undivided attention to a speaker is considerably more challenging than first expected. As with any learned skill, practice is the key to success. In her book “Staying Well With The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense,” Suzette Haden Elgin suggests first practicing with a television or radio. Select a program in which a speaker talks uninterruptedly for about five minutes and listen “hard.” Set aside a few minutes each day to practice effective listening skills. Focus on blocking out all distractions except for what the speaker is saying. At first, most writers may lose focus rather quickly. It is important to remember that as soon as you catch your mind drifting, stop and return your focus to the speaker.

Practice this until you can regularly keep your focus on target for 10 minutes. At this point, the reporter’s practice should involve the same procedure, but with the speaker actually talking in person.

Ten Steps to Effective Listening:
1. Be prepared to really listen.
2. Maintain strong eye contact, consistent with the source.
3. Visualize what is being said.
4. Avoid interrupting.
5. Wait until the speaker is finished to reach conclusions.
6. Ask questions only to clarify what was said.
7. Give relevant feedback;
8. Avoid internal and external distractions.
9. Concentrate on the speaker’s words.
10. Restrain your emotions, stay completely objective.

The rewards reaped by writers who practice effective listening will be reduced misunderstandings and improved accuracy of information. A high quality article requires high quality information, and effective listening is a significant tool that helps writers achieve that goal. So remember, the next time you get the urge to write, remember this: before the time comes to sharpen your pencil, it just might be beneficial to sharpen your listening skills first.



About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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4 Responses to Effective Listening

  1. Paul Crutcher says:

    Please don’t let my wife know that you wrote this. It will cause uneeded accountability.

  2. Paul Crutcher says:

    unneeded? un-needed? I have to look that up because there can be no spelling errors on the write right blog! Ha!

    Oh the shame.

  3. April says:

    LOL Many people should learn Effective Listening……. Not just for writing, but for the sake of their relationships! Thanks for sharing.

  4. timethief says:

    Hi Robert,
    This is an excellent post. You have written it for those who meet face-to-face. I’m wondering how much of our misunderstandings in the cyber world are caused by not being able to use all of our senses when communicating and how we could improve our listening and broadcasting skills there too.

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