YourSidekick Role Responsibilities



Communication is a receiver-oriented enterprise.  “Receiver” is a general term that applies when we input cues from the environment and make sense out of them.  We may use all of our senses to detect and decode information during reception.  We rely on visual and auditory feedback from others even as we are speaking.  “Listener” describes the role we assume when our primary responsibility is to receive spoken messages from speakers during speech communication encounters.  We use their spoken words in constructing an understanding of what they mean.  Effective reception and listening enhance understanding.  

Our reception may be impeded by inputting barriers such as sensory limitations and selective perception or by processing barriers such as observation-inference confusion, faulty assumptions, and selective memory.  Our listening may be hampered by poor listening habits.

In this unit we will learn to locate reception barriers and to implement strategies for the inputting and processing of information.  We will examine listening habits that may be working against you and describe habits that enhance greater understanding.

By the end of this unit you should be able to 

Name and describe inputting barriers and their coping strategies.

Name and describe processing barriers and their coping strategies.

Distinguish among statements of observation, inference and judgment.

Distinguish between the acts of hearing and listening.  

Describe your listening habits.

Construct a program to improve your listening behavior.


Inputting barriers prevent information from being detected by our sense organs or being passed from the sense organs to the thought centers of the brain.  The inputting of information is said to be effective if a receiver's report of an observation is substantially the same as a report of the given observation by any other receiver.  For instance, if I look at a car and report the observation "The car is red," my inputting is effective to the extent that any other person looking at the same car would report "The car is red."

There are two barriers to effective inputting that are inherently built into human communication receivers.  They are sensory limitation and selective perception. 

Sensory Limitations

Even sense organs that are in perfect working order do not have the ability to receive much of what is going on in our world.  Wendell Johnson has underscored this fact. 

The wave lengths to which the eye responds are but a small part of the total spectrum of such wave lengths.  We register as sound only a narrow band of the full range of air vibrations.  Noiseless dog whistles, "electric eyes," and radar mechanisms--to say nothing of homing pigeons--underscore the primitive character of man's sensory equipment.  Indeed, we seem little more than barely capable of tasting and smelling, and the narrowness of the temperature range we can tolerate is downright sobering to anyone dispassionately concerned with the efficiency of survival mechanisms.*

Moreover, people with sensory limitations or sensory defects are at a particular disadvantage in understanding the world as others understand it. 

*"The Fateful Process of Mr. A Talking to Mr. B," Harvard Business Review, XXXI (January-February 1953), 49-56.

Sensory limitations prevent the sense organs from detecting stimuli because of problems or defects with the sense organs themselves.  Any of the five senses--the sense of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching--may be defective or impaired. 

Some of us have significant sensory limitations.  For instance, the hearing receptors in the ear of a person may be damaged and unable to detect certain sounds.  Workers in noisy machine shops may not be able to detect high-pitch sounds.  Others may have difficulty in detecting any sound at all.

Many people have vision problems.  People are far-sighted or nearsighted.  Some people cannot differentiate between certain colors.  Color blindness is another sensory limitation that distorts incoming information.  How effectively can we communicate about the "red" car if all that I can receive are various shades of green? 

There are four strategies for coping with sensory limitations:  Awareness, sensory aids, compensatory behavior, and external verification. 

1.  The main strategy is one of awareness.  Being aware of sensory barriers in the inputting subsystem should lead us to expect automatic, involuntary, and unintentional distortions as messages enter into this subsystem.  Think of the implications of this strategy for your own communication.  Can you recall a situation where an awareness of sensory limitations could have prevented or minimized misunderstanding between yourself and others?

2.  Another strategy is the use of sensory aids--like eyeglasses, contact lenses, allergy shots for hay fever, hearing aids, etc. 

3.  A third strategy is the use of compensatory behavior- like moving closer to a transmitter if you cannot hear well or compensating by relying on another channel when a given channel is impaired (for example, lip-reading if hearing is impaired, using a highly developed sense of touch if sight is impaired), etc. 

4.  A fourth strategy is the use of external verification- like asking another person what a speaker said or what she saw the sender do, or asking "Do you smell gas?" if your nose is plugged up, etc.

Selective Perception

Selective perception.  People may fail to believe the persuasive message because of the way in which they selectively perceive the meaning of the message in accordance with old beliefs.  More specifically, selective perception can lead to the misunderstanding of a message because of misindexing or message distortion.

Misindexing.  Any particular communication may seem relevant to many different kinds of beliefs; it might be "viewed in the light of" many different past experiences.  The question of which attitudes will be influenced by a given advertisement depends upon the way in which the receiver classifies or categorizes the tentative meaning of the advertising message as he or she begins to decode it.  This kind of classification of messages has been variously referred to by communications researchers and psychologists as "cognitive tuning" or "message indexing."

Belief in advertising messages is commonly impaired by three kinds of misindexing. 

The reader, listener, or viewer may "get hung up on the advertisement itself" and never get around to thinking about the advertised product or service.  The ad is too addy.  Focus on the ad rather than the product.

The mind may be lead astray by some "borrowed attention" device in the advertisement.  The beautiful girl in the ad may make us think about condoms rather than beer.

The advertisement may stir up thoughts about competing products or more general issues than the advertiser has in mind.  The ad for a chevy may remind us to buy a ford.

