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Listening and feedback: two essentials for interpersonal communication.

Listening and Feedback: Two Essentials for Interpersonal Communication

Research has revealed that after a 10-minute message, on average only 50 percent of the message's content will be remembered immediately, with a decrease to 25 percent in 2 months. Additionally, 75 percent of information that is transmitted and received in a given day through sound communication is lost by the average person because of poor listening skills.

Because we think at a rate of 600-800 words per minute and speak at a rate of only 125-150 words per minute), when someone is speaking, we frequently are inattentive and drift off to distractions. It is natural for certain parts of messages to "turn us on" and intensify our attention, whereas other parts will "turn us off" and lead to distractions. This turning on and off of our attention has a direct impact on comprehension. [2]

Only recently has listening been taught as a fourth member of the reading/writing/speaking triad, and then mainly as an essential communication skill for business professionals. In spite of this, listening remains the most used and the least taught of our communication skills. We listen poorly because we were never taught to listen well.

It is important for us to recognize several types of poor listeners, because this recognition will help us to become better listeners:

* The faker--the pseudo listener. This person gives signals that he or she is listening, but is not.

* The constant talker. This person hardly allows anyone to get a word in edgewise.

* The constant note taker. This listener is so intent on recording every word, that he or she misses or does not understand many points because of distractions during the listening process.

* The impatient, disinterested listener. This listener is too interested in things not related to the speaker or the message.

* The supercritic. This person is so critical about different aspects of the message or speaker that he or she may be disruptive to the speaker or may show antagonism.

* The "finish the sentence for you" listener. This listener is so impatient and self-confident that he or she interrupts the speaker before sentences are completed.

* The know-it-all listener. This person is the master of one-upmanship. He or she has always done a similar thing, in a bigger and better fashion. [3]

Effective listening is more than just hearing. It is an active process. This is in contrast to passive listening, which is characterized by hearing without sending a verbal or nonverbal response to the speaker. Passive listening gives no indication of acceptance or rejection of the message. It gives no evidence of evaluation or support, nor does it give empathy with or sympathy for the speaker. These characteristics of passive listening need to be known and recognized, because, in rare instances, they can have usefulness.

Active listening on the other hand, provides important feedback to the speaker. It can show acceptance or rejection of the message or ideas. It can indicate the accuracy of understanding, with or without a judgment being made. Questions can be asked. The degree of open-mindedness of the listener can be shown. Support for a position or an idea can be demonstrated. Interest in, empathy with, and sympathy for the speaker can be expressed. In addition, it may encourage the speaker to provide more information, to disclose more about the issue or him- or herself, or to make midcourse adjustments in what he or she is saying in order to achieve the desired objectives. During this process, prejudgment and selecting out of unpleasant, difficult, or undesirable messages may occur and may be evident. Silence and motionlessness are terribly annoying and deadly responses to a speaker. [1]

We can improve our interpersonal listening behavior skills by giving attention to both physical and personal factors:

Physical Factors

* Select a time and place that makes listening easy.

* Avoid strict time constraints.

* Minimize environmental distractions (barriers).

* Position yourself comfortably in a place where you can see all of the other person.

Personal Factors

* The speaker must first have the listener's attention and have a message that is of interest. The listener must then be alert and focused.

* Establish eye contact.

* Try not to place unstated and unintended meanings into the message.

* Be alert to receive and interpret clusters of nonverbal messages that are being sent to you. This will allow you to learn a lot about the feelings and attitudes of the speaker.

* Have an open mind to the message and messenger. Do not judge prematurely.

* Give feedback. Be involved.

* Realize that you can listen without giving advice.

* Make personal disclosures, as appropriate. This helps to establish closeness with the speaker and trust. [3,4]

Feeback from the listener is essential for effective interpersonal communication, and there must be several vital components to the feedback:

Empathy--the ability of a person to imagine or perceive themselves in another person's situation, to see things as they see them. At times, understanding the feelings of the speaker may be more important than the message itself.

When empathy is expressed, the listener indicates a deeper level of understanding and closeness with the speaker. On the other hand, objectivity and detachment, the opposite of empathy, may at times be appropriate.

Paraphrasing--a valuable technique for learning the process of active listening. Here the listener uses his or her own words to express understanding of the message. In the process, the speaker has the opportunity to expand, deemphasize, modify, or correct the message or paraphrased statement.

Immediacy--Verbal, one-to-one, direct, interpersonal communication has the tremendous advantage of permitting immediate responses. Immediacy gives feedback greater impact. Its influence and importance are of benefit to both the speaker and listener. Telephone communication is not as effective as direct communication because nonverbal transmitters are sharply limited to sound, but it is much better than written communication.

Clarity--If feedback is immediate, it is usually clear that it is in response to the message that was just given by the speaker, be it in verbal or nonverbal form. These responses should clearly and accurately represent the message the listener wants to send, e.g., understanding, agreement, disagreement, empathy, support, etc.

Appropriateness--Feedback must be appropriate to the situation. It must make a clear distinction between a response to the message and a response to the speaker, as an individual. Because appropriateness is a culturally learned concept, the situation will determine what is considered to be appropriate.

Informative--For feedback to be of value, it must provide new information, information that will assist the speaker in evaluating the effect of his or her message. The provision of information is the essence of feedback.

Honesty--We want feedback to honestly represent the message the receiver wants to send back to the speaker. If you do not understand a message, indicate that you do not understand. In spite of the need for honesty in one's responses, honesty has to be balanced with discretion. Being frankly honest may communicate insensitivity, cruelty, or even hostility. This is likely to result in defensiveness, signaling the end to effective communication. It is important to recognize that feedback is not always direct; some involves subtlety and implication. This may be quite appropriate at times.

