5.2 Stages of Listening

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the listening process.
  • Explain the receiving stage of listening.
  • Explain the interpreting stage of listening.
  • Explain the recalling stage of listening.
  • Explain the evaluating stage of listening.

Listening is the learned process of receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding to verbal and nonverbal messages. We engage with the listening process long before engaging in recognizable verbal or nonverbal communication.

The Listening Process

Listening is a process that does not have a defined start and finish. Like the communication process, listening is multidimensional (Halone et al., 1998) and consists of complex processes:

Cognitive processes: attending to, understanding, receiving and interpreting contextual and relational messages;

Behavioural processes: responding with verbal and/or nonverbal feedback; and

Affective processes: being motivated to attend to others.

Listening does not unfold in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Models of processes are informative in that they help us visualize specific components, but keep in mind that they do not capture the speed, overlapping nature, or overall complexity of the listening process in action.

Listening Stages

Stage 1. Receiving

Before engaging in other steps in the listening process, we must take in stimuli through our senses. In any communication encounter, we often return to the receiving stage as we process incoming feedback and new messages. This part of the listening process is more physiological than others, including cognitive and relational elements. We primarily take in the information needed for listening through auditory and visual channels. Although we do not often think about visual cues as a part of listening, they influence how we interpret messages. For example, seeing a person’s face when we hear their voice allows us to take in nonverbal cues from facial expressions and eye contact. The fact that these visual cues are missing in email, text, and phone interactions presents difficulties for reading contextual clues into meaning received through auditory-only channels.


Image of a child's playground with a ride labelled "Listen".
Figure 5.2.1. The first stage of the listening process is receiving stimuli through auditory and visual channels.

The chapter on perception discussed some of how incoming stimuli are filtered. These perceptual filters also play a role in listening. Some stimuli never make it in, some are filtered into subconsciousness, and others are filtered into various levels of consciousness based on their salience. Recall that salience is the degree to which something attracts our attention in a particular context and that we tend to find salient, visually or audibly stimulating things that meet our needs or interests. Think about how it is much easier to listen to a lecture on a very interesting subject than one you do not.

It is essential to consider how noise influences the way in which we receive messages. Some noises interfere primarily with hearing, which is the physical process of receiving stimuli through internal and external components of the ears and eyes. Some interfere with listening, which is the cognitive process of processing the stimuli taken in during hearing. While hearing leads to listening, they are not the same thing. Environmental noise, such as music, other people talking, or traffic sounds, interferes with the physiological aspects of hearing. Psychological noise, such as stress and anger, interferes primarily with the cognitive processes of listening. We can enhance our ability to receive and, in turn, listen by trying to minimize noise.

Stage 2. Interpreting

During the interpreting stage of listening, we combine the visual and auditory information we receive and try to make meaning out of that information using schemata. The interpreting stage engages cognitive and relational processing as we take in informational, contextual, and relational cues and connect them meaningfully to previous experiences. We may begin to understand the stimuli we have received through the interpreting stage. When we understand something, we can attach meaning by connecting information to previous experiences. By comparing new information with old information, we may also update or revise particular schemata if we find the new information relevant and credible. Suppose we have difficulty interpreting information, meaning we do not have previous experience or information in our schemata to make sense of it. In that case, transferring the information into our long-term memory for later recall is difficult. In situations where understanding the information we receive isn’t important or is not a goal, this stage may be fairly short or even skipped. After all, we can move something to our long-term memory by repetition and later recall it without ever understanding it. A student might earn perfect scores on exams in an anatomy class in post-secondary because they were able to memorize and recall, for example, all the organs in the digestive system, and might still be able to do that over a decade later, but neither then nor now could tell you the significance or function of most of those organs, because they did not get to a level of understanding but simply stored the information for later recall.

Stage 3. Recalling

Our ability to recall information depends on some physiological limits of how memory works. Overall, our memories are known to be fallible. We forget half of what we hear immediately after hearing it, recall 35 % after eight hours, and recall 20 % after a day (Hargie, 2011). Our memory consists of multiple “storage units,” including sensory storage, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory (Hargie, 2011).

Our sensory storage is substantial in terms of capacity but limited in terms of length of storage. We can hold large amounts of unsorted visual information, but only for about a tenth of a second. By comparison, we can hold large amounts of unsorted auditory information for up to four seconds. This initial memory storage unit does not provide much use for our study of communication, as these large but quickly expiring chunks of sensory data are primarily used in reactionary and instinctual ways.

As stimuli are organized and interpreted, they go to short-term memory, where they either expire and are forgotten or transferred to long-term memory. Short-term memory is a mental storage capability that can retain stimuli for 20 seconds to 1 minute. Long-term memory is a mental storage capability to which stimuli in short-term memory can be transferred if they are connected to an existing schema and in which information can be stored indefinitely (Hargie, 2011). Working memory is a temporarily accessed storage space activated during high cognitive demand. When using working memory, we can temporarily store information and process and use it simultaneously. This is different from our typical memory function. Information must usually make it to long-term memory before we can call it back to apply to a current situation. People with good working memories can remember recent information, process it, and apply it to other incoming information. This can be very useful during high-stress situations.

Although recall is an important part of the listening process, there is not a direct correlation between being good at recalling information and being a good listener. Some people have excellent memories and recall abilities and can tell a very accurate story from many years earlier when they should be listening and not showing off their recall abilities. Recall is an important part of the listening process because it is often used to assess listening abilities and effectiveness. Many quizzes and tests in school are based on recall and are often used to assess how well students comprehended information presented in class, which indicates how well they listened. When recall is our only goal, we excel at it. Experiments have found that people can memorize and later recall a set of faces and names with nearly 100 % recall when sitting in a quiet lab and asked to do so. But throw in external noise, more visual stimuli, and multiple contextual influences, and we cannot remember the name of the person we were just introduced to a minute earlier. Even in interpersonal encounters, we rely on recall to test whether or not someone is listening. Imagine that Azam is talking to his friend Belle, sitting across from him in a restaurant booth. Annoyed that Belle keeps checking her phone, Azam stops and asks, “Are you listening?” Belle inevitably replies, “Yes,” since we rarely confess to our poor listening habits, and Azam replies, “Well, what did I just say?”

Stage 4. Evaluating

When we evaluate something, we judge its credibility, completeness, and worth. Regarding credibility, we try to determine the degree to which we believe a speaker’s statements are correct or true. Regarding completeness, we try to “read between the lines” and evaluate the message in relation to what we know about the topic or situation being discussed. We evaluate the worth of a message by making a value judgment about whether we think the message or idea is good/bad, right/wrong, or desirable/undesirable. All these evaluating aspects require critical thinking skills, which we are not born with, but must develop over time through our personal and intellectual development.

Studying communication is a great way to build your critical thinking skills because you learn much more about the taken-for-granted aspects of communication, which gives you tools to analyze and critique messages, senders, and contexts. Critical thinking and listening skills also help you take a more proactive role in the communication process rather than being a passive receiver of messages that may not be credible, complete, or worthwhile. One danger within the evaluation stage of listening is to focus your evaluative lenses more on the speaker than the message. This can quickly become a barrier to effective listening if you begin to prejudge a speaker based on their identity or characteristics rather than the content of their message. We will learn more about how to avoid slipping into a person-centred rather than a message-centred evaluative stance later.

Stage 5. Responding

Responding entails sending verbal and nonverbal messages that indicate attentiveness and understanding or a lack thereof. From our earlier discussion of the communication model, you may be able to connect this part of the listening process to feedback. Later, we will learn more specifics about how to encode and decode the verbal and nonverbal cues sent during the responding stage. Still, we all know from experience that some signs indicate whether a person is paying attention and understanding a message.

We send verbal and nonverbal feedback while another person is talking and after they are done. Back-channel cues, also known as verbal fillers, are the verbal and nonverbal signals we send while someone is talking and can consist of verbal cues like “uh-huh,” “oh,” and “right,” and nonverbal cues such as direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward. Back-channel cues are generally a form of positive feedback that indicates others are actively listening. People also send cues intentionally and unintentionally that indicate they are not listening. If another person is looking away, fidgeting, texting, or turning away, we will likely interpret those responses negatively.


Image of students sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture.
Figure 5.2.2. Listeners respond to speakers nonverbally using back-channel cues, and verbally using paraphrasing and clarifying questions.

Paraphrasing is a responding behaviour that shows that you understand what was communicated. When you paraphrase information, you rephrase the message in your own words. For example, you might say the following to start a paraphrased response: “What I heard you say was …” or “It seems like you are saying …” You can also ask clarifying questions to get more information. It is often a good idea to pair paraphrasing with a question to keep a conversation flowing. For example, you might pose the following paraphrase–question pair: “It seems like you believe you were treated unfairly. Is that right?” Or you might ask a stand-alone question like “What did your boss do that made you think he was ‘playing favourites?’” Be sure to paraphrase or ask questions once a person’s turn is over because interrupting can also be interpreted as a sign of not listening. Paraphrasing is also a good tool for computer-mediated communication, especially since miscommunication can occur due to a lack of nonverbal and other contextual cues.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Key Takeaways

  • The receiving stage of listening is when an individual hears a message sent by a speaker.
  • The interpreting stage of listening occurs when a receiver interprets or attaches meaning to the message.
  • The recall stage of listening is when a listener either places information into long-term memory or forgets the information presented.
  • The evaluating stage of listening occurs when a listener thinks critically about and judges the message’s content or the speaker’s character.
  • The responding stage of listening occurs when a listener provides verbal or nonverbal feedback to the speaker or message.


  1. The recalling stage of the listening process is where many people experience challenges. What techniques could you use to improve the recall of specific information such as the client’s names, critical concepts in classes or instructions or directions provided verbally?


Halone, K. K., Cunconan, T. M., Coakley, C. G., & Wolvin, A. D. (1998). Toward the establishment of general dimensions underlying the listening process. International Journal of Listening, 12, 12–28.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th ed.). Routledge.

Image Attributions

Figure 5.2.1. Listen by Britt Reints. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Figure 5.2.2. In Communication in the real world. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

College of the Canyons. (2019). Small Group Communication. Coms 120.  College of the Canyon Open Digital Press. https://asccc-oeri.org/open-educational-resources-and-communication-studies/

Coleman, L., King, T., & Turner, W. (n.d.). Competent communication (2nd. ed.). Southwest Tennessee Community College/Libre Texts. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Courses/Southwest_Tennessee_Community_College/Competent_Communication_-_2nd_Edition/00%3A_Front_Matter/01%3A_Cover_Page

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book