Seeking a “Listening Method”: A Brief Overview of Interdisciplinary Approaches
Elizabeth S. Parks
Olivia E. Jones
In this article, we summarize and synthesize the approaches to a coined “listening method” that has been proposed by researchers across diverse disciplines (e.g., psychology, communication, sound studies, ethnography, etc.) to date. In an extensive scholarly literature search through multiple digital libraries and databases, only 13 references to a named listening method were found, beginning in 1936 and with a marked increase in references since 2016. This is not to suggest that listening has not always been a crucial component of many different research methods and methodological traditions, but rather that coining a listening method that gives primacy to the very act of listening has not been commonly adopted. In this piece, we work to remedy that by valuing listening as a method in and of itself and calling for greater attention to the ways that a listening method can enhance our global listening and future research.
The value of listening has long been underestimated as a research skill (Lacey et al., 2019). We believe this is an oversight, as listening is not only an affective intention, a communicative behavior, and a cognitive engagement, but also a way of understanding and knowing the world (Bodie et al., 2008; Parks, 2019). In a focused scholarly literature search by two of the authors independently of each other in 2020 and 2021, multiple online databases and library search engines (e.g., Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, and others) were used to find all scholarly work that used the phrase “listening method” as an approach to inquiry. Based on these searches, only 13 references to a named “listening method” (using that specific terminology) were identified. This is not to suggest that listening has not always been a crucial component of many different research methods and methodological traditions (Bennett et al., 2015), but rather that coining a listening method which gives primacy to the act of listening itself has not been commonly adopted.
In this article, we focus on the ways that a named “listening method” has been introduced historically and across academic disciplines that might adopt a research method as an approach to inquiry, such as psychology, communications, sound studies, and ethnography. We briefly describe several listening method approaches that have emerged since the first mention in 1936 and conclude with a call for the active pursuit, development, and incorporation of a listening method for research. Although this is a brief review rather than an in-depth study, we hope this call leads to greater promotion of listening globally and might serve as a guide for future research.
The first reference to a named listening method appears to have been made by Richard Cabot and Russell L. Dicks in 1936, which Dicks describes most clearly in a 1950 article titled “Creative Listening as a Method in Marital Counseling” published in Marriage and Family Living. In this work, Dicks describes an attitude and approach to counseling that foregrounds the relationship and rapport between counselor and patient, particularly the degree of confidence, interest, affection, emotional support, and friendliness which develops between them (Dicks, 1950, p. 92). Dicks argues there are four parts to the “creative listening method.” First, directive listening is denoted by asking questions – the type of question and how it is asked. Second, supportive listening is denoted by the display of interest, calmness, optimism, or similar emotions which show that required needs can be met with verbal or nonverbal communication. Third, interpretation is denoted by explanation, or how the counselor may explain a situation to a counselee, without giving unsolicited advice. Fourth, reassurance is denoted by positive communication where the counselor reminds the counselee they matter. Cabot and Dicks were very much frontrunners in this process, as the next listening method was not introduced until almost 50 years later.
Much later, Haydee Faimberg published a listening method called “listening to listening” in 1981. The outflow of this work was published in 2019 in “Basic theoretical assumptions underpinning Faimberg’s method: ‘Listening to listening’” in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. This method is grounded in the “recognition of otherness” and relies on recognizing this difference through an experimentally developed criteria in which listening happens through “a position of not knowing,” as well as one that is actively engaged (Faimberg, 2019, p. 449). One of the primary goals associated with this listening method is to co-create language so that conversations discussing difference can take place. According to Faimberg, listening relies on theory, and evolving theories rely on listening.
In 2015, Carol Gilligan published “The Listening Guide Method of Psychological Inquiry” in Qualitative Psychology, outlining a listening method and summarizing some literature used in the 30 preceding years. According to Gilligan, “The word ‘method’ means way… [it] thus provides a way of exploring the interplay of inner and outer worlds” (Gilligan, 2015, p. 69). The Listening Guide grew out of a reading narratives guide created by Lyn Mikel Brown in 1980, which defined three stages informing the question the researcher is asking: first, attention to the “psychological features of a space” (p. 71) where researchers may see themselves in relation to the data; second, listening for the first-person “I” of others in discourse; and third, attention to contrapuntal voices, silences, and nuances in the discourse (p. 72). This listening method encourages researchers to listen for plot, self, relationships, and finally for wider social structures. Integrated into her care ethics work, Gilligan defines a good method as one which provides a guide of getting where one needs to go, while doing so ethically – a challenge every researcher encounters.
In 1996, reference to a listening method appears in the work of Charlene Callahan and Catherine S. Elliot: “Listening: A Narrative Approach to Everyday Understandings and Behavior” in the Journal of Economic Psychology. Concerned with the ways that people understand the origins, contents, processes, and outcomes of everyday events, Callahan and Elliot work with interdisciplinary fields of behavioral and experimental economics and social psychology to explore how people come to make decisions and attributions, thus enacting certain behaviors (Callahan & Elliot, 1996). They suggest that researchers turn to listening as an objective method to create a new methodological approach tied to the metaphor of listening. This listening can include attending to candid stories, narratives, or accounts. Although using the term listening method, they also propose what often happens is a “narrative method,” as researchers often do not listen to their subjects, but rather interrupt and assume they know what subjects meant to say. Ultimately, they argue listening can become an objective research method which should be considered fluid. In this listening method, researchers first listen by giving subjects the space to provide their own contexts, and then by reading them carefully.
