Reflecting on Listening, Interviews with Global Listeners

Responses from Steven A. Beebe, Ph.D.
Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Texas State University
Interviewer Prof. Michael Purdy, Past Vice Chair & Member Global Listening Centre.

1. What is the role of listening in your work and your life-long study of communication?

Listening is central to my work as both an educator and academic leader. During my 45-year academic career in higher education, listening was the quintessential skill in connecting to both students and colleagues.

Listening is essential when connecting to students: Central to any model of education is the ability to respond and adapt to learners. Although student responses on examinations and course assignments provide feedback about how well students have mastered the material, listening is vital to help develop lessons that ensure students will learn. Listening to students is essential when crafting tailor-made instruction that meets student’s specific needs. Listening includes more than responding to words. Listening involves observing and responding to student’s nonverbal messages. A quizzical look which suggests the material is challenging or a smile that indicates the material is mastered are vital cues that help effective teaching and learning happen.

Listening is essential when leading and responding to colleagues: I spent 80% of my academic life as an administrator or academic leader, including serving as associate chair, chair, associate dean and president of the National Communication Association. In each of these leadership roles listening to others was vital when considering the needs of others. An administrator is one who seeks to assist others do their job. An administrator is a servant. Without listening it would be impossible to respond to the needs of those whom one serves.

2. How do you see listening role in elementary education? If the role would change in high school or higher education, how would it change?

Listening skill is vital not only in higher education but at all levels of instruction, especially among younger children. Although rarely taught as a separate subject in elementary or secondary schools, listening is vital to student success—both as learners as well as learning how to be good citizens. Listen is often taught indirectly through modeling and informal study. But good listeners are essential at every grade level.

There is evidence that younger children are especially attentive when listening. Although younger children may have a shorter attention span, when they listen, they listen. I remember reading stories to my sons when they were young. I would only have to read the story once and they would remember it. There were some evenings when I was tired and I would try to skip a page or two; but they would not let me! They knew the story only after hearing it once. Younger children are attentive. As we get older we learn how to fake attention and our mind wanders. Although we have the potential for greater listening as we mature, we often don’t use all of our “listening muscles.” Younger children as well as older children would benefit from solid, research-based listening training.

I often present listening seminars to adults. One of my most popular seminars is called “A Leader’s Skill in Listening.” It focuses on the listening skills that adults need to master. Yet many of the same skills can be learned at a younger age. Often, the same skills I teach to executives and older students are those that can be learned and mastered by younger children. I teach a three step method using a very simple framework: Stop, look and listen. The “stop step” is about being mindful, aware, and consciously competent of one’s ability to listen and focus. To “stop” is to calm the mental chatter and focus on the message of others. The “look step” is about being sensitive to nonverbal messages. To “look” is to listening between the lines for the meta-message, the unspoken message. Emotions and attitudes are typically communicated nonverbally. The final step, “listen” is to focus on the details coupled with the big ideas presented, whether it is interpersonal listening or public listening. Of course, these skills involve a host of related skills and competencies. It is not quite as simple as it may seem. Although these skills may seem like common sense, they are not common practice. My job as a listening educator is to teach listening skills so that they become common practice.

3. How do you find listening relevant in everyday life?

Just as communication has task and relational elements, listening fulfills both task/instrumental functions as well as relational functions in everyday life.  Tasks simply would not be achieved unless the message was understood.  Whether a message is mediated via radio, podcasts, television, or other video sources, the ability to listen is how we process and hopefully comprehend.

Here’s the way I described the importance of listening in my co-authored book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime8th edition(Boston: Pearson, in press): Research has found that being a good listener was the most important skill to have when working with others in groups an teams.[1]Research has also found that workers who perceived their supervisors as better listeners reported being happier, and more satisfied on the job, and more satisfied with their work-life balance.[2]In addition, one of the hallmarks of an effective leader is being a good listener.[3]Research has also found that organizations that “listen and respond” to those who contact them via social media are perceived more favorably.[4]

4. You write about rhetoric and public communication; how does your thought relate to the public sphere?

Listening is equally vital in public communication contexts. A public speaker needs to first listen to his or her audience to assess the needs, interests, values and objectives of the listeners. Here’s another except from my book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime:

