It’s common misconception to what is considered hearing and what is listening. Although most consider them to be the same thing, they are vastly different in determining which one is the action that is happening. Hearing involves the actual process of receiving vibrations and noise, while listening is the act of hearing the noises and vibrations, then constructing them to represent and have meaning associated to them. While hearing is a natural sense that we are given, listening is not necessarily an automatic action. Think about when you attend a boring meeting or movie.—you hear that there is noise present, but you do not necessarily comprehend the message behind the noise.
We process information from listening in two different ways: mindless and mindful. Mindless listening occurs when we react to messages based on patterns and social norms, such as when asked “how are you?”, we tend to respond “good, how are you?” Because of the number of messages we are exposed to per day, mindless listening sounds more negative than it actually is. It’s simplifying our brain so we can participate with social norms without necessarily needing to be actively there and thoughtful all the time. In addition, mindless listening is also passive listening, where we are listening to the message being told, but we hear and understand it rather than storing and recalling all the messages given to us. Mindless listening commonly occurs with situations we don’t understand or particularly care for. If in a social setting the discussion sways to a subject that seems uninteresting to us, we will lose focus on it until it comes back to a more interesting topic.
Mindful listening on the other hand requires more care and thought given to messages we receive. The more relevant and important the message seems to you, the more mindful a person tends to be when listening. While this can be in normal daily conversation with a significant other, whether a friend or family member, this also relates to selective listening. A whole discussion can seem boring and irrelevant to you until a topic is brought up that you have consideration towards. It is then where listening goes from being mindless to mindful.
The five elements that create the listening process are as follows:
• Hearing: The physiological dimension of listening. It is influenced by background nose (physical noise that is happening) and internal noise (our own thoughts and distractions in our head).
• Attending: The psychological dimension of listening. We subconsciously filter out messages based on the relevancy to focus on more important messages. Determination of what are main focuses of attending commonly revolve around our needs, wants, desires, and interests. Research normally shows that we attend to messages when there’s a payoff for doing so.
• Understanding: Making sense of a message. Without hearing and attending to a message, misunderstanding what the message holds occurs.
• Responding: Offering visual feedback of the attention of receiving messages. This is normally demonstrated through nonverbal actions, such as eye contact and facial expressions. This helps to determine that listening is an active activity.
• Remembering: The ability to recall information, termed as residual messages. This is relatively the whole point of listening to a message. Research shows that most people only recall about 50% of what they hear immediately after hearing it, and this drops down to about 35% after eight hours.
In your experience, you can easily determine that there are not many people that you would personally consider good listeners. So why are we so terrible at listening? The first main reason is because of messages overload. We receive hundreds of thousands of messages a day, nonverbally, visually, mentally, and verbally. With so many messages, we have an overload and tend to simplify our mind by focusing on just the most important messages, like directions on how to do our homework that day, or advice, or conversations with friends. Overload forces us to listen more mindlessly than mindfully.
We tend to be preoccupied with internal and external noises rather than the message given right before us. If a person concern is going on internally, or inspiration occurs, we often focus all our attention to those noises and tune out what verbal messages are happening around us.
When messages are similar to information we already contain, or messages we don’t necessarily care about, we subconsciously stop paying attentions. In classroom settings where a day is focused on review, if a student is already prepared and knowledgeable on the topic, they’re likely to not pay attention because it’s a repeat of a topic they already know. When the message is one we do not care about, such as a person who constantly rants about their problems in your every day conversation, listeners tend to half-listen in order to show interest and time their reactions in conversation, when in reality their mind is elsewhere.
How we tend to react to listening is usually selective: we listen to what we want to listen to, and if it doesn’t meet our psychological demands and needs, we ignore them. But we respond to it by prompting the speaker, usually by being silent and giving phrases of encouragement to show that we’re hearing what is being said (think of how you say uh-huh when someone is talking to you). We question them by asking for additional information to be given so we can fully understand what we are listening to. Also, we support and advise the speaker. Affirming their message is good or bad, depending on the context, and offering our own person outlook on what is being discussed.
Although listening is difficult, it’s definitely not impossible. It’s impractical to listen and retain every message we receive, but it’s necessary for our daily life to retain and incorporate the important ones in our actions and with others.
The Disney Lesson
Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove was a selfish ruler in the Mesoamerican area. His selfishness lead him to a mindless and selective listener, only listening to what he wanted to hear and what was said towards him in a positive way. He ignored what most people told him, and only took himself into consideration when making decisions. His interpretation of messages were skewed in his favor, not processing that they were for the benefit of all parties involved. There is a particular scene in which Yzma, his advisor, is discussing something with him, and we can hear Kuzco’s internal thoughts, which are focused more on things that have no value with the verbal message being told because Kuzco had determined them to be invaluable and uninteresting to him. When Kuzco is turned into a llama and helped back to the kingdom by a peasant, Pacha, he still reacts this way towards Pacha’s help and suggestions, instead only listening to the ideas that will work in his favor. After developing a relationship with Pacha, he finally listens when he is told by someone he cares about that he is selfish and insincere. This results into Kuzco changing his initial actions by the end of the film. We are going to have times where we are uninterested in a message—it happens. But sometimes the only way a message can get across to us is if someone close to us tells us not exactly what we want to hear. Some cases require the person who makes a difference in receiving the message, not necessarily the message itself.
Ralph was a video game villain in Wreck-It Ralph. After doing his job for thirty years and being unappreciated for being himself, he was determined to jump video games and go win a medal in order to prove he could be a hero and not always the villain. Stating his concern to Bad Anon, a group of video game villains with similar feelings, they share with him the oath of the concept of what they are: “I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather me than me.” Although he understood the literal meaning of the oath, he didn’t grasp the concept because he wasn’t listening to what the message really hold. As he continued his journey to prove himself a hero, he helped others along the way to reach their potential and become heroes themselves. It wasn’t until he saved others that he realized that yes, he had “bad” qualities in him, because that’s how he was created, but he shouldn’t be anyone but himself because then he wouldn’t have the positive qualities that make up him. He was able to use his bad qualities to destroy, but for a good purpose. Upon realization of the message, he was able to have the knowledge of what it truly meant. We are given moments in life where we hear things and understand what they are telling us, but we will not be able to listen to the true message behind it until we have the knowledge that makes up the message. It’s important to fully understand what is being said before we can consider ourselves to be listening.