Is listening as effective as reading

To hear is not yet to listen

Prof. Dr. Margarete Imhof

To listen is not easy. You have to make an effort to ensure that what the interlocutor wants to communicate actually arrives. Read what skills are required for this and how good listening can be practiced.

It is often said that listening is more or less innate because the ear is the first fully developed sense organ. That may be, but hearing is not yet listening, any more than seeing is reading. Think of different situations in which you want or should listen: an expert explains to you how a device works; You are listening to a good friend who brings you a serious matter; You listen to your father, who is once again sharing his wisdom. Imagine these situations as vividly as possible and think about what you are doing in each case and how different these situations are. What do you need to do and what do you need to contribute in order to listen effectively in these situations? If you pay attention to different listening opportunities, you will quickly notice that listening is very diverse.

One ear in, the other out

Imagine you are sitting in the car and talking to your fellow travelers. The traffic news reports: “There are sheep on the A3 in the direction of Würzburg. Therefore, there is a traffic jam between the Marktheidenfeld exit and Wertheim. Please drive extremely carefully in this area, the end of the traffic jam is in a curve. ”You have probably not remembered this message. You may still be able to say that it was about the exact highway you are driving on; You may also remember the sheep on the road; but you probably cannot say for sure between which connection points the danger lurks and in which direction the problem lies. You heard the message, but you could not listen and process the information and consequently you cannot derive any action from it. You now hope that the message will be repeated in good time for you to be able to listen carefully again. Then what do you do differently?

Why listening is so difficult

Listening is a complex, multi-step process. Listening assumes that the listener wants to experience something at all. If a person does not want to know anything, he will not be able to make an effort to listen to a thing with concentration. Listening requires that you actively focus on a topic, that you have questions about it, that you are curious or that you simply notice that it can be exciting to deal with.

Listening also means that you take in what is being communicated. As a rule, the message arrives on several channels and with many signals: you hear what someone is saying, but you also see the person's facial expressions and gestures, you hear the tone of voice and the tone of voice. This also reveals messages to the listener, because one learns something about the feelings, attitudes or sensitivities of the speaker.

Of course, in order to absorb something, you must also be able to understand the words. The listener switches off when he has the impression that he cannot keep up with so many foreign words and technical terms. No amount of effort will help. It can have a similar effect if the speaker speaks too simply, if he speaks dialect-colored or indistinctly, too quickly or too slowly.

What is heard is not saved by itself

Although the sound waves always somehow reach the ear, the information is not automatically recorded. The so-called working memory, i.e. the (unfortunately very limited) memory unit of the brain in which the currently important information is kept ready, must be actively populated. What you hear does not fall into it by itself or at most once by accident. But if the listener does not even take in what has been said at this point, understanding falls by the wayside. The listener no longer comes into contact with the speaker.

In the next step, the listener constructs a coherent meaning from what he has heard: What does it all mean? You can easily understand every single word. But it's different when you wonder if you've got the point. It is important that you have sufficient prior knowledge that you can fall back on. Finally, as a listener, you also have to save what you have heard in the long-term memory in a final step. It is not enough once you have understood something; you want to know it tomorrow as well. As a listener, you have to store the information in such a way that you can find it again. Listening is made up of looking for information, absorbing information, understanding information and storing information. Every single step has to be successful so that the end result is good listening.

How listening can be better

In principle, the ability to listen must be learned and practiced in the same way as reading. Sure, most people can read somehow. Nevertheless, it makes a difference in reading skills how much you read, how often you read or what and with what intention you read. This also applies to listening. To practice listening, here are some things to look out for:

  • Search information:
  • In order for listening to take place, the listener must define the why. You will be able to listen better and for longer if you focus your concentration on the audio event or the speaker and block out any disturbances. You will soon realize that it is exhausting and costs energy and that you cannot do it for as long as you like. But the good listener can develop an interest in the topic and the speaker, tune into the topic and the speaker, and control distracting thoughts and motives. In this context, it is important that you, the listener, hold back your need to say something yourself and not immediately evaluate what you hear.

  • Record information:
  • The capacity of the working memory is limited and with it the amount of what a person can keep at one time. But you can use tricks to expand your working memory. So it is helpful if you prepare and structure the listening situation beforehand, if you think about what previous knowledge you already have, what you would like to know or where the difficulties in understanding might be. You are less likely to get caught cold in a conversation that you prepare in this way. You will take a lot more with you from a lecture or a lecture that you attend in preparation.

  • Understand information:
  • Listeners rely on being able to process what they hear very quickly. Otherwise it can lead to hasty and incorrect conclusions. A listener who pays attention to complete information, i.e. also consciously to facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice, has a clear advantage here. Sometimes you think for a long time that you understood everything, until it is finally obvious that you were on the completely wrong track. The sooner you discover this, the more misunderstandings and arguments you can avoid. However, it is particularly important to withhold evaluations and quick judgments. Because reviews color everything that you hear and you then no longer take in the information that the speaker wants to convey, but get stuck with what you have always thought and known anyway. Effective listeners check by asking whether what they think they have understood is what the speaker wanted to say.

  • Save information:
  • Spoken language is fleeting, meaning that it is no longer accessible once the speaker has said what he wanted to say. In order to be able to access what you have heard, you have to actively anchor it in your long-term memory. You can do this by, for example, imagining a picture of what you have heard. It is also helpful to put what you have heard in your own words and to think critically about it: Is it all logical? Does what you have just heard contradict what you previously believed? Has the speaker contradicted himself? Which feelings played a role right now? The more actively you deal with the information, the better the content will be anchored in your memory and the higher the probability that you will find the information again.

Listen with open ears

Listening is a demanding activity that takes a lot of energy. That means it is exhausting and prone to failure. This is because listening is a complex, compound process in which many elements have to work together. The listener must concentrate on the pace and the mental world of the speaker. If you are to do well, you need to learn and practice listening in each step. Listening with open ears is challenging but rewarding. Because never before has a new idea occurred to anyone through an open mouth.

Book tip

The rising of the ear - the new pleasure in hearing. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2006. Reader of the Funkkolleg des Hessischen Rundfunks. 30 radio broadcasts on the subject can be listened to on the Internet: Funkkolleg “Experience Listening” 2006/2007.

Source: M. Imhof: UGB-Forum 6/09, pp. 277-279
Photo: C. Thompson /

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