Impact of Technology on Listening

Impact of Technology on Listening

Leslie Ramos Salazar, Ph.D. 
Director (Academia), Global Listening Centre.
Associate and Abdullat Professor of Business Com-munication and Decision Management at
West Texas A&M University, Canyon, Texas, USA.

  • The COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic impacted how we communicate with others, and as a result how we listen to one another. Face-to-face communication is often avoided, especially amongst the unvaccinated or those who are at a high-risk of severe illness. Wearing face coverings to protect ourselves against the spread of COVID-19 has affected our ability to read each other’s facial expressions, and the ability to listen clearly to one another. Not being able to embrace one another due to social distancing has also reduced our ability to express care and affection. 
  • Many people work and attend school remotely, which has also affected our ability to listen to one another. Although there are advantages in the use of videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc., these technologies have also become a barrier in communicating and listening genuinely to each other. 
  • In various professional and educational contexts, meeting via videoconferencing technologies can create unnecessary external noise such as technological glitches and errors, Wi-Fi disruptions, and family and/or pet disruptions in the background. Although webcams provide richer nonverbal information in comparison to chat or microphones, workers and students often prefer to avoid using them at all for a variety of reasons, including the protection of their privacy. 
  • Active Empathic Listening during the COVID-19 Pandemic 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a financial, emotional, and social toll on our global community including our work and school systems. The social distancing restrictions and the reliance on computer-mediated communication technologies have resulted in alienated communities and individuals. In many ways, we have become self-centered when communicating with others, making it all about us and our happenings. We fail to truly listen to another’s innermost needs. Yet, in this time of suffering, we need empathy. Active empathic listening is a powerful 
  • technique that can re-establish our human contact and our desire to communicate with one another as “real” people, whether in person or in mediated settings. Active empathic listening strengthens bonds between people because it uses empathy, or putting one’s self in another’s shoes ¹. 
  • Who needs active empathic listening during the COVID-19 pandemic? Examine each conversation that you have on a daily basis with caution. Is the person in distress, or experiencing suffering due to the loss of a family member, the loss of a job, or the loss of a relationship such as a divorce? Is the person ill, or experiencing a problem? 
  • Even if people are reticent to share their concerns, you can identify others’ distress by focusing on their nonverbal communication. For instance, pay attention to the tone in the voice and their verbal hesitations, their eye and facial expressions, and body movements. Use each conversation as an opportunity to practice active empathic listening to genuinely support others and to nurture quality relationships. 
  • What is Active Empathic Learning? 
  • Engaging in active empathic listening requires three stages. 
  1. Sensing occurs when engaging and attending to another in a conversation². One may use active listening skills by focusing on the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal communicative information. 
  2. Processing is making sense of the content in the conversation and being able to remember the information². Doing so enables us to recreate a narrative of the conversation in our own minds. 
  3. Responding focuses on using verbal and nonverbal communication to provide feedback using backchanneling cues². This can involve asking questions to clarify information to ensure that the information is clearly understood. 
  • Poor listening occurs when one or more of the stages of active empathic listening are not fulfilled in the interaction. For instance, a person might be skilled at processing the information; however, without responding, it would be difficult to know if active empathic listening truly occurred. 
  • Another person might be skilled at sensing, but if they are not able to process the information effectively, 
  • they might forget what was said. Also, if a person cannot process information due to an external reason such as multitasking, or not attending actively to the speaker, this will interfere in the listening process. Internal reasons such as having a disability such as not being able to hear, see, or touch, can also interfere with the listening process. 
  • Active Empathetic Listening: Is it Possible Online? 
  • With the challenges presented by technology, how can we become better active empathetic listeners? First, when interacting, regardless of medium, practice re-spect, especially if someone is speaking. Respect can be displayed by simply treating the person as a unique in-dividual with a distinct background, experiences, feel-ings, and thoughts. In an interaction, respect can be manifested when a person’s worth is maintained, regardless of the content of the conversation. 
  • Second, practicing genuineness in the conversation can help reduce “fake” communication. When interacting, one might be tempted to be phony or not being one’s true self to maintain one’s professional identity, but this can interfere with the listening process. To maintain genuineness, one needs to match one’s listening behaviors with another’s feelings. 
  • Third, build rapport and establish trust. Avoid deceptive communication or telling lies, this will only establish distrust. One can build rapport by finding things in common with the other person and engaging in self-disclosure by sharing personal stories. Trust can be established by being reliable and trustworthy, for instance, if you indicate that you will complete a report at work by a deadline, you will need to do this to establish trust. 
  • Fourth, when listening, practice immediacy. For instance, in a face-to-face context, one can use gestures, head nods, and eye communication to demonstrate caring or concern, even with a face covering. In a mediated context, one can use a webcam to show caring facial expressions and use a tone of voice that is nurturing. 
  • Practicing active empathic listening in mediated contexts will depend on applying the three stages. In a mediated conversation via videoconferencing technology, one needs to practice sensing by paying attention to the speaker. What communicative 
  • information do you have access to? If the person is using chat, you can only pay attention to the language and words of the speaker. If the person is using a microphone, you can attend to the person’s vocal cues. However, with a webcam, you can attend to both verbal and nonverbal cues. To practice pro-cessing, one needs to make sense of the content in the conversation. 
  • In mediated settings, one can take note on what the speaker is saying and what they may be feeling irrespective of the technology being used. To ensure effective listening, one needs to practice responding in these mediated settings by using backchanneling cues and feedback, whether by microphone or webcam. Because misunderstandings are more likely to occur in mediated settings, it is important to ask questions such as, “can you repeat that.?,” “to clarify, you meant…,” “if I’m understanding correctly, you are experiencing…,” “how did that make you feel?,” and so forth. One can also paraphrase what the speaker is saying to ensure that one is interpreting the content effectively. 
  • In sum, the COVID-19 pandemic has remarkably influenced how we communicate with one another. It’s important to take active empathic listening seriously to maintain quality relationships. Providing active empathic listening is a service to humanity, which can help us understand each other’s sufferings and problems, and it can help us to heal our global community. All it takes, is treating each conversation, whether in person or in a mediated context, as an opportunity to practice our effective listening skills.


Drollinger, T., Comer, L. B., & Warrington, P. T. (2006). Develop-ment and validation of the active empathic listening scale. Psy-chology & Marketing, 23, 161-180. 

Bodie, G. D., Worthington, D., Imhof, M., & Cooper, L. O. (2008). What would a unified field of listening look like? A proposal link-ing past perspectives and future endeavors. IJL, 22, 103-122.

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