The 2000s brought with it two additional calls for a listening method. Murray Hofmeyr published a two-page article in The Journal of Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa in 2006. This article frames the need to work in “togetherness” to meet today’s problems, including environmental ones (Hofmeyr, 2006). Another listening method, introduced by Alun Charles Jones and John R. Cutliffe in a 2009 publication of the Journal of Nursing Management, grounds a listening approach to inquiry work in health care. They argue the relationship between nurse and patient is a critical component of holistic health care, yet communication is often overlooked as an area of training and improvement. They introduced “therapeutic listening” as a listening method and assert a focus on improved communication and bettering understanding of personal concerns can be achieved through the listener identifying verbal and nonverbal aspect of communication (Jones & Cutliffe, 2009, p. 353). The act of listening comes in six forms: compassionate, comfort, opinion agreement, advice-giving, information-sharing, and consultation. Furthermore, listening is active in that a listener must suspend external and internal stimuli and be put into a mindful place to be able to think about possibilities; they must be self-regulating, emotionally attuned, and resilient in ambiguous and uncomfortable situations.
In 2016, Irina G. Kondrateva, Minnisa S. Safina, and Agzam A. Valeey published “Listening as a Method of Learning a Foreign Language at the Non-Language Faculty of the University” in the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education. In this article, the authors focus on language learning in Russia, specifically on how listening is critical for language proficiency so that language users can hear and understand speech. They argue that by applying a listening method in this manner, the need to consider the following listening features becomes apparent. First, direct oral communication is realized. Second, listening comprehension is vital, listening is a reactive speech activity, and listening improves recognition of linguistic resources and summarizes heard information and reasoning (Kondrateva et al., 2016, p. 1050). A listening method for language learners consists of correctly selecting a text’s content, structure, and function, clarity of speech, the ability to develop comprehension, use for practicing pronunciation, use for developing memory skills, and use for practicing linguistic closure so thoughts can be generatively predicted and finished. This article sketched a method of listening as an approach to encourage second-language acquisition skills through listening rather than through a specific research approach.
In 2017, Jack Jamieson and Jeffrey Boase published “Listening to Social Rhythms” in The SAGE Handbook of Social Media Research Methods. Exploring new techniques for analyzing trends and interactional patterns, Jamieson and Boase utilized data sonification—converting data into sound—to examine asynchronous social media communication. The authors argue adopting a listening method allows for better understanding of how social patterns unfold over time. Data sonification, they argue, “is particularly well-suited to exploring temporal patterns within timestamped log data because sound itself is inherently temporal and the human auditory system has excellent temporal resolution” (Jamieson & Boase, 2016, p. 405). They posit time-based cues such as time of day or the speed at which people respond to one another can offer insight into the intimacy of their relationship. By sonifying social media data, the authors demonstrate how researchers might tune in to the rhythms and tempos of social life.
In 2018, two articles related to a listening method were published. First, Anna Barney and Salomé Voeglin published “Collaboration and Consensus in Listening” in the Leanoardo Music Journal. In this work, they consider how consensus and collaboration might be an integral part in “the development of a shared listening methodology” (Barney & Voegelin, 2018, p. 82) based on a United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project called “Listening Across Disciplines.” They consider how listening can be a respected methodology for research across academic disciplines and offer a methodological construction within the article itself of dialogic engagement between two authors, therefore enacting a type of listening approach to their writing even while discussing possibilities and challenges for a shared listening method as a research aim. Second, Cate Thrill published “Listening with Recognition for Social Justice” in the edited volume Ethical Responsiveness and the Politics of Difference. Thrill argues social justice listening is composed primarily of openness, recognition, and continuation. In her analysis of existing policy and media texts, she applies a social justice-oriented listening as methodology which recognizes how the voices of people whose ability to participate is challenged because they communicate in nonstandard ways (Barney & Voegelin, 2018, p. 64).