Without effective listening skills, you’ll likely miss some messages in public speaking situations. Listening skills are especially important when you need to understand and retain spoken information.[5] There is evidence, for example, that listening skills correlate with academic ability. One study found that almost half of college students who had low scores on a listening test were on academic probation at the end of their first year in college. In comparison, just over 4 percent of the students who had high scores on the same listening test were on academic probation.[6] Improving your listening skills can improve your grade-point average.[7]

Listening is not just for audience members; it is also important for speakers. Good speakers are audience-centered. They consider the needs of their listeners first. They understand what will hold listeners’ attention. Many effective speakers acquire this knowledge by listening to audience members one on one before a talk or lecture. Effective speakers also listen to the feedback from their audiences and use that feedback to adjust their speeches while giving them.[8]

5. If you could relate these thoughts about listening onto the global stage what would you suggest as a path leading to listening on that scale?

Listening is especially important as one interacts with someone who is not from the same cultural background. In fact, the more different one is from someone, whether there are differences of age, culture, gender, gender identify, gender orientation or any other difference, the more important it is to listen to others. Listening is important, especially when there are differences, to not only understand others but to also be open to change. A good listener seeks not only to understand the message of others but to also be sensitive to opportunities to grow and change and adapt to the messages of others. The greater the difference between people the more important it is that listeners be willing to change and not merely understand a message. On the global stage listening is a fundamental requirement for effective communication. To be a compassionate, empathic listener is an essential element of listening to others who have different cultural, gender, or a host of other different perspectives.

6. How can we think about Global Listening as defined by the GLC as leading to global peace? 

One of the reasons the Global Listening Centre is important because peace is simply not possible without listening. Listening is a pancultural competency. During all span of human civilizations, peace is only possible when individuals and leaders understand others. Peace and listening go hand in hand.  In managing any conflict I identify four sets of interrelated skills.  To manage conflict a person should: (1) manage emotions, (2) manage communication, (3) manage goals, and (4) manage the problem.  To transform a conflict into a problem to be solved rather than a fight to win, listening is essential.  First, when managing emotions we should listen both to ourselves and others when seeking to calm our own spirit and manage furtive emotions. Second, listening is essential when managing communication.  In fact, it is impossible to manage communication and achieve understanding without listening.  The third set of skills, goal setting, occurs when we can listen to the goals of another and see where the do and don’t overlap with our own goals.  And finally problem solving, the fourth set of competencies, occurs only when a person listens well to others.  Global peace is possible only when leaders use listening skills to manage differences and achieve peace.

7. Any other thoughts about global listening, or listening in general, you want to share?

Humans spend more time listening than any other communication task. So where humans spend the majority of their time should also be a prime emphasis for research, study and application. The GLC does outstanding work in making listening a central concept that enhancing listening.

Here are additional excerpts from my book Communication: Principles for a Lifetime:

Your skill as a listener has important implications for the relationships you establish with others.[9] In interpersonal communication situations, the essence of being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. Listening to others is a way to express your interest in, compassion for, and even your love for another.[10]One research team found that incidents of interpersonal transcendence in which a person felt a “total immersion in an interaction, a deep sense of understanding, feelings of mutuality, new insight and playfulness” occurred when they felt someone had truly listened to them.[11]Listening also influences how others respond to us; when people are in the presence of someone whom they perceive to be a good listener, they are likely to respond with greater empathy and interest.[12] A key difference between couples who remain married and those who divorce is the ability to listen to each other.[13] Partners in marriages that endure report that being a good listener is key to a satisfying marital relationship. Even with the prevalence of social media, we still expect our friends to “listen” to us whether we post or tweet.[14]

8. What would you write about listening during a crisis?

A crisis simply means the outcome of the communication task is urgent and time sensitive. A crisis needs attention now. The listening process during a crisis is similar to listening during conflict. The first task is to calmly and rationally set the stage for understanding. Listening is a required skill for addressing any urgent issue. Crisis communication is best when it is approached as a rational and logical problem to be solved. But without managing emotions and managing one’s own spirit, listening is less likely to occur and the crisis or emergency will continue. Leaders who listen during a crisis flourish. Leaders who listen inspire confidence. Leaders to focus on their own needs rather than the needs of others are less effective. A poor leader makes the crisis about himself or herself or blames others. A poor leader first tries to fix the blame rather than fixing the problem. A good leader during a crisis seeks to inspire confidence and offers realistic encouragement based on facts and science.