Aids to proper indexing...Use product experience cues that empathize with consumers' memories of or expectations about the advertised product...Commercials which show the product in unusual positions or unfamiliar settings are not conducive to proper indexing...Use across-message cues--elements that are common to consumers' exposures to printed ads and commercials and package designs and other representations of the product.  Without use of such common-to-all-messages aids to proper indexing, the cumulative effects of a product's advertising are impaired; and each commercial, each advertisement, and each display piece is likely to "trigger" separate and unrelated associations in the consumer's mind.

The Problem of Distortion...Even if an advertisement has arrested attention and been properly indexed, the old beliefs already lodged in people's minds still have ample opportunity to resist the change called for by the advertising message.

People see meanings which they expect to see.  If the message meaning does not fall into place with old beliefs, an uncomfortable imbalance is created, and feelings of curiosity or doubt are likely to ensue.  Such imbalance--often referred to as cognitive dissonance--can be resolved in one of two ways:  by changing old beliefs to conform to the message; or through distortion o the meaning of the message so that the message more easily fits in with old beliefs.

The advertising message may be distorted by being leveled or sharpened...Leveled when people distort the meaning by overlooking something in the advertising message which is out of phase with preexisting beliefs..Under these circumstances the person quickly characterizes the advertisement as something quite familiar (something I already know about) and overlooks the new details in the message.

The advertising message is sharpened when people read into the message additional or unintended meanings in order to make the message conform to preexisting beliefs...The message is quite likely to be sharpened if it represents a departure from long-standing advertising themes for the product...People expecting to see the Campbell Kids in Campbell ads.

With selective perception, information is registered by the sense organs, but the information is filtered out or altered before it reaches our conscious awareness.  Human receivers scan and take into account a mere sampling of what is available in the environment.  Many stimuli are available for reception, but only a few are chosen by a person for attention.  In addition, sensory data may be “misplaced” or distorted before it reaches consciousness.  What we think we hear may not be what another person said.  Or what we think we see may not be what is on the printed page. 

Consider the following three triangles.


What did you see written in each of the three triangles?  Most people indicate they "see":  "Now is the time" rather than "Now is the THE time"; etc.  They do not "see" the second THE in each triangle.

Two factors account for what we select to perceive.  They are (1) the experiences of the receiver and (2) the psychological state of the receiver.

The first factor helps explain what you saw in the three triangles.  Most people have seen or heard the three phrases before.  Their past experiences dictate what they see printed on the page.  There is quite a bit of truth to the saying "You see what you expect to see" or "You hear what you expect to hear." 

To a large extent the receiver's past experience leads him to expect to see and hear certain things.  One reason why it is so difficult for a writer to proofread his own writing is the phenomenon of selective perception.  As he tries to correct his work, he often "sees" what he intended to write rather than what is actually on the page.

Past experiences may cause us to select information that forms erroneous impressions of people and things.  When we meet a person for the first time we may focus on her accent and miss what she has to say.  Although we are not aware of the filtering that has taken place, we dismiss the person because we once knew a person with a similar accent that caused us harm. 

The second factor, psychological states, helps explain some cases of selective perception.  If a receiver is in a state of heightened emotions (mad, angry, ecstatic, excited), her perceived information about the outside world is highly restricted.   During a shopping spree, I have purchased music videos that prove to be disappointing later.  Because I was excited and in a buying mood, it was the packaging that caught my eye rather than the music that the video  contained.

Psychological states can cause us to select one part of a message and ignore other parts.  In heated arguments it is common for one person to begin a volley by saying, “But you said....”  Often, the other person retorts, “And I also said....”  Other times, both people agree on what was said in the message but disagree about how it was said.  One person may have missed the nonverbal cues that the other person received.  Missed cues can lead to distorted interpretations of messages.

There are three strategies for coping with selective perception:  Awareness, expanding our experiential base, and emotional release or control 

1.  The main strategy is one of awareness.  Being aware of the specific situation in which you are most likely to select out the "wrong" or "inappropriate" information is essential.  Self-appraisal and self analysis (to know oneself) is the prime requisite for inputting information effectively.

2.  If our experiences limit our expectations and if our expectations determine what we see and hear, we need to expand the numbers, types and quality of our experiences. We need to broaden our experiential base.  Of course, the base can be broadened through direct experiences and/or vicarious experiences.  Methods useful in gaining direct and/or vicarious experiences include literature, drama, role-playing and role-taking, simulation, and games.

3.  Emotional control and emotional release are ways of coping with the psychological states that influence the receiver's perceptions.  The fact is that when the receiver is experiencing heightened emotions (for example, high anxiety, hostility, etc.) the information that gets into the system is highly selected and distorted.  In such cases a "cooling off" period is an essential strategy, or the energy may be released through some activity (running around the block, working it out a the gym, etc.).


Processing barriers prevent our brains from reaching accurate and appropriate conclusions about our environment.  The enormous complexity of the processing operation makes distortion the rule rather than the exception.  We are concerned with observation-inference confusion, three faulty assumptions, and selective memory.

Obeservation-Inference Confusion

Observation-inference confusion happens when a person jumps to a conclusion.  When a person treats inferences and judgments as if they were statements of observation, we have problems.  Observation- inference confusion is one of the most serious and common barriers to the effective reception of information.


Three types of statements can be the product of our processing operations:  statements of observation, inference, and judgment.  Statements of observation are very different from inferences and judgments.