Three articles proposing a listening method were published in 2019 grounded in the fields of geography and sound studies. First, Charishma Ratnam published “Listening to difficult stories: Listening as a research methodology” in Emotion, Space and Society. Based on interviewing processes in Sri Lanka and working within the field of geography, Ratnam conceptualizes a listening method that can be used as a lens during emotionally laden interviews which focuses on the non-verbal cues, the feeling of one’s body, the body’s places of enquiry, and embodied atmospheres so researchers may better listen to respective field settings (Ratnam, 2019, p. 19). Through this, a “rubric of listening” (p. 21) is created which first considers the listening process through the mode of communication, followed by the participants’ narratives and how emotions and settings change that listening, and finally the responses of the researcher and the impact the participants’ stories had on them. A second proposed listening method was introduced by Nina Williams in her work “Listening” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. In this article, she considers the importance of remaining subjective given audio disrupts the “centrality of the visual image within the discipline” (Williams, 2019, p. 647), therefore provoking sensory habits. She argues there is usefulness in prioritizing listening as exposure to sound rather than the meanings achieved through subsequent interpretation, picking up on Jean-Luc Nancy’s “straining toward” as listening that is not passive and can transcend semantic constructions. Furthermore, listening itself might be less about meaning-making and more about “immersion in a sonic environment” (p. 648). Williams argues that using a listening method in fieldwork allows researchers to engender new ways of relating to post-humanist methodologies. Finally, Jordan Lacey, Sarah Pink Lawrence Harvey, and Stephan Moore published “Noise transformation: A critical listening-based methodology for the design of motorway soundscapes” in the Qualitative Research Journal drawing on previous research approaches to better study and understand urban soundscapes through a “critical listening” interdisciplinary methodology. They argue that the listening-based researcher emphasizes “deep, critical, and universal listening” (Lacey et al., 2019, p. 50) and differentiate between hearing and listening by indicating the first happens involuntarily; the latter is a more active change to one’s perceptional awareness based on Pauline Oliveros’ “Deep Listening” approach to everything possible in every possible way. Thus, Lacey et al. argue there are two components of a listening method: critical listening, which is analytical, and the expression of spatial and temporal form, which is the emotion fueling the creative process and the act of becoming.
How might researchers further promote and engage a listening method so we may better understand the world in which we live? A consideration of the history outlined here might offer initial clues. Although the first “listening method” was coined in 1936, little attention has been given to a listening method until the much more recent past. More specifically, interest and reference to a named listening method has experienced a marked increase since 2016. This is reflected by the historical trend of seven different articles calling for and/or applying a listening method to research from 2016 to date as compared to just six articles in all the years prior. Early research-driven disciplines such as counseling and health care traditions, and more recently sound studies, geography, music, and education, have considered and proposed listening methods yet these scholars seem to have had little interaction with each other. Indeed, throughout this history we find that these innovative proposals of distinct listening methods remained largely siloed within their own disciplinary homes. This is evidenced by a comparison of the sources grounding each work and the fact that none of the articles overtly referenced the work of any of the others. This pervasive lack of intertextuality demonstrates no obvious line of influence among these listening scholars.
In sum, listening methods are not listening to each other. This is an unfortunate reality as this brief literature review shows how the listening methods that have been proposed might generatively build knowledge in a great diversity of fields. We hope that this brief survey of the ways that listening methods have been introduced in research to date, as well as a highlighting of the work of innovative scholars in a number of diverse fields of study, will help bring greater attention to the value of a listening method and encourage interdisciplinary dialogue and understanding that can ultimately lead us to be better global listeners and better listening researchers.
Barney, A., & Voegelin, S. (2018). Collaboration and Consensus in Listening. Leonardo Music Journal, 28, 82–87.
Bennett, K., Cochrane, A., Mohan, G., & Neal, S. (2015). Listening. Emotion, Space and Society, 17, 7–14.
Bodie, G., Worthington, D., Imhof, M., & Cooper, L. (2008). What would a unified field of listening look like? A proposal linking past perspectives and future endeavors. The International Journal of Listening, 23, 103–122.
Callahan, C., & Elliot, C. S. (1996). Listening: A narrative approach to everyday understandings and behavior. Journal of Economic Psychology, 17(1), 79–114.
Dicks, R. L. (1950). Creative Listening as a Method in Marital Counseling. Marriage and Family Living, 12(3), 91–94.
Faimberg, H. (2019). Basic Theoretical Assumptions Underpinning Faimberg’s Method: “Listening to Listening.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 100(3), 447–462.
Gilligan, C. (2015). The Listening Guide Method of Psychological Inquiry. Qualitative Psychology, 2(1), 69–77.
Hofmeyr, M. (2006). On this Continent One is Well Advised to Practice the Methodology of Listening. The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, 2(2), 507–508.
Jamieson, J., & Boase, J. (2016). Listening to social rhythms: Exploring logged international data through sonification. In L. Sloan & A. Quan-Haase (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Social Media Research Methods (pp. 405–420). SAGE Publications Ltd.
Jones, A. C., & Cutliffe, J. R. (2009). Listening as a Method of Addressing Psychological Distress. Journal of Nursing Management, 17, 352–358.
Kondrateva, I. G., Safina, M. S., & Valeev, A. A. (1049). Listening as a Method of Learning a Foreign Language at the Non-language Faculty of the University. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 11(6), 2016.
Lacey, J., Pink, S., Harvey, L., & Moore, S. (2019). Noise transformation: A critical listening-based methodology for the design of motorway soundscapes. Qualitative Research Journal, 19(1), 49–64.
Parks, E.S. (2019). The ethics of listening: Creating space for sustainable dialogue. Lexington Books.
Ratnam, C. (2019). Listening to Difficult Stories: Listening as a Research Methodology. Emotion, Space and Society, 31, 18–25.
Williams, N. (2019). Listening. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 44(4), 647–649.