Preparing to Listen

Picture of an audience.As mentioned in Chapter 1, humans listen with a set of preconceptions or filters through which they interpret what they experience. For example, a fanatical devotee to the world of science fiction will likely process everything he or she hears through a science-fiction lens. Likewise, a political junkie will view various experiences through a politically charged viewpoint. To truly listen, people must be willing and able to set aside these preconceptions, at least initially, so that they can take in what they are experiencing nonjudgmentally. People can analyze the message through their personal frame of reference after they have received the entire message.

Listening requires people to clear their minds of distractions, both external and internal. Focusing on a message can prove challenging when a message competes with a loud air conditioner in the room, a train passing by outside, or noisy next-door neighbors, but it is necessary to decipher the message. Similarly, any internal interference, such as anxiety about a future exam, a job interview, or a fight with a loved one, must get set aside for the time being, or else such distractions will impede listening.

In addition to setting aside filters and distractions, listeners should remain aware of nonverbal signals that they send to the speaker.

Note to Self

While you might be tired or have a sore neck, and your hand and forearm offer you a handy kickstand to rest your head upon, remember how the speaker might view your resting pose: “I must be boring the audience!” Or, you might feel perfectly comfortable tying up your arms in a knot to keep them from dangling about, but to a nervous speaker, your pose may appear defensive. Lastly, if you are nervous about an upcoming interview or have an urgent appointment after the speech, and you keep glancing up at the clock, to the speaker it may appear as though you cannot wait for the speech to end.

Be aware of how posture, gestures, or facial expressions could possibly be interpreted by the speaker, and practice behavior that remains supportive and attentive.

Recognize that listening is an active process that requires energy. When people listen, their brains perform work and burn calories. The harder people listen and the more effort they expend, the more draining the process can become. This stands in stark contrast to binge-watching an interesting program, where the person acts more passively and simply absorbs the material without contemplation. Critical listening requires listeners to remain alert, undistracted, attentive, and focused. External or internal factors may challenge a person’s ability to pay attention, so try to stay aware of these tendencies and attempt to break these habits through self-awareness and empathy.


Watch Five Ways to Listen Better by author and orator Julian Treasure, who postulates that people have lost their ability to listen. In a world bombarded by sound and visual stimuli, a person’s ability to listen will continues to dwindle. Treasure suggests improving listening skills by sitting in silence for three minutes a day and removing all distractions. Try this exercise. It may prove challenging due to the addictive qualities of cellular phones and social media content. These few minutes of silence may help to, as Treasure calls it, “recalibrate” the listening process to help gain appreciation for the variety of sound that permeates the world.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book