Statements of observation involve only the identification and/or classification of we are able to sense.  They can be made only after observation and do not go beyond what can be observed.  Statements of observation are made up of words with high denotative value and low connotative value.  "Denotation" refers to the standard dictionary meaning of words, and "connotation" refers to the subjective meaning of words derived from associations and feelings.  You use statements of observation when it is your intention to report exactly what you saw, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched.  Statements of observation are based on what is strictly observable.  By their very nature, they approach 100 per cent certainty.

On the other hand, statements of inference are always dependent on an assumption or set of assumptions held by the reporter.  Moreover, statements of inference can be made anytime--before, after, during or without observation.  In short, statements of inference do not have to be based on observations at all,and they go beyond what actually can be observed.  Statements of inference are made up of words with either high denotative value or high connotative value.  When a reporter uses words with high connotative value, you can be certain the statements are inferential.  Statements like "She is a God-fearing American" and "He is a real doll" use words with high connotative value.  Statements of inference are used when you intend to interpret what you actually observed and/or assumed.  Since statements of inference are always based, in part, on assumptions, there is always a chance that the statement is untrue.  Inferences are probabilistic statements.

There is a special type of inferences, called "evaluative inferences" or "judgments," that deserves analysis.  Judgments have all the characteristics of an inference that we have discussed and then some.  Judgments always involve assumption.  Judgments can be made anytime--before, after, during or without observation, and they go beyond what can actually be observed.  Although inferences in general are made up of words with either high denotative or high connotative value, judgments always have words with high connotative value.  Judgmental interpretations always express the attitudes or feelings of the reporter.  Although inferences in general are probabilistic statements, people are generally more concerned with whether they agree or disagree with a judgment than whether the statement is true or not.  Judgmental inferences involve a value or preference.  They have to do with goodness and badness, usefulness and uselessness, desirableness and undesirableness, approval and disapproval.  Judgments have a preference or "taste" dimension and a value dimension; some have a moral dimension also. 

William V. Haney* has studied extensively the problem of confusing observations with inferences and the dynamics of the confusion. 

*William V. Haney, Communication and Organizational Behavior:  Text and Cases (Homewood, Ill.:  Irwin, 1967), 185-198. 

Dynamics of Observation-Inference Confusion 

Let use consider each of these stages of observation-inference confusion. 

1.  Someone makes an inference.  Inferences are always based, in part, on assumptions or guesses held by the inference-maker.  As such, there is always a risk involved in making inferences.  There is always a chance that the inference is inappropriate or untrue. 

2.  The person does not realize that she is making an inference; the person thinks she is making an observation.  Because observations are based solely on sensory experiences, there is a minimal risk that an observation is inappropriate or untrue.

The differences between observational and inferential statements are summarized in the following chart.

3.  The person acts on the inference as if it were an observation and fails to calculate the risk involved in taking the action.  People are generally more cautious when they base their behavior upon inferences (for example, opinions, hunches, etc.).  They generally delay their actions and/or conclusions while they weigh the chances of being right as opposed to being wrong.  When observation-inference confusion occurs, there is an unknown and hence uncalculated risk being taken.

4.  In the final stage of observation-inference confusion, unanticipated and unwanted consequences usually occur.  The consequences may range from mild embarrassment through tragedy. 

Haney gives an excellent example of the dynamic involved in confusing inferences with observations.* 

*From William V. Haney, Communication and Organizational Behavior:  Text and Cases, Rev. Ed.  (Homewood, Ill.:  Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1967), 193.  Reproduced by permission. 

In this figure, the driver of the white car is shown at a stop sign.  A black car enters the intersection from the south.  White see Black's right turn signal blinking and infers that Black will turn right in the intersection.  White drives into the intersection.  He acts on the inference he has made as if it were a fact.  Black does not turn, however, but continues straight through the intersection with the intention of turning right into a driveway a few feet beyond the intersection. In diagram B we see the results of this confusion of inferences and observations--a costly accident.  In this case White was successfully sued for personal injuries and property damages. 


Observation-inference confusion can be overcome.  We can employ four specific strategies:  Recognizing differences between statements, distinguishing between statements, delaying our conclusion reaching, and labeling inferential statements 

First, we need to learn the differences between a statement of observation and one involving a nonevaluative inference or judgmental inference.  Many people simply do not know how facts differ from opinions.  

Second, we need to learn to distinguish between these types of statements when they are being made.  Some people fail to apply their knowledge in their day-to-day communication encounters. 

Third, we need to learn to delay our reaching of conclusions. This is important because it gives us the time to distinguish between the types of statements involved in reaching the conclusions.  If we find we are processing on the inferential level, we have the time to calculate the risk involved in taking a particular course of action. 

Fourth, when we communicate with ourselves and others, we should label our inferences as such.  We can label these in several ways. The phrases, "In my opinion," "As I see it," "It appears," "It seems to me," "I believe," etc., are all warnings to ourselves and others that we are operating at the inferential level--that what we are communicating is probabilistic rather than certain.  It is not enough merely to label statements ourselves; we should get others to label their statements. 

Faulty Assumptions  

As has been emphasized in this unit, inferences always involve an assumption or set of assumptions.  So it stands to reason that an inference can be no better than the assumptions on which it was based.  Even if the inference is based, in part, on accurate observations, the inference will be faulty to the extent that the underlying assumptions are faulty.

