5.3: Listening Styles | Introduction to Public Communication (2023)

If listening were easy and everyone acted in the same way, the task of a speaker would be much easier. Aristotle already recognized the 325 a. that the listeners in his audience had a different listening style. He distinguished them as follows:

Rhetoric can be divided into three areas, determined by the three classes of listeners of speech. Due to the three elements of speech - speaker, subject and addressee - the last one, the listener, determines the purpose and goal of the speech. The listener must be a judge making a decision about things past or future, or an observer. A member of the assembly decides future events, a jury past events: while those who merely decide the skill of the speaker are observers.

Thus, Aristotle classified listeners into those who would use speech to make decisions about past events, those who would make decisions that would affect the future, and those who would assess the speaker's abilities. This is even more remarkable when we consider that Aristotle's audience was composed exclusively of male citizens of a city-state, all of whom were wealthy landowners.

Our audience is likely to be much more mixed today. Think about the classroom audience that will hear your speeches in this course. His classmates come from many religious and ethnic backgrounds. Some of them can speak English as a second language. Some may be survivors from war-torn parts of the world, such as Bosnia, Darfur, or northwestern China. By being aware of such differences, you can prepare a speech minimizing the chance of misunderstandings.

Part of the potential for misunderstanding is the difference in listening styles. In an article in theInternational listening magazine, Watson, Barker and Weaver identified four listening styles: people, action, content and time (1995).


The person-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. People-oriented listeners listen to the message to learn how the speaker thinks and how he feels about his message. For example, when listening to an interview with a famous rap artist, people-oriented listeners are likely to be more curious about the artist as an individual than about the music, although the people-oriented listener may also appreciate the artist's work. . If you're a people-oriented listener, you may have certain questions you hope will be answered, such as: Does the artist feel successful? What is it like to be famous? What education does he or she have? When we hear a doctor respond to the Haitian earthquake crisis, we may be more interested in the doctor as a person than in the situation of Haitians. Why did you go to Haiti? How did he or she stray from his or her usual practice and its patients? How many lives have been saved? We may be less interested in the equally important and urgent post-earthquake needs for food, shelter, and sanitation.

The human-oriented listener is likely to be more attentive to the speaker than to the message. If you tend to be a listener, understand that the message is about what's important to the speaker.


Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else? Sometimes it's hard for an action-oriented speaker to listen to the descriptions, evidence, and explanations a speaker uses to build their case.

Action-oriented listening is sometimes called task-oriented listening. In it, the listener looks for a clear message about what needs to be done and may have less patience to listen to the reasons for the task. This can be especially the case when the reasons are complicated. For example, if you are a passenger on a plane waiting to be pushed back from the gate, a flight attendant will give a short speech called a pre-flight safety briefing. The flight attendant does not read the results of a safety study or the regulations on seat belts. The flight attendant does not explain that the content of her speech is actually a mandate from the Federal Aviation Administration. Instead, the attendant tells us to buckle up so we can go. An action-oriented listener finds "buckle up" a more compelling message than a message about the underlying reasons.


Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message itself, whether it makes sense, what it means, and whether it's correct. When you give a speech, many members of your class will be content-oriented listeners who will be interested in learning from you. Therefore, it is your duty to present the truth as completely as possible. You can emphasize an idea, but if you go too far, you could lose credibility in the minds of your content-focused audience. You can promote ideas that are important to you, but if you leave out important caveats, you're hiding part of the truth and could leave your audience with an inaccurate perspective.

Imagine that you are giving a speech about the plight of orphans in Africa. If you just talk about the fact that there are more than 45 million orphans in Africa without further explanation, it sounds like a commercial. In such a case, the reaction of your audience is likely to be less enthusiastic than you would like. Instead, content-oriented listeners want to hear well-constructed information with strong explanations.


People with a time-oriented listening style prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. Time-sensitive listeners may become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations. This type of listener may be receptive for only a short time and may become rude or even hostile if the speaker expects a prolonged focus of attention. Time-focused listeners express their impatience by rolling their eyes, fidgeting in their seats, checking their cell phones, and other inappropriate behavior. If you've been asked to talk to a group of high school students, realize that their attention spans aren't as long as college students. This is an important reason why speeches for young audiences should be shorter or more varied than speeches for adults.

In your future career, some of your listeners will have real time constraints, not just perceived ones. Imagine that you have been asked to give a speech to the board of directors of a local company about a new project. Most likely, the people on the board are pressed for time. If your speech is long and filled with too much detailed information, time-sensitive listeners will simply tune out while you speak. Of course, when time-focused listeners start to tune out of you, they won't hear your message. This is not the same as a time-sensitive listener, who may care less about the content of the message and more about its length.

Identify your listening style

It is important to realize that your listening style is relational and situational. For example, if you are in a very committed relationship, you are more likely to listen to people because you are more interested in the other person's feelings and well-being than in the person who is packing your groceries or taking your order at the restaurant. Situational context requires you to focus more on plot, content, or timing. At work, you react in an action-oriented manner and may view your task as a to-do list. In an emergency, you are more aware of time and may be less concerned with the person's emotional feelings and more concerned with their safety. And in a final review session, you can focus much more on the content, whereas in class you would normally focus on what the teacher is wearing or what the person next to you is eating. All of these examples show how listening styles can change. You may think of your own listening style as fluent, but you probably recognize the one you tend to use most of the time. Would it surprise you to learn that your gender can also play a role in your listening style? Men are generally action-oriented listeners, while women are generally more people-oriented listeners (Barker & Watson, 2000). It's important to remember that your listening preferences don't match your ability, and you want to be able to adapt and apply different listening styles at different times.


  1. In a small group, discuss what each person's typical listening style is. Under what circumstances could you practice a different listening style?
  2. List the pros and cons of each of the listening styles discussed in this section.
  3. As you prepare for your next speech, find ways to tailor your message to each of the listening styles described in this section.

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