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7 Types of Listening: How Listening Styles Help You Communicate

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

Learning critical listening skills is an important part of building interpersonal relationships and processing important information. There are a few general listening styles that people use, depending on the situation they are in and whether they are operating on a more emotional or logical level. Understanding the different styles of listening can improve your interpersonal communication and help you quickly understand new information and concepts as they are communicated to you.

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Why Are Listening Styles Important to Understand?

Understanding the different listening styles and when to use them can help build your communication skills and make you a better listener. Though you might think being a good listener is straightforward, there are actually a variety of types of listening.

In general the different types of listening can be categorized as either evaluative listening (which is analytical and logical) or reflective listening (which is emotionally driven). Individuals might naturally gravitate towards one listening style profile or another, but each of these types of listening is useful, depending on the situation. Knowing when to use each style of listening will make you a more effective communicator and help prevent miscommunication.

7 Types of Listening Styles

There are a few different methods of effective listening, and each one is suited to specific circumstances. Here are descriptions of the main types of listening and the scenarios in which you would be likely to use them:

  1. Discriminative listening: Discriminative listening is the first form of listening humans develop as babies. This basic type of listening precedes the understanding of words and relies on tone of voice and other subtleties of sound to understand meaning and intention. Babies don’t understand words, but they rely on their discriminative listening to understand who is speaking and what mood is being communicated. As an adult, you may find yourself relying on discriminative listening when people around you are speaking a foreign language that you don’t understand. Though you may lack the language skills to understand the words being spoken, you can rely on the tone of voice and inflection to derive a vague meaning. When you can only rely on discriminative listening, you may turn to visual stimuli. The mannerisms, facial expressions, and body language of a speaker help clue you in to the speaker’s message.
  2. Comprehensive listening: Comprehensive listening is the next level of critical listening skills that humans usually develop in early childhood. Comprehensive listening requires basic language skills and vocabulary to understand what is being communicated through a speaker’s words. Comprehensive listening is the overall category that covers most other forms of listening that critical listeners utilize. Through the course of their day-to-day lives, people use comprehensive listening paired with verbal cues to understand what messages are being communicated to them.
  3. Informational listening: Informational listening (or informative listening) is the type of listening people use when they are trying to learn. Informational listening builds upon basic comprehensive listening and requires a high level of concentration and engagement to understand new concepts and comprehend technical jargon. Informational listening has less to do with the emotional content of what is being communicated and more to do with critical thinking and following a logical sequence as it is communicated. When you try to learn important skills that are being taught to you, it’s vital that you pay attention and use informational listening skills.
  4. Critical listening: Critical listening is the style of listening people use when they are trying to analyze and judge complex information that is being communicated to them. You might use critical listening if you’re problem-solving on the job and trying to decide if you agree with a proposal being floated by one of your coworkers. The word “critical” has multiple meanings, but in this case it simply means that you are evaluating information—not necessarily passing judgment.
  5. Biased listening: Biased listening (or selective listening) is a type of listening behavior demonstrated when someone is just listening for information that they want to hear. Biased listening is different from critical listening because the listener is not honestly evaluating the validity of the speaker’s opinions, but rather is looking to confirm previously-held biases. People are often unaware that they are using a biased listening process. Biased listening can lead to a distortion of facts in the mind of a listener who is not tuned in to what a speaker intends to communicate.
  6. Sympathetic listening: Sympathetic listening is an emotionally-driven type of relationship listening, wherein a listener processes the feelings and emotions of a speaker and tries to provide support and understanding in return. You might use sympathetic listening when a child tells you about trouble they had at school. In this case you use a sympathetic listening style to make the child feel heard and give them support and comfort. Sympathetic listening is an important type of listening to use when trying to establish a deep connection with another person, especially when that person is experiencing adversity.
  7. Therapeutic listening and empathetic listening: Therapeutic or empathetic listening is a listening process wherein a listener tries to understand the point of view of a speaker and imagines themselves directly in the speaker’s position. Empathetic listening (sometimes referred to as empathic listening) goes a step further than sympathetic listening in that an empathic listener will relate to the speaker’s experience as if it were their own.
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