Since the great bulk of our communicating is inferential, we need to gain skill in detecting and overcoming these faulty assumptions that so often lead to communication breakdowns.  We will consider three of the common faulty assumptions we often use in making specific inferences: 

Faulty Assumption One:  Words Have Meaning.

Faulty Assumption Two:  Things Don't Change. 

Faulty Assumption Three:  Items Belong in Rigid Categories.  

Let us consider each of these faulty assumptions and suggest strategies for overcoming each.


Meanings are to be found in people, not in words.  However in everyday conversation we too often assume that words per se have meanings in their own right.  For instance, a young woman traveling through a small town entered a cafe early one morning and casually ordered a cup of coffee and a snail.  The waitress informed her that she was very busy and did not have time for "cute talk" so early in the morning.  The waitress concluded by suggesting the young lady go to the cafe down the street.  Puzzled the young lady left the cafe not realizing that the "snail" she transmitted was not the "snail" received by the waitress.  The meaning for "snail" inside the young lady was "a kind of breakfast roll shaped like a snail"; the meaning inside the waitress was "a kind of slimy creature that lives by a pond." 

When we communicate through the exchange of verbal and vocal stimuli, the receiver evokes or creates the meanings of these messages.  The created meanings are, in large measure, the results of each person's unique background and experiences.  What meaning is created when I receive a message may not be the meaning you create when you receive the message.  In addition, words are not only arbitrary symbols we assign to stand for one object or notion, but words can stand for a variety of objects or notions. For instance, "dinner time" may be the same as "lunchtime" to me, and it may stand for the "noon meal."  To you "dinner time" may be the evening meal. 

Strategies for Overcoming Assumption One

We would suggest three basic strategies for overcoming Assumption One:  Be person-minded, not word-minded, ask questions and paraphrase, be sensitive to verbal and situational contexts

 1.  Be person-minded, not word-minded.  When you communicate with others remember that meanings are in people, not in words.  Try to put yourself in the other person's place and infer what she means rather than what the words mean. Haney suggests that the person-minded communicator frequently asks these questions: 

This is what it means to me, but what does it, or will it, mean to him? 

What would I mean if I were in his position? 

Does my interpretation of his word coincide with his viewpoint (as I see it)?* 

*Communication and Organizational Behavior, 232. 

2.  When in doubt about another person's meaning, ask questions or paraphrase the meaning that is evoked when you hear the other person's words.  When you paraphrase another person's remarks, you give him the chance to indicate if he thinks your have reflected his meaning adequately. 

3.  Be sensitive to verbal and situational contexts. Sometimes you can correctly infer another person's intentions by reference to what she has said before.  Or the situation in which the communication takes place may give clues to the communicator's meaning. 


As time moves along, people, places, and things change. Looking through the family album or old home movies, we are often made only too aware of this fact.  Or as we leaf through the yearbook of our first year in high school, we usually notice sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious differences between then and now in the people, places, and things exhibited in the annual.

Although it seems patently obvious that things change with time, often our conversations with others do not reflect this process nature of life.  One of the reasons is that the very language we use suggests a permanence about things that does not exist in reality.  We are forced by the structure of our language to use the same words to talk about a person we have not seen in ten years that we use to describe a person we are talking to right now. 

Let us examine Faulty Assumption Two in the following example.  A businessman is called for his appraisal of a secretary who used to work in his office.  He remembers he had to "let her go" because she seemed to lack motivation and became anxious and confused when deadlines had to be met.  The businessman gives the secretary a less than favorable recommendation, even though the secretary worked in his office eight years ago when she was nineteen!  The tendency is for the businessman to have a "frozen evaluation" of her--to think of her as if she has not changed in all that time. 

People convicted of crimes find they are often victims of "frozen evaluation" after serving a sentence in a penitentiary. Relatives and prospective employers do not change their evaluation of the "ex-con."  Students may be caught in frozen evaluations by teachers.  After having a student who did poor work in a course three years ago when she was a freshman, a teacher may expect the same kind of performance from the student as junior.  Harmful communication often results from the assumption of non-change.

Strategy for Overcoming Assumption Two

General semanticists suggest a device we can use to remind us that all people, places, and things change with time; they call the device "dating."  When discussing the presidency, for instance, we should mentally note that the presidency1924 is not the same as the presidency1994. Similarly democracy1776 is not the same as democracy1976; science today is not science twenty years ago; and most certainly, music1990 is not music1940.  The act of mentally dating things reminds us that old evaluations may be out of date and invalid.  It guards against erroneous conclusions that may be harmful to ourselves and others.  

In our conversations with others we should "date" those comments that might be misunderstood by specifying the time frame under consideration.  Let the other person know the "when" of what we are talking about.


This assumption is operative (1) when a person tries to lump a number of people or things in one general, rigid category and (2) when a person tries to classify a large number of people or things into one of two extremely different categories.  In the first case the person is using what is called a one-value orientation, or stereotyping.  In the second case the communicator is using a two-value orientation, or "either-or" alternatives. 

When the result of engaging Faulty Assumption Three is stereotyping, specific persons, places, or things are grouped together on the basis of one characteristic and the specific persons, places, or things thus grouped are assumed to behave in a similar way.  Hence people come to believe, "There's nothing to do in a small town," "Football players are big and stupid," "All college professors are liberal," "All Italians have underworld connections," "All church members are hypocritical," etc.  Of course each specific person, place, or thing is unique. To assign to any specific object the stereotyped behavior of a single, rigid category is to take a great chance of drawing erroneous conclusions that are not in harmony with reality.

