5.3 Listening Styles and Types

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the importance of listening.
  • Describe five main types of listening.
  • Compare and contrast four styles of listening.
  • Explain each listening response.

The Importance of Listening

Understanding how listening works provides the foundation to explore why we listen, including various types and styles. In general, listening helps us achieve all the communication goals (physical, instrumental, relational, and identity) we previously learned about. Listening is also crucial in academic, professional, and personal contexts. We spend more time listening than any other form of communication (Adler et al., 2020). Post-secondary students spend nearly 11 % of their time writing, 16 % speaking, 17 % reading, and more than 55 % listening (Emanuel et al., 2008).

Listening is likely a desired outcome in the workplace. It may include job performance,  building and maintaining effective relationships (trust, intimacy, and relational satisfaction), and competence (knowledge, skills, and ability/adaptability) (Kluger & Itzchakov, 2022).

Listening also has implications for our personal lives and relationships. We should be aware of the power of listening to make someone else feel better and open our perceptual field to new sources of information. The following list reviews some of the main functions of listening that are relevant in multiple contexts.

The primary purposes of listening are:

  • to focus on messages sent by other people or noises coming from our surroundings;
  • to better our understanding of other people’s communication;
  • to critically evaluate other people’s messages;
  • to monitor nonverbal signals;
  • to indicate that we are interested or paying attention;
  • to empathize with others and show we care for them (relational maintenance); and
  • to engage in negotiation, dialogue, or other exchanges that result in a shared understanding of or agreement on an issue.

(Hargie, 2011)

Types of Listening

Listening serves many purposes, and different situations require different types of listening. Our listening affects our communication and how others respond. For example, when we listen to empathize with others, our communication will likely be supportive and open, leading the other person to feel “heard” and supported and hopefully view the interaction positively (Bodie & Villaume, 2003, p. 48). The main types of listening we will discuss are discriminative, informational, critical, empathetic, and active.

Discriminative Listening

Discriminative listening is a focused and usually instrumental type of listening that is primarily physiological and occurs mainly at the receiving stage of the listening process. Here we listen to scan and monitor our surroundings to isolate particular auditory or visual stimuli. For example, we may focus our listening on a dark part of the yard while walking the dog at night to determine if the noise we just heard presents us with any danger. Or we may look for a particular nonverbal cue to let us know our conversational partner received our message (Hargie, 2011). Without hearing impairment, we have an innate and physiologic ability to engage in discriminative listening. Although this is the most basic form of listening, it provides the foundation for more intentional listening skills. This type of listening can be refined and honed. Consider how musicians, singers, and mechanics exercise specialized discriminative listening to isolate specific aural stimuli and how actors, detectives, and sculptors discriminate visual cues that allow them to analyze, make meaning from, or recreate nuanced behaviour (Tyagi, 2013).

Informational Listening

Informational listening entails listening to comprehend and retain information. This type of listening is not evaluative and is common in teaching and learning contexts ranging from a student listening to an informative speech to an out-of-towner listening to directions to the nearest gas station. We also use informational listening when we listen to news reports, voicemails, and briefings at work. Since retention and recall are essential components of informative listening, good concentration and memory skills are critical. These are also skills that many post-secondary students struggle with, at least in the first years of college, but will be expected to have mastered once they are in professional contexts. In many professional contexts, informational listening is essential, especially when receiving instructions. Students will be expected to process verbal instructions more frequently in their profession than in college. Most college professors provide detailed instructions and handouts with assignments so students can review them as needed. Still, many supervisors and managers will expect you to take the initiative to remember or record vital information. Additionally, many bosses are more open to questions or requests to repeat themselves than are professors.

Critical Listening

Critical listening entails analyzing or evaluating a message based on information presented verbally and information that can be inferred from context.  An acute listener evaluates a message, accepts it, rejects it, or decides to withhold judgment and seek more information. As constant consumers of messages, we need to be able to assess the credibility of speakers and their messages and identify various persuasive appeals and faulty logic (known as fallacies). Critical listening is essential during persuasive exchanges, but employing some critical listening is always recommended because you may find yourself in a persuasive interaction that you thought was informative. As noted when we discussed nonverbal communication, people often disguise inferences as facts. Critical-listening skills are helpful when listening to a persuasive speech in class or processing any persuasive media messages we receive daily. Judges employ critical listening (with varying degrees of competence) on talent competition shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice. While the exchanges between judge and contestant on these shows are expected to be subjective and critical, critical listening is also essential when listening to speakers who have stated or implied objectivity, such as parents, teachers, health professionals, clients, and religious leaders. Here are some helpful guidelines for critical listening:

  • Listen to the entire message before making a judgment.  Listen to the entire message. Withhold judgment or decision-making until the speaker is finished. Sometimes speakers will surprise you.
  • Listen for evidence.  Does the communicator present research that reinforces their message, such as references to research or studies conducted by credible authors and organizations, or does the message consist solely of the speaker’s unsupported statements and opinions?  Critical listening is essential to learning to separate unsubstantiated opinions from facts. This is not to say that speakers should not express their opinions. Many of the greatest speeches in history include personal opinions. Consider, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he expressed his wish for the future of American society. Critical listeners may agree or disagree with a speaker’s opinions, but the point is that they know when a message they are hearing is based on opinion and when it is factual.
  • Analyze the speaker’s credibility, including possible hidden agendas.  Speaker credibility refers to the listeners’ judgment about whether the communicator is trustworthy and qualified to speak about the topic. Consider whether the speaker has educational background or experience on the topic. Do the speaker’s prior actions and reputation convince you the speaker can be trusted? Other than the speaker’s qualifications and trustworthiness, another important consideration is whether the speaker has a hidden agenda, a motive that is not shared with listeners. For example, assume you are watching a television program that has promised to inform the audience about the properties of Vitamin D. The program features several health professionals with impressive credentials.  At first, you are convinced that these professionals are trustworthy and the information they present is solid and unbiased. However, several minutes into the broadcast, the health professionals urge viewers to buy a particular brand of Vitamin D — one developed by the doctors and dieticians on the program.  At this point, an excellent critical listener will realize the program, which appeared to be informative, is persuasive and that the supposedly unbiased health professionals have a hidden agenda.  This calls into question the claims made in the program.
  • Consider the communicator’s nonverbal communication, not just their words. Sometimes a communicator’s body language or paralanguage will add important clues to the message. Although we want to be fair about judging unfairly, it is still important to consider how the speaker presents the message.

Empathetic Listening


Image of a woman holding a child.
Figure 5.3.1. We support others through empathetic listening by trying to “feel with” them.

Empathy and sympathy are often practiced interchangeably, but they are very different. Sympathy infers compassion for another person’s situation from your perspective. Empathy enables you to view another person’s situation from their perspective. Empathy does not require you to agree with another person but instead understand their world (Adler et al., 2020). Additionally, empathetic listening is other-oriented and should be genuine. Because of our centrality in our perceptual world, empathetic listening can be difficult. It is often much easier for us to tell our story or give advice than to listen to and empathize with someone else. We should remember that sometimes others need to be heard, and our feedback is not desired. Empathetic listening is vital for understanding others and building strong interpersonal relationships.

Styles of Listening

If listening were easy and everyone went about it the same way, teaching listening would be much easier. One reason for the complexity of teaching listening is that people have different ways of listening. Watson and colleagues (1995) identified four listening styles: people-, action-, content-, and time-oriented. As you read through these styles, try to identify your preferred style.

The people-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. People-oriented listeners listen to the message to learn how the speaker thinks and feels. For instance, when people-oriented listeners hear an interview with a famous rap artist, they are likely to be more curious about the artist than about music, even though they might also appreciate the artist’s work. If you are a people-oriented listener, you might have questions you hope will be answered, such as: Does the artist feel successful? What’s it like to be famous? What kind of educational background does the artist have? In the same way, if we are listening to a doctor who responded to the earthquake crisis in Haiti, we might be more interested in the doctor as a person than in the state of affairs for Haitians. Why did the doctor go to Haiti? How did they get away from their practice and patients? How many lives did they save? We might be less interested in the equally important and urgent needs for food, shelter, and sanitation following the earthquake. The people-oriented listener will likely be more attentive to the speaker than the message itself.

Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else? It is sometimes complicated for an action-oriented speaker to listen to details such as the descriptions, evidence, and explanations with which the speaker builds their case.

Action-oriented listening is sometimes called “task-oriented listening.” This type of listener seeks a clear message about what needs to be done and might have less patience for listening to the reasons behind the task. This can be especially true if the reasons are complicated. For example, before an airplane waiting on the runway takes flight, a flight attendant delivers a brief speech called the preflight safety briefing. To appeal to action-oriented listeners, the flight attendant does not read the findings of a safety study or explain that the Federal Aviation Administration mandates the content of the speech. Instead, the attendant says only to buckle up so we can leave. An action-oriented listener finds “buckling up” more compelling than a message about the underlying reasons.

Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message. These listeners desire well-developed information with solid explanations and credible evidence. They listen to details and carefully analyze and evaluate the message. Many audience members will be content-oriented listeners when you give a speech or lead a meeting at work. Therefore, you must present information in the fullest way you can. You can emphasize or advocate an idea that is important to you. Still, if you exaggerate or omit essential information, you could lose credibility in the minds of your content-oriented audience.

Time-oriented listeners prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. They can become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations. This type of listener may be receptive for only a brief time and may become rude or even hostile if the communicator expects a more extended focus of attention. They may convey impatience through eye-rolling, shifting in their seats, checking their phones, and other inappropriate behaviours. If you have been asked to speak to a group of junior high school students, you must realize that their attention spans are not as long as those of post-secondary students. For this reason, speeches or conversations with young audiences must be shorter and include more variety than speeches to adults.

In the workplace, some listeners will have real-time constraints, not merely perceived ones. When working with clients in various healthcare settings, it is essential to be mindful of the time and the amount of information being relayed. If a health professional spends significant time talking, the client may begin to tune out or check out the conversation entirely.

Listening Responses

Who do you think is a great listener? Why did you name that particular person? How can you tell that person is a good listener? You probably recognize good listeners based on their nonverbal and verbal cues. In this section, we will discuss different types of listening responses. We all do not listen in the same way. Also, each situation is different and requires a distinct style appropriate for that situation.

Types of Listening Responses

Adler, Rosenfeld, and Proctor are three interpersonal scholars who have done quite a bit of research and writing on listening (2013). Their research found different types of listening responses: silent listening, questioning, paraphrasing, empathizing, supporting, analyzing, evaluating, and advising, as shown in Figure 5.3.2.


Image of types of listening responses.Silent listening, questioning: asking questions to understand the situation better, paraphrasing: rephrasing in your own words what the speaker said, Empathizing: putting yourself in the same situation to understand what the speaker means, Supporting: showing you endorse the speaker, Analyzing: considering possible solutions ot what the speaker has said, Evaluating: assessing the best course of action, and Advising: Counseling, recommending, and offering information that will help the speaker.
Figure 5.3.2. Types of Listening Responses (Adler, Rosenfeld & Proctor, 2013). Image Description (see Appendix A 5.3.2).

Silent Listening

Silent listening occurs when you say nothing. It is ideal in certain situations and awful in other situations. However, when used correctly, it can be very powerful. If misused, you could give the wrong impression to someone. It is appropriate to use when you do not want to encourage more talking. It also shows openness to the speaker’s ideas.

Sometimes people get angry when someone does not respond. They might think this person is not listening or trying to avoid the situation. But it might be because the person is just trying to gather their thoughts, or perhaps responding would be inappropriate. In certain situations, such as counselling, silent listening can be beneficial because it can help people figure out their feelings and emotions.


In situations where you want to get answers, it might be beneficial to use questioning. You can do this in a variety of ways. There are several ways to question in a sincere, nondirective way.

You might have different types of questions. Sincere questions are created to find a genuine answer. Counterfeit questions are disguised attempts to send a message, not to receive one. Sometimes, counterfeit questions can cause the listener to be defensive. For instance, if someone asks, “Tell me how often you used marijuana.” The speaker implies that you have used marijuana, even though that has not been established. A speaker can use questions that make statements by emphasizing specific words or phrases, stating an opinion or feeling on the subject. They can ask questions with hidden agendas, like “Do you have $5.00?” because the person would like to borrow that money. Some questions seek “correct” answers. For instance, when a friend says, “Do I look fat?” You probably have a correct or ideal answer. Some questions are based on unchecked assumptions. An example would be, “Why are you not listening?” This example implies that the person was not listening when they were listening.


Paraphrasing is restating, in your own words, the message you think the speaker just sent. There are three types of paraphrasing. First, you can change the speaker’s wording to indicate what you think they meant. Second, you can offer an example of what you think the speaker is talking about. Third, you can reflect on the underlying theme of a speaker’s remarks. Paraphrasing represents mindful listening in the way that you are trying to analyze and understand the speaker’s information. Paraphrasing can be used to summarize facts and to gain consensus in essential discussions. This could be used in a business meeting to ensure all details were discussed and agreed upon. Paraphrasing can also be used to understand personal information more accurately. Think about being in a counsellor’s office. Counsellors often paraphrase information to understand precisely how the individual is feeling and to analyze information better.