Just as sending feedback is important, effective reception of interpersonal feedback is also important and has at least five characteristics: sensitivity, specificity, open-mindedness, supportiveness, and helpfulness.

Sensitivity--The speaker must look at the receiver of a message and establish eye-to-eye contact, or most of the feedback message will be lost, because most of it is transmitted through nonverbal channels. Sensitivity to the various channels (parts of the body) through which nonverbal messages can be sent is essential. Restless motion, perspiration, crossed arms, and frowning may be just a few of the messages being transmitted. Caution is suggested in regard to the interpretation of nonverbal messages. Errors in interpretation are likely to occur if they are not interpreted in clusters.

Open-mindedness--If one's mind is closed or if an evaluation or judgment is made too early, feedback may stop coming and the speaker will be short-changed.

Supportiveness--Just as it may be desirable for the listener to show support for the speaker, the sender of the feedback needs to be given support and encouragement or, again, the feedback may stop, which is to the speaker's disadvantage. Remember, effective interpersonal communications is a circular process. The speaker (sender) becomes the receiver, and the listener (receiver) becomes the speaker, and so forth.

Helpfulness--The giving of support and information to the sender of feedback are means of being helpful to that person. It encourages more feedback, which can be directed in such a way that it is specific and meaningful. [1]

If feedback is consistently pushed aside or ignored, it will cease to be given. In management situations, the manager will eventually find that he or she is being ignored and bypassed.

Ten major "shoulds" have been

proposed to make feedback more


* Reactions, perceptions, and opinions should not be considered as fact.

* Feedback should not be personalized

It should refer to the relevant behavior, performance, or outcome.

* Feedback should be as specific as possible.

* Feedback should avoid "shock" terms, because the emotional reaction that is produced may result in distractions or defensiveness.

* Feedback should be constructive so it can be useful.

* When defensiveness or an adverse reaction has been raised, deal with the reaction itself. Providing more facts and information in an attempt to convince the speaker of something may be counterproductive.

* Feedback shold communicate an understanding of the person's right to be different or that the person is worthwhile.

* In performance evaluations, feedback should include an assessment of what contributed to or limits full effectiveness or accomplishments.

* Feedback regarding performance should include suggestions to improve performance.

* Feedback, which has to be an evaluation rather than strictly descriptive, should deal with outcomes or issues that have to be improved; otherwise defensiveness is likely to be a significant problem.

When receiving feedback:

* Be alert and listen carefully.

* Try to avoid becoming defensive or producing defensiveness.

* Paraphrase your understanding of the feedback.

* Ask appropriate questions to obtain necessary clarification.

* Do not overreact to feedback but modify your behavior as necessary.

* Carefully evaluate the feedback you have received.

* React to the feedback by providing more information.

People prefer feedback that is in agreement and harmony with them and their esperiences. This congruity deals with consistency in our values, opinions, and beliefs. This result is frequently not possible. [2,5]

Certain methods of responding to a message or speaker may result in the development of problems:

Advising--Give advise when it is requested. We tend to give advise when all the speaker wants is a sympathetic ear. Be aware that when advise is given, you can be blamed for its poor result. Giving advise may not be the best way to assist a person in improving problem-solving abilities and in gaining self-confidence or independence.

Analyzing the messanger or the speaker often implies superiority and that the listener knows better than the speaker. This may initiate defensive behaviors. Your analysis of the message may be incorrect, which may worsen the communication process, especially if it is accepted. Analyzing may not help the speaker. The speaker may not be emotionally prepared at the time to accept the analysis.

Judging implies that the listener thinks he or she is qualified to pass judgement on the speaker's thoughts and actions. This also can lead to defensive behaviors. In addition, judging can occur before the full message is received and result in misinterpretations and improper actions.

Supporting is an essential component of active listening. But support must be given at appropriate times or it can be interpreted as being superficial, trite, lacking in understanding, or confusing or may make the speaker feel worse than he or she did.

Questioning is also essential component of active listening and is one of the main methods for clarifying meaning and redirecting the speaker. But questioning should not be used as a method for 'showing up" or embarrassing the speaker. Proper timing and phrasing and appropriated direction of questions are essential. If a question is not properly phrased, the implication may be that the listener knows the answer. This may be far from the truth. [6]

For interpersonal communication to be effective, we must understant its complexities and accept the fact that listening and feedback are essential components. Active listening that is effective includes providing useful feddback. These require critical skills and deserve independent study.


[1]. DeVito, J. The Interpersonal Communication Book. New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986, pp.43-57.

[2] Lewis, P. Organizational Communication--The Essence of Effective Management, third edition. New York, N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 1987, pp.151-7.

[3] Rasvery, R. and Lemoine, L. Effective Managerial Communication. Boston, Mass.: Kent Publishing Company, 1986, pp.148-77.

[4] Richardson, J. "Interpersonal relationships--Communicator, know thyself. Physician Executive, 14(3):19-21, May-June 1988.

[5] Burnett, V. "Essential of Feedback", A Seven-Day Leadership Development Course. Los Angeles, Calif.: Center for Creative Leadership, 1976, pp. 77-8

[6] Adler, R. and Towne, N. Looking Out Looking In - Interpersonal Communication, second edition. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978, pp. 191-227.

James M. richardson, MD, FACP, FACPE, is Medical Director, Fairmont Hospital, San Leandro, Calif. He iw a Distinguished Fellow of the College and an associate member of the College's Society of Hospitals.
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Author:Richardson, James M.
Publication:Physician Executive
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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