Another manifestation of Faulty Assumption Three is an "either-or" orientation; we tend to place people, places, and things in one of two extremely different mutually exclusive categories.  In our saner moments we realize that people do not have to be either tall or short, rich or poor, considerate or inconsiderate, handsome or ugly, etc.  They may be a little of both.  However, it is difficult to describe the numerous "in betweens"--the not quite talls and not quite shorts--because our language is sadly lacking in "in-between" words.  Why not try to supply "in-between" words in the spaces separating the following "either-or" extremes: 




Don Fabun explains that most people find the above-mentioned task extremely difficult. 

As a result, we tend to slip from one extreme directly to the other when defining, something--largely because it's easier than searching for an intermediate word.  For example, if a man can't be described as honest, we are likely to call him dishonest.  If he is not a success, he's a failure, etc.*

*Communications:  The Transfer of Meaning (Beverly Hills, Calif.:  The Glencoe Press, 1968), 45. 

And the result is that our transmitted and received messages fail to reflect our actual perceptions of people, places, and things. 

Strategies for Overcoming Assumption Three

When dealing with people, places, and things we can employ three strategies to overcome Assumption Three:  Search for differences rather than similarities, "indexing" device:  use the which index and how much index, and avoid using "allness" and "either- or" words. 

First, we can accept the premise that each person, place, or thing is unique.  This point of view forces us to perceive the unique characteristics or differences inherent in all things rather than the similarities.  This is difficult to do because we are trained from early childhood to look for similarities in things rather than differences, to generalize rather than to deal with particulars, and to categorize rather than to deal with each object on its own terms. 

Second, when communicating with ourselves and others we can index our references to people, places, and things.  Instead of stereotyping, use the which index.  Rather than "Politicians are corrupt!" index which politicians of which state or federal agency.  Instead of "Kids shouldn't be allowed to drive motor bikes!" index which "kids"--and might there be some "adults" you would prohibit?  

Rather than placing objects into extreme "either or" categories, use the how much index.  Developing the habit of ascertaining "how much" or "to what degree" in seeming either-or situations can be an effective counter against the distortion of reality.Instead of "The girl was heavy for her age" index how heavy--"The girl was ten years old and weighed 135 pounds." Rather than placing objects in absolute categories, use quantifying terms as "very," "slightly," "moderately," "generally," "seldom," "average," "fairly," "often," "medium," etc., to indicate degree. 

Third, avoid using words that suggest rigid, mutually exclusive categories that do not exist in reality.  Words as "never," "nobody," "everybody," "every," "all," "constantly," etc., usher us into the distorted, unreal world created by Faulty Assumption Three. 

Selective Memory

Also called “selective forgetting” and “selective retention,” selective memory causes a message or parts of a message to be forgotten.  Most of us have responded to a parent and then promptly forgotten what we have agreed to do.  Frequently, we are introduced to a person but cannot recall the name moments later.

There is another way a person can reduce the dissonance or lack of internal harmony resulting when there is a discrepancy between his attitudes and those expressed by a communication with which he is faced.  He can simply forget rather quickly the content of the communication.  Given some material which was used in preparing a speech, subjects remembered fewer of the arguments which might have been received unfavorable by the audience they were slated to address.

"Reminder messages" can be believed easily.  If a message is aimed at the reinforcement of already existing beliefs, it will be easily accepted.  Persuasive messages aimed a changing people's minds about something tell a different story..

With the passage of time, belief may either increase or fade away.  Both an increase of belief with passage of time (often referred to as positive sleeper effect) and a decrease in belief are forms of selective recall..

Positive sleeper effect is most likely to occur when an advertising message is initially discredited as having come form an insincere advertiser or advertising spokesman but later becomes the best information I have to go on in making a buying decision.

There is good reason to believe that much "at-home disbelief" of advertising changes to "in-the-store belief" when an actual buying decision must be made.  However, the evidence on this point is not conclusive; and it may be that the repetitive nature of advertising precludes any chance for a sleeper effect to operate.

Actually  the fading of belief can be attributed to overcrowding the active file space in the reader, listener, or viewer's mind (known technically as retroactive inhibition), or to failure to reinforce tentative beliefs.

Overcrowding the active file space.  The consumer is usually much less interested in a product or service than the advertiser.  People can ordinarily retain only a limited amount of information about a product, service, or brand in their "active file memories."  In trying to fill his advertisements with more and more information about his product or service, the advertiser can easily diminish his chances of leaving a clear, unitary impression of his product or service in the consumer's mind....The problem of active file space is complicated somewhat in the case of infrequently purchased items which involve greater than average purchase the auto.

Failure to reinforce tentative belief.  Many advertising messages are believed on a pending-further-evidence (I'll believe it when I see it) basis.  Tentative beliefs of this sore may be crystallized by firsthand experience with the product itself; or such beliefs may be shored up by comments or examples offered by a consumer's friends or associates....

Deliberate remembering requires a conscious application of techniques that imprint ideas on your memory.  Here are three techniques that are likely to work.


