Beyond Active Listening: Promoting Communication-Based and Relational Listening

Beyond Active Listening: Promoting Communication-Based and Relational Listening

David T. McMahan, Ph.D.

Executive Chair, Global Listening Centre
Professor of Communication at Missouri Western
State University. US

When accepting the honor of serving as Executive Chair of the Global Listening Centre, I noted the Centre’s dedication to transform lives through the impactful and healing power of listening. Initiatives promoting the importance of listening and supporting listening proficiencies – especially in pervasive non-listening environments – can lead to better understanding, deeper relational connections, increased critical awareness, greater well-being, and a much healthier world. Indeed, listening can be recognized as fundamental and indispensable.

Unlocking the full power of listening and all that can be achieved through its effective implementation, though, requires a comprehensive understanding of communication processes and recognition of the centrality of relationships. Doing so reinforces the need to go beyond superficial active listening and to engage in communication-based and relational listening.

In what follows, we will first examine communication as transactional and constitutive, a more complete and accurate view of communication than what might be typically recognized and understood by a casual observer. We will next examine the centrality of relationships in communication processes. We will then consider how active listening on its most basic and generally-enacted levels may not be sufficient and how the promotion of communication-based and relational listening can lead to more effective listening given the actual complex nature of communication.

Understanding Communication

A cursory glance at communication might lead one to believe that it merely involves the sending of messages. The act of communicating, then, would entail one person sending a message to another person. Whether or not the message is received is of little consequence. Simply, a message has been sent. As with the prospect of a falling tree making a noise with no one around, we can philosophically ponder whether communication actually occurs if a message is not received. However, doing so would have little value in advancing the study of either communication or listening.

A slightly deeper examination of communication reveals it to be more of an interaction through which messages are sent by one person and received by another person. The original recipient generally then becomes a sender of a subsequent message received by the original sender. This view of communication is a more accurate view of what takes place. However, this perspective positions communication as the mere exchange of messages, simply symbols being passed back and forth between people.

A more complete exploration of communication reveals its transactional and constitutive nature. Essentially, something happens beyond the mere exchange of messages, beyond symbols simply being passed back and forth between people. In fact, it is through communication that meanings are constructed. Yet, there is even more to communication than just the construction of meaning. It is through communication that fundamental components of our lives get created. It is through communication that relationships are created, where cultures are created, where identities are created, and where realities are created. These components are not only created through communication but also embedded within communication. Communication is where they exist, where they are maintained, where they are challenged, and where they are transformed. Our world is created and understood symbolically.

Viewing communication as simply sending or exchanging messages undermines recognition of its complexity and hinders understanding what is actually transpiring. Listening as if communication is simple rather than complex limits its effectiveness and limits what can be achieved through it.

Centrality of Relationships

A more complete understanding of communication also requires recognition of the centrality of relationships, a theme of my Communication in Everyday Life series of books written with Steve Duck (2021a, 2021b). Communication and relationships are inextricably woven together. It is through communication, as mentioned previously, that relationships are created, maintained, and transformed. Moreover, when we are communicating, we are also relating. A relationship is assumed each time that a person communicates, influencing what messages are communicated and how those messages are being communicated. Equally important and not to be overlooked, the assumed relationship is also influencing what messages are not communicated and how those messages are not being communicated.

When communicating, even when not specifically addressing a relationship, relational information is being conveyed and a relationship is being reinforced. Consider, for example, waiting in a line next to two people you do not know and listening to their conversation. You could likely determine with more than a fair degree of certainty whether they are romantic partners, family members, friends, strangers, acquaintances, enemies, coworkers, or if they share some other sort of relationship. You could determine this connection based on what they are saying, what they are not saying, and the methods, styles, and patterns of communication consistent with a particular type of relationship in a given culture.

Relationships not only influence what is being communicated but also influence the construction and assigning of meaning. Consider, another example of someone making a sarcastic comment to you. Your relationship with that person will guide how you assign meaning to that comment. If you understand that person to be a friend, you might determine or interpret the sarcastic comment to be uttered in jest and assign meaning accordingly. If you consider the person to be an enemy, you might determine the sarcastic comment to be uttered in malice and assign meaning as such.

Of course, types of relationships extend beyond the personal relationships employed in the previous examples. Social relationships experienced in the workplace, education, healthcare, commerce, community organizations, and other settings also have such an intwined connection and association with communication. Accordingly, it is within the context of all sorts of relationships where we learn cultural ways of communicating and the meaning systems inherent within and composing the cultural systems to which we belong. As with viewing communication as a simple act or interaction, overlooking the centrality of relationships in communication and in our lives as a whole will hinder listening effectiveness.

Communication-Based and Relational Listening

Such an understanding of communication and the centrality of relationships compels us to go beyond promoting active listening to promote/foster communication-based and relational listening. Too often, people attempting to listen actively, in spite of having the best of intentions, simply go through the motions without seeking deeper levels of understanding and without recognizing all that is taking place in the communication process. If communication simply entailed sending and receiving messages, active listening on its most basic levels would be sufficient. However, the transactional and constitutive nature of communication requires more. I am by no means maintaining that active listening is wrong. Rather, active listening as it seems to be understood and employed by the general public as represented through online guides, employee training manuals, and popular press literature is not enough to accomplish effective listening.

Engaging in communication-based listening means not simply going through the motions of active listening. It means fully recognizing, understanding, and addressing the complexity of communication and seeking deeper levels of understanding of messages and deeper understandings of the other person. In doing so, an individual may go beyond cursory or surface level meaning. In addition, an individual may recognize identity, culture, and reality construction taking place as the other person communicates, creating selves and influencing the messages. An individual may further understand the other person’s worldviews and perspectives are conveyed and displayed each time they communicate, both through the verbal symbols selected to construct a message and through the accompanying nonverbal behaviors used when conveying that message. While doing so, one may also acknowledge how their own identity and cultural perspectives are influencing their reception and understanding of messages and their subsequent responses.

As described in the Communication in Everyday Life series (Duck & McMahan, 2021a, 2021b), being a relational listener means going further still by recognizing, understanding, and addressing the centrality of relationships in communication processes and the interconnected nature of communication and relationships. Doing so acknowledges that relationships impact all messages and all messages impact relationships. It further enables the exploration of that mutual impact as part of the listening process. When engaging in relational listening, an individual must consider

  • (a)what meanings might be assigned to a message based on their understanding of the relationship,
  • (b) whether the message corresponds with their understanding of the relationship,
  • (c) what the message informs them about the other person’s understanding of the relationship, and (d) what impact the message has on the relationship overall.


A communication-based and relational approach to listening will provide a more complete and a more accurate determination of meanings and will provide a more significant understanding of the influences that messages have on all aspects of our lives. Such an approach necessarily takes us beyond an active approach to listening, which has led people to appreciate that listening is not a passive endeavor but has potentially led people to believe that simply going through those active motions is sufficient. Promoting communication-based and relational approaches to listening can better equip people to engage in effective listening and to fully realize its transformational power and potential.

References: Duck, S. W., & McMahan, D. T. (2021a). Communication in Everyday Life (Fourth edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Duck, S. W., & McMahan, D. T. (2021b). Communication in Everyday Life: The basic course edition with public speaking (Third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Leave a Reply