Using the “P-A-C-T”: How Understanding the Preferred Listening Styles of Others Can Enhance Communication During the Global Pandemic
Our interpersonal exchanges with others, even in the best of times, are typically dynamic and unpredictable. Regardless of whether it’s a professional, personal, or impersonal relationship, discerning how to accurately interpret meaning is sometimes a challenge. Perhaps you may have a conflict with a colleague who has ridiculed a family photo on your desk, which happened to someone I know. In your family, you may struggle with how to communicate an unexpected illness to another family member. Even during every day encounters such as in the grocery store, you may find it stress-inducing to tell a store manager about the way you were treated by an employee. In each of these challenging communication situations, for communication to be successful, meaning requires the co-creation of meaning with the other person.
Creating accurate meaning is central to the communication process, as well as a key objective when listening to others. Many people already know it, but listening attentively and responding appropriately are hallmarks of skilled interpersonal communication. Listening is a cooperative connection with another person, demonstrating that a receiver is equally responsible for creating meaning in a conversation. Ultimately, listening is an essential dialogic imperative; without quality listening, our interpersonal communication suffers. While most people may think they are good listeners, the reality is that most people can take steps to enhance their listening skill. Various circumstances and events—regardless of relationship type—influence the listening process.
The Pandemic and Listening
In every culture and country, there is perhaps no other state of affairs that affects our ability to listen effectively than the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). The World Health Organization reports that every country in the world has evidenced cases of COVID-19, resulting in nearly ninety million cases worldwide with total deaths approaching two million people. This insidious international pandemic has had a devastating effect on every aspect of our economic, cultural, political, educational, and relational spheres including how we communicate with others.
Our ability to listen effectively and appropriately to others during this pandemic can be both a source of comfort or a trigger for conflict. One way to consider the intersections between the pandemic and our human relationships is to examine four research-based listening styles. Considering how we might adapt our listening style can help us enhance our relationships even during this world-wide pandemic.
We speak and listen to address a variety of needs. On a practical level, we may need to listen to medical messages, assess the message’s efficacy, then determine whether or not to alter our behaviors because of COVID-19. In our relationships with friends, family, colleagues, and romantic partners, the additional conflict-producing stress that results from anxiety and fear calls on us to listen with both greater compassion and accuracy. We live in a world where unintentionally communicating disinterest or disrespect may leave lasting emotional scars. In our socially distant, mask-wearing environment, with the increased potential for relational conflict, as well as the unprecedented need for comfort and affirmation, being an effective listener is more important today than ever.
Listening is not as simple as just looking at someone while the other person talks. Listening is a dynamic and transactional process comprised of acknowledging, responding, recalling, and evaluating a message. Each of these listening goals are present as we communicate with a variety of different types of people in a multitude of situations. Understanding a person’s precise listening goal, as reflected in their preferred listening style, can result in an improved meeting of meanings and enhanced communication.
Styles of Preferred Listening
To fine-tune our listening skills, let’s examine four listening styles. A listening style is simply the preferred way a person listens to others to achieve their goals. Each of the four listening styles can be summarized with a one-word label—People, Action, Content, and Time. During these challenging times, we need to be aware of the “P-A-C-T” as we listen to others. Being aware of the listening style of our communication partner can enhance our ability to adapt to their needs and goals, which may enhance the overall quality of our relationships with others.
People-Centered Listening Style
When we listen with empathy and compassion, we are people-centered listeners (PCL). Imagine, for example, the times that this style of listening has taken place with a first line medical responder. How a nurse, physician, EMT, or other medical expert comforts a sick or dying COVID-19 patient is critical to the recovery process. But you need not be a medical provider to use a people-centered listening style. When you learn that someone you know has COVID-19, such a situation calls for focusing on the relational needs of the other person. In addition, PCLs are needed in families where the very young struggle to understand why they can’t be with their friends or grandparents. A compassionate parent takes into consideration their children’s feelings, not just during this pandemic, but at all times.
Action-Centered Listening Style
Action-centered listeners (ACL) prefer to have messages that are organized, efficient, and focused on the critical pieces of information. Action-centered listeners want are seeking what they can do to address their needs and solve their problems. This style of listening assumes that others will tailor their messages to avoid extraneous detail. Action-centered listeners typically question assumptions underlying the conclusions presented by others. As we consider this virus, the ACL are those individuals who prefer to receive messages that help them to make clear and informed decisions on their behaviors. The ACL is frustrated with ambiguous messages—say from a governor who says, “Let’s ease up on the shelter-in-place restrictions”—while COVID-19 cases escalate in their state. The action-centered listener is looking for verbs—the specific action that should be taken to manage the problem.
Content-Centered Listening Style
Preferring factual information—devoid of most emotions but attending to the credibility of the message—is the style of content-centered listeners (CCL). The CCL may play the “devil’s advocate,” meaning they challenge the language of a message. These listeners are not hard to find in this pandemic. We find many CCLs openly challenging medical messages, even some daring to call the pandemic a “hoax.” We find others feeling that political leaders should have no say so over business owners. In these cases, while somewhat extreme, CCL believe that the source and message credibility are in question and that the actual existence of the virus is fabricated. Content-centered listeners prefer facts and evidence to support conclusions.
Time-Centered Listening Style
A fourth style of listening concerns time constraints; time-centered listeners (TCL) prefer to listen to short, efficient, and concise messages. Many healthcare workers, for example, need to make immediate health-related decisions. They don’t have the luxury of time to leisurely process information. Perhaps a physician must decide the next step with a patient whose blood-oxygen levels are rapidly dropping. Or, within a more intimate setting, consider the family member who is confronted with the decision to discontinue a loved one’s ventilator use because the patient is dying. Both of these circumstances will involve TCL who have little to no time to deliberate the various angles of the decision. Or, a friend or family member may feel overwhelmed and believes they need to take immediate action to address fears and concerns. The time-centered listener is motivated by the need for efficiency and brevity.
Regrettably and sadly, despite the myriad vaccines, COVID-19 will continue to scourge the globe. From the most medically advanced society to areas of the world where marginalized communities have little to no medical access, COVID-19 has taken hold of our countries, cities, and communities. The virus has also etched its influence upon the broad range of relationships in our lives. Whether one’s listening style is person-, action-, content-, or time-centered in nature, COVID-19 has ushered in new ways of considering how people listen to others during one of the most difficult eras in world history.
One significant way to increase your effectiveness as a listener is to consider the preferred listening style of those with whom you speak. Good listeners are other-oriented, not self-focused. To enhance your ability to listen to others during these times of stress and anxiety, consider what you can do to meet the needs of your communication partner. Remember the PACT.
PEOPLE: Does the person you are listening to need empathy and social support?
ACTION: Is there a need for request or action or direction?
CONTENT: Is the other person seeking information?
TIME: Is there a need for efficient listening?
Being a good listener may not be a substitute for a vaccination in eradicating the pandemic, yet it is a practical way to inoculate others from fear and anxiety and improve your own listening health.