1.  Make notes.

Note taking

--Determine whether notes are appropriate.  If you must retain the information for a long period of time or have a weak memory, notes may well be the appropriate solution.

--Determine what kind of notes to take.  Notes can be taken in several different ways.  You may prefer to jot down key words, a partial outline, or a complete outline.

The key word format is best used to remember only the specific points in a message.  For example, to remember the definition of the word process as it is used in communication, list such key words as ongoing, changing, and no beginning or end.  Your choice of key words must be highly descriptive and thorough, however, if you hope to make sense of your notes in the future.

When using the partial outline format, write key ideas in full with only enough detail to help you remember the main concept.  This form of note taking is most appropriate when there is no need to recall all the information, or when you are only interested in certain aspects of the message.  A partial outline need not be formal.  For example, if you were taking notes on a speech about improving your diet, your partial outline might look like this:.........

Prepare a complete outline, which means outlining virtually the entire presentation, if you want to retain all the information that is presented.  This form of note taking would require you to list all the main ideas and subordinate ideas as they are presented.  For example......

--Keep notes clear and brief.  Don't try to write everything down.  Write clearly and thoughtfully so that you can read your notes later, and keep your comments brief to give yourself time to study the speaker and think about what is being said.

--Review you notes later.  Reviewing as soon after the speaking event as possible will help you to recall and learn the information.  Some people find it helpful to annotate, reorganize, or even rewrite their notes before filing them away for future reference.

Of course, care must always be taken to avoid getting so involved in note taking that effective listening is forgotten.  Note taking should be used only as an aid to listening--never as a substitute for it.

Taking notes helps listeners remember by providing a written record of the information they can refer to.  Although note-taking would be inappropriate in most casual encounters, it is perhaps the most important method of improving retention of ideas presented in speeches.  Writing notes not only preserves a record of key ideas but also reinforces points through a kind of repetition.

What constitutes good notes varies by situation.  Good notes may consist of a brief list of main points, key ideas, or governing points plus a few of the most significant details.  Or good notes may be a short summary of the entire concept (a type of paraphrase) presented in the complete speech.  For lengthy and rather detailed information, however, good notes often consist of a brief outline of the speech, including the overall idea, the main points of the message, and key developmental material.  A formal outline helps to create structure for the information you want to retain and distinguishes among main points, subpoints, and illustrative material.  Good notes are not necessarily long.  In fact, may speeches can be reduced to short notes in outline form.

Some people find that taking notes improves their listening because it requires them to concentrate on what the speaker is saying.  Since an average sender speakers 150 words per minute (about half the number of words on a typed, double-spaced page) and an average receiver can grasp meaning at rates as high as 300 words per minute, listeners have time to jot down a speaker's ideas.

To make your notes most useful, concentrate on the main ideas and supporting evidence.  Write down only what is necessary to remember the most important information, use key words, and avoid writing complete sentences or every word the speaker says.  By putting the ideas in your own words, you can check your understanding and immediately review the speaker's message.

Note-taking is a skill that must be practiced.  It should be an automatic part of your listening routine in class, while talking on the phone, when you feel you can't concentrate on or remember a spoken message without some reinforcement.

2.  Use mnemonic devices

A mnemonic device helps your audience remember your speech by associating each of its main points with a letter of the alphabet, so that when the letter are combined they form a meaningful word or letter combination that is easy to remember.

A mnemonic device may also be a phrase in which the first letter of each word stands for a main heading...Planets...Mary's violet eyes make John stay up nights, period...Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

Another way of making your summary more interesting is to use a visual aid, such as a chart listing your main points.  As you review the chart with your audience, you reinforce your key heading both orally and visually.

Constructing Mnemonics

Constructing mnemonics helps listeners put information in forms that are more easily recalled.  A mnemonic device is any artificial technique used as a memory aid.  Some of the most common rules for forming mnemonics are taking the first letters of a list of items you are trying to remember and forming a word.  For example, an easy mnemonic for remembering the five Great Lakes is HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).  EGBDF every good boy does fine learning the notes of the scale; treble clef spaces FACE.

3.  Repetition helps listeners store information in long-term memory.  Repetition, or course, is the act of saying something more than once.  Repeating information two, three, or even four times makes if far more likely that you will remember it later.  Thus, during a lecture when you hear Aristotle wrote the first complete work on rhetoric, an easy way to ensure that you will remember this fact is to repeat, "Aristotle, the first complete work on rhetoric," three or four times.

Skilled listeners create memory aids for themselves when they really want to remember.  You can help your listeners take advantage of this technique by suggesting memory aids for them to use..EXample the 4 C's

Another kind of memory aid is association.  Association is the tendency of one thought to stimulate recall of another, similar thought.  Suppose you are trying to help the audience remember the value of color in a diamond,  Because blue is the most highly prized tint and yellow or brown tints lower a diamond's value, you  might associate blue tint with 'the blue-ribbon prize' and yellow with a 'lemon.'

Figurative associations like these naturally fall into the two categories of similes and metaphors.   Simile is a comparison using like.  A metaphor states an identity.

Like sensory limitations, selective perception, observation-inference confusion, and faulty assumptions, selective memory can be corrected.  The responsible receiver is willing to expend the energy necessary for detecting and coping with inputting and processing problems.  Moreover, the responsible receiver develops and practices good listening habits.