Empathizing is used to show that you identify with a speaker’s information. You are not empathizing when you deny others the right to their feelings. Statements such as, “It is not a big deal” or “Who cares?” indicates that the listener is trying to make the speaker feel differently. In minimizing the significance of the situation, you are interpreting the situation from your perspective and passing judgment. However, empathetic statements such as “I understand how difficult this must be for you,” or “It sounds like you are going through a tough time right now,” or “I am here for you, and I want to help you through this,” demonstrate understanding, connection and compassion.


Sometimes, in a discussion, people want to know how you feel about them instead of a reflection on the content. Examples of supportive responses include the following: agreement, offers to help, praise, reassurance, and diversion. The value of receiving support when faced with personal problems is very important. This has been shown to enhance psychological, physical, and relational health. To effectively support others, you must meet specific criteria. You have to make sure that your expression of support is sincere, that the other person can accept your support, and focus on “here and now” rather than “then and there.”


Analyzing helps gain different alternatives and perspectives by interpreting the speaker’s message. However, this can be problematic at times. Sometimes the speaker might not be able to understand your perspective or may become more confused by accepting it. To avoid this, steps must be taken in advance. These include tentatively offering your interpretation instead of as an absolute fact. Being more sensitive about it might be more comfortable for the speaker to accept. You can also ensure that your analysis has a reasonable chance of being correct. It would leave the person more confused if it were inaccurate. Also, you must ensure the person will be receptive to your analysis and that your motive for offering your opinion is to help the other person. An analysis offered under any other circumstances is useless.


Evaluating appraises the speaker’s thoughts or behaviours. The evaluation can be favourable (“that makes sense”) or negative (passing judgment, “you do not have a clue what you are talking about”). Unfavourable evaluations can be critical or noncritical (constructive criticism). Two conditions offer the best chance for evaluations to be received: if the person with the problem requested an evaluation and if it is genuinely constructive and not designed as a putdown.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Key Takeaways

  • Listening is a learned process and a skill we can improve with concerted effort. Improving our listening skills can benefit us academically, professionally, and personally.
  • People-oriented listeners pay more attention to the personal details about a speaker than the content of the message.
  • Action-oriented listeners pay attention to what the communicator wants them to do, such as donating, volunteering, etc.
  • Content-oriented listeners pay attention to the meaning and credibility of a speaker’s message. They are interested in learning.
  • Time-oriented listeners want messages that are concise as a result of limited attention spans or time commitments.
  • Discriminative listening is the most basic form of distinguishing between and focusing on specific sounds. Informational listening is when we seek to comprehend and retain information. Through critical listening, we analyze and evaluate messages at various levels. We use empathetic listening to understand or experience a speaker’s feelings and provide emotional support.


  1. Identify how critical listening might be helpful for you in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, and personal.
  2. Listening scholars have noted that empathetic listening is the most challenging type. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  3. Which style of listening best describes you and why? Which style do you struggle with or like the least, and why?


Adler, R. B., Rolls, J. A., & Proctor, R. F., II. (2020.) Looking out, looking in. (4th Canadian ed.). Nelson.

Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L. B., & Proctor, R. F., II. (2013). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. Oxford.

Bodie, G. D., & Villaume, W. A. (2003). Aspects of receiving information: The relationships between listening preferences, communication apprehension, receiver apprehension, and communicator style. International Journal of Listening, 17(1), 47–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.2003.10499055

Emanuel, R., Adams, J., Baker, K., Daufin, E. K., Ellington, C., Fitts, E., Himsel, J., Holladay, L., & Okeowo, D. (2008). How college students spend their time communicating. International Journal of Listening, 22(1), 13–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904010701802139

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

Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2022). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour, 9, 121–146. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-012420-091013

Tyagi, B. (2013). Listening: An important skill and its various aspects. The Criterion. An International Journal in English, 12 (February), 1–8.

Watson, K. W., Barker, L. L., & Weaver, J. B., III. (1995). The listening styles profile (LSP-16): Development and validation of an instrument to assess four listening styles. International Journal of Listening, 9(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.1995.10499138

Image Attributions

Figure 5.3.1.  Comfort by Stewart Black. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 5.3.2. Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L. B., & Proctor II, R. F. (2013). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. Oxford.

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/

Maricopa Community College. (n.d.). Exploring relationship dynamics. Maricopa Open Digital Press. https://open.maricopa.edu/com110/

Wrench, J. S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., & Thweatt, K. S. (n.d.). Interpersonal communication: A mindful approach to relationships. Milne Library Publishing.

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