9. What would you want other people to write about you and how you listen during a crisis?

I would hope that during a crisis I use listening skills to accomplish several objectives.  I would want to first listen to determine if there actually was a time-sensitive, urgent issue that needs to be addressed.  It is through listening that one accomplishes what I call “problem triage.”  Listening makes it possible to perform triage, just as in a medical emergency, to assess where should one’s attention be focused and what can be managed later.   Problems will always exist.  I define a problem as something you want more of or something you want less of.  A crisis means that the problem is time sensitive and urgent.  The problem needs to be managed quickly and efficiently.  Being a good listener and assessing the situation is a prerequisite to managing any crisis.

10. What is your listening legacy or what do you want it to be? If you have not achieved your listening legacy, how will you achieve it?

I have been interested in listening skills and teaching listening skills during my entire 45 year career in higher education. I remember playing the now classic recording of a speech by listening pioneer Dr. Ralph Nichols about listening skills in classes that I taught 45 years ago. I used to have a reel-to-reel tape of that lecture that I almost wore out. Then I had a cassette recording I would play. I had the privilege to interview Dr. Nichols before he passed away. I am pleased to say he was an excellent listener. I would like to be remembered as someone, like Dr. Nichols, who listened before responding. Who was skilled in communication triage—who used listening skills to assess a communication issue. Now rather than playing Dr. Nichols’ tape, I hope I can share new insights about listening research. We have learned much in the past 50 years since Dr. Nichols conducted his pioneering research. I hope that I am well-versed on the latest listening research and research-based skills so that I can help my students be better listeners.

To me, the most important part of an obituary is not the awards won or accolades received from one’s professional career. What is important is the legacy we leave for those who knew us best, our family. I have been married more than 45 years and have two wonderful sons and they are both married and I have one granddaughter. I would like them to remember me as one who took the time to listen to them. It is important to spend time with others. But if that time was spent being message-centered or receiver-centered then communication is less effective. Communication that is audience-centered, listener-centered is the best kind of communication. The primary means of being audience- or listener-centered is listening. I would like to be remembered as someone who took time to focus on the needs of others. I would like to be remembered with these five words: He was a good listener.

[1] K. W. Hawkins and B. P. Fullion, “Perceived Communication Skill Needs for Work Groups,” Communication Research Reports 16 (1999): 167–174.

[2] K. Kristensson, I. J. Jonsdottir and S. K. Snorrason, “Employees’ Perceptions of Supervisors’ Listening Skills and Their Work-Related Quality of Life,” Communication Reports 32 (2019): 137-147.

[3]T. Brown, M. Yu and J. Etherington, “Are Listening and Interpersonal Communication Skills Predictive of Professionalism in Undergraduate Occupational Therapy Students?” Health Professions Education 30(2020): 1-14; J. Brownell, “Perceptions of Effective Listeners: A Management Study,” Journal of Business Communication (Fall 1990): 401–415; D. A. Romig, Side by Side Leadership (Austin, TX: Bard, 2001).

[4] S. K. Maben and C. C. Gearhart, “Organizational Social Media Accounts: Moving Toward Listening Competency,” International Journal of Listening 32 (2019): 101-114

[5] K. R. Meyer and S. K. Hunt, “The Lost Art of Lecturing: Cultivating Student Listening and Notetaking,” Communication Education  66 (2017): 239-241.

[6] R. Bommelje, J. M. Houston, and R. Smither, “Personality Characteristics of Effective Listeners: A Five Factor Perspective,” International Journal of Listening 17 (2003): 32–46.

[7] M. S. Conaway, “Listening: Learning Tool and Retention Agent,” in Improving Reading and Study Skills, edited by A. S. Algier and K. W. Algier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996): 51–63.