Listening is the primary way that we receive speech communication messages.  In speech communication encounters, the listener’s role involves inputting and processing spoken words.  Both the vocal and verbal cues are essential in determining the intentions of speakers. 

Unfortunately, the significance of listening is often overlooked. Perhaps we take it for granted because we have been doing it for so long, even longer than we have been talking.  Nearly 42 per cent of our communicative activities during the day consists of listening to others.  However, it has been found that we retain only about half of the content of a message immediately after hearing it, and only one fourth of the message content can be recalled after a two-week period! 

Hearing vs. Listening 

We should not confuse hearing with listening.  Although the two activities are closely related, they are not synonymous. 

Hearing is an involuntary or automatic activity.  A person who is passive and unmotivated can hear a sound.  No one has to tell you to hear a sound.   If a sound is made and if the sound catches your attention, you have heard it.  The activity is involuntary because you cannot stop yourself from hearing the sound.  Hearing refers simply to the reception of auditory cues.  Sometimes we are only faintly aware of these cues.  For example, many of us study with music playing softly in the background.  We are not consciously aware of the music, although we notice it if our roommate turns it off.  

Listening, however, is an voluntary or deliberate activity.  A person must be active and motivated to listen.  We may have to tell ourselves we need to listen to a lecture because the material will be covered on an examination.  The activity is voluntary because you can control whether you attend to the lecture or think about something else.  Not only are the auditory cues received, but they have also made an impression upon our consciousness.  We have processed the message:  thought about it, drawn inferences from it, remembered and recalled it.

Although we may not have an intention or purpose to hear a sound, we have an intention or purpose when we listen to discourse.  We listen for the same reasons that we speak:  information, problem-solving, persuasion, and entertainment.  In all cases, we are active listeners.  Our conscious minds are engaged no matter if we are listening to a history professor lecturing, a friend telling about breaking up with his girlfriend, a politician making a speech, or a standup comedian. 

In each case why we listen differs.  We listen to the lecture to learn:  we want to comprehend and retain the information because we see it is useful to us.  We listen to our friend to help him with his problem.  We listen to the political speech to decide whether or not it is in our best interests to be persuaded.  We listen to the comedian for entertainment:  we may enjoy what she has to say.    

There are a number of reasons why we merely hear when we should actively listen.  The remaining sections focus on eight bad listening habits and suggest eight good habits you may want to adopt.

Your Listening Habits 

The effective listener has good listening habits.  This is the most important characteristic that separates effective listeners from poor ones.  Below is a list of sixteen habits that most of us practice when we listen.  Indicate how characteristic they are of you.  You many want to record your responses in the Note File.  Use this system for responding:  Type the item number in the Note File.  Type the "M" for "this is characteristic of me MANY times"; type the "S" for "this is characteristic of me SOME times"; or type the "N" for "this is almost NEVER characteristic of me."  Be honest.  The only person you can fool in this activity is yourself. 

How Characteristic Are These of Your Behavior? 

  M  S  N  1.  I quickly dismiss subjects others talk about when I find them uninteresting. 

  M  S  N  2.  I listen to difficult material. 

  M  S  N  3.  It is difficult or impossible for me to listen when there are distractions (noise, something else happening at the same time, etc.)

  M  S  N  4.  I work hard at determining the relationship between a speaker's message and my own wants, needs, and interests even if the message seems of little value to me. 

  M  S  N  5.  I avoid listening to difficult material.  

  M  S  N  6.  I am able to create an interest in almost any subject.  

  M  S  N  7.  When listening to others, I privately criticize delivery and physical appearance. 

  M  S  N  8.  In the light of the fact that people can think about four times faster than people can talk, I use the spare time gained from the difference between "thinking speed" and "word speed" to ponder or mull over what is being said.  

  M  S  N  9.  I pretend I am listening when I am not.  

  M  S  N 10.  I listen primarily for ideas and patterns of reasoning. 

  M  S  N 11.  When a sender uses emotion-laden words or brings up certain "taboo" subjects, my personal antagonism is aroused, and I tune the speaker out.  

  M  S  N 12.  When listening and there are distractions, I adjust to the physical setting. 

  M  S  N 13.  I listen primarily for individual facts, details, and subpoints revealed by senders. 

  M  S  N 14.  When a sender uses emotion-laden words or brings up "taboo" subjects, I keep my emotions in check and stay tuned in to what the speaker is saying. 

  M  S  N 15.  I tend to waste the spare time gained from the speaking. 

  M  S  N 16.  When listening to others, I don't let the person's delivery and physical appearance bothers me. 

Let us check the results. 

For the odd-numbered items, add up the number of: 

"M" statements here and multiply by 2.  Let this figure = X.  Type "ODD  A =  X" in your Note File.

"S" statements here.  Let this figure = Y.  Type "ODD B = Y" in your Note File. 

Add ODD A and ODD B together.  Let this figure = Z.  Type "ODD TOTAL = Z" in your Note File. 

For the even-numbered items, add up the number of:

"M" statements here and multiply by 2.  Let this figure = XX.  Type "EVEN  A =  XX" in your Note File.

"S" statements here.  Let this figure = YY.  Type "EVEN B = YY" in your Note File. 

Add EVEN A and EVEN B together.  Let this figure = ZZ.  Type "ODD TOTAL = ZZ" in your Note File. 

