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Theories on listening skills

Updated April 17, 2017

The ability to listen actively and empathetically is one of the basic skills of the counselling profession, and is an essential component of any successful relationship. Theories of listening skills delineate modes of listening attentiveness, purposes of communication, implied meanings and metacommunication strategies.

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Theories of Listening Attentiveness

One model of listening attentiveness posits three levels of engagement: competitive (deflecting and avoiding criticism,) passive (acting as a polite audience, relying on assumptions) and active or reflective listening (using questions, paraphrasing and points of comparison.) Other models posit finer grades of attentiveness, including empathetic (communicating and reflecting emotions) and facilitative listening (empowering one's dialogue partner, actively seeking to create meaning and understanding.)

Purposes of Communication

Listeners must have the ability to intuit the purpose of a speaker's communication, whether that is primarily simple facts, thoughts and ideas or expressing emotions. For example, in a conversation that is focused on communicating facts, the primary responsibility of the listener is to gather the information and communicate that it has been learnt. If the speaker is attempting to express emotion, the listener must show that she understands how the speaker feels.

Implied Meanings

Listening theories build on the fact that statements often have more than one meaning, ranging from explicit to implicit. Effective listeners use context and body language to get a sense of which meaning is most vital for understanding the message, while poor listeners often ignore or distort the obvious intention of statements.

Metacommunication Theories

Metacommunication theories observe that effective listeners often use techniques that call attention to the act of communication itself. These may include anticipatory remarks ("This is what I want to talk about today"; "Tell me what you hope to get out of this conversation"), adaptive comments ("You seem uncertain about what I just said - can I help clarify?") and reflective statements ("Let's review the points you made earlier"; "I'd like to hear your perspective on how our conversation went.")

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About the Author

Colby Phillips' writing interests include culture and politics. Phillips received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Boston College.

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