[8] For a review of how listening is discussed in public speaking textbooks, see W. C. Adams and E. S. Cox, “The Teaching of Listening as an Integral Part of an Oral Activity: An Examination of Public-Speaking Texts,” International Journal of Listening 24.2 (2010): 89–105.

[9]J. Hackenbracht and K. Gasper, “I’m All Ears: The Need to Belong Motivates Listening to Emotional Disclosure,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013): 915–921; G. S. Bodie, C. C. Gearhart, J. P. Denham, and A. J. Vickery, “The Temporal Stability and Situational Contingency of Active-Empathic Listening,” Western Journal of Communication 77.2 (2013): 113–138.

[10]For a provocative discussion of the role of empathy and compassion in our interactions with others, see P. Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: ECCO/HarperCollins, 2016).

[11] K. L. Geiman and J. O. Greene, “Listening and Experiences of Interpersonal Transendence,” Communication Studies 70 (2019): 114.

[12]C. Jacobs and D. Coghlan, “Sound of Silence: On Listening in Organizational Learning,” Human Relations 58.1 (2005):115–138.

[13]P. Skaldeman, “Converging or Diverging Views of Self and Other: Judgment of Relationship Quality in Married and Divorced Couples,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 44 (2006): 145–160.

[14]K. Wright, “Similarity, Network Conver-gence, and Availability of Emotional Support as Predictors of Strong-Tie/Weak-Tie Support Network Preference on Facebook,” Southern Communication Journal 77, no. 5 (2012): 389–402; M. Scott and S. Sale, “Consumers Use Smartphones for 195 Minutes Per Day, But Spend Only 25% of that Time on Communications,” Analysys Mason (May 2014), www .analysysmason.com/About-Us/News/Insight/ consumers-smartphone-usag

Our Executive Editor, Dr Rebecca Babcock, interviewed Dr Jefferson Senese, President, St Leo University, one of the top universities in Central Florida.

1. What type of leader do you believe yourself to be and how does that leadership style effect your listening?

 I believe I am more in the listening leader quadrant than the others.  While I often bring ideas and ask for results as in the Driver quadrant, I listen to others, gather data and rely upon our team to help make decisions or empower them to make decisions.

Figure 1.  Leadership Archetypes by Shane Safir

2. Give me an example of your leadership style affecting your listening. Do you feel your listening was positively or negatively affected? Why or why not?

So for example, when I was appointed president, I asked the senior leadership team whether we should consider revising our value statements to move from 6 core values to 3 or 4 to better focus our efforts and context.  The team respectfully discussed this and then they suggested we survey the community.

In the end we found out that the values, while numerous, are clearly where the university community at large thinks we need to be.  So I moved on to other matters given that that is the sentiment of the community.

3. Listening is a very complex process. What aspects do you consider when you listen?
For instance environment, non-verbal, relationship, physiological, psychological, age, race, ethnicity, power, experiences, gender, etc.

Most of these and clearly, I believe listening is contextual.  In some contexts, I am expected to speak and not listen. In those contexts, I try to ask questions, refer to the work of others and recognize others. Watching nonverbal communication is very important and given the university has faculty and staff that are of a range of ages and experiences, it is important to think through communications and how we ask them to listen and how we listen to ourselves.

4. Do you engage in active listening? If so, how do you define active listening and what does it entail?

I certainly try to actively listen. I do this through repeating what I understand what people say. I ask if I understand correctly what their point is. I also give credit where credit is due and try to focus on others’ ideas.  I tend not to speak from behind a podium in public events which I am told suggests that when I ask questions, I am open to hearing.

5. Give me an example of when you listened actively and how you deconstructed a surface narrative.

For example, just this morning I was having coffee with a faculty member who suggested a colleague was interested in helping the university accomplish something. I sat with him for 20 minutes asking what that meant, how I should approach his colleague and the context of the situation.  I took the time, which I did not have, to sit and listen and not just talk at this faculty member.

6. What issues or problems could be solved if people were better listeners?

I believe people would indeed be happier if they listened to each other more! I believe part of the real problem in the world today is that everyone seems to be expressing themselves of social media with too little listening to the facts or thinking about listening to others.  Much of social media is hurtful and not good communications.  Too many in the social media crowd jumps to conclusions and does not listen enough.

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