The odd-numbered items represent eight of the "bad" listening habits ascertained from research, and the even-numbered items represent eight "good" listening habits.  If your "Bad Habits Score" is higher than the "Good Habits Score" or if your marked any odd-numbered items with "M," you need work on those specific habits that are hindering your effectiveness. 


*For a more extensive treatment of good and bad listening habits, see Ralph Nichols, "Do We Know How to Listen?  Practical Helps in a Modern Age," Speech Teacher, X (March 1961), 118-124. 

Let us consider each of the bad listening habits in the order they appeared in the listening inventory.  Each bad habit will be followed by a good habit practiced by effective listeners. 

Dismissing the Subject as Uninteresting

If you dismiss speakers' subjects as uninteresting as asserted in item 1, you should actively seek areas of interest as suggested in item 6.  Poor listeners will give up on a dull subject after the first few sentences.  A good listener's first thought also may be that the subject sounds dull; but a second thought always pops into her mind--"What is this person saying that I can use?"  The word "use" is the key here.  The efficient listener is continually searching through the information confronting her with the idea of sorting out the elements of personal value.  Remember that "interest" like "beauty" is in the eye or ear of the beholder!

Yielding to Distractions

If you yield to distractions as alleged in item 3, you should resist distractions as pointed out in item 12.  We live in a noisy age, and poor listeners are readily influenced by all manner of distractions, even in intimate face-to-face encounters.  A good listener instinctively fights distractions.  If he cannot overcome the distraction by shutting a door, turning off the television, moving closer to the speaker, or adjusting to the physical environment in other ways, then it becomes a matter of intense concentration for him. 

Avoiding Difficult Material

If you judged yourself guilty of avoiding difficult material as stated in item 5, you should exercise your mind as implied by item 2.  The poor listener seeks out light, amusing, or recreational material to listen to.  She avoids tough, technical, or expository material.  Hence she lacks the experience of dealing effectively with the difficult when it appears.  Effective listeners seem to go out of their way to expose themselves to unfamiliar and unknown notions.  Inexperience is not easily or quickly overcome.  Expose yourself to materials that are a "little too deep."  Gain the background experiences necessary for coping with difficult materials. 

Criticizing the Speaker's Delivery 

If your problem is criticizing the speaker's appearance or delivery as revealed in item 7, you should focus on the speaker's intended meaning--not delivery as suggested in item 16.  We may be tempted to think, "Who could listen to a person with such a whiny voice!  And what a nerd; you can tell by the way he is dressed that he's out of it."  But the effective listener will quickly move his thoughts to, "but wait. . .  What do I care about his personality or delivery?  I want to find out what he knows.  Does this person know some things that I should know? 

Faking Attention 

If you fake attention as pointed out in item 9, you should work at listening as asserted in item 4.  Listening is hard work. When you really listen, your heart speeds up, your blood circulates faster, and your body temperature goes up.  The over relaxed listener is merely pretending to tune in.  The effective listener invests the energy required for productive listening.  Even when her natural inclinations are otherwise, she forces herself to give conscious attention to others as they are speaking.

Emotional Deaf Spots

If emotional deaf spots showed up as your problem in item 11, you should work to hold your fire and keep your mind open as suggested in item 14.  Similar to the blind spots that affect our ability to see, there are emotional deaf spots that impair our ability to listen effectively.  These deaf spots house our most private notions, prejudices, and biases.  Often a speaker intrudes into this private world with a word or phrase, and we explode angrily or smolder with a slow burn.  Or we might plot a counterattack in order to invade one of the speaker's private areas. 

Of course, when our emotions are aroused and our thoughts are turned inward, we miss much of what the person is saying.  We should work to control our reactions until we are certain we understand the other person's point thoroughly; we should withhold evaluation until our comprehension is complete.  We should also identify the words and notions that upset us emotionally.  Often the free and open discussion of taboo areas can decrease the emotional impact when they come up in subsequent conversation. 

Just Listening for Facts 

If item 13 revealed you are a just-give-me-the-facts listener, you should listen for central ideas as indicated in item 10.  Poor listeners tend to listen for individual facts and often miss the main points the speaker is making.  They get so wrapped up in the individual details and trying to remember each detail that they get lost.  Good listeners search for the central ideas in messages.  They are sensitive to the cues a speaker gives to alert listeners of these important ideas.  The good listener develops his ability to recognize patterns of organization, transitional language, and the speaker's use of redundancy and recapitulation.  These are a few of the cues that let him know what the speaker considers important. 

On-Again, Off-Again Listening 

Finally, if you are an on-again, off-again listener as stated in item 15, you should learn to capitalize on thought speed as implied in item 8.  Although the average person speakers about 125 words a minute, it has been estimated that people normally think at a rate equivalent to 400 words per minute.  The poor listener uses the spare time gained from thinking speed by thinking about other things.  Her thoughts dart back and forth between what the speaker is saying and her own private concerns.  Many times the poor listener dwells too long on some private concern of her own, and when her thoughts return to the person speaking, the speaker has outdistanced her ability to figure out what is going on.  The good listener uses her thought speed to advantage; she constantly applies her spare thinking time to what is being said.  She mentally summarizes and tests her understanding of what is being said.

Good listening is something that can be learned.  But it is something that you must do for yourself.  After you have discovered the listening habits that work against you, you have the power to replace these habits with more functional ones.



You have met the objectives of this unit if you can

Name and describe inputting barriers and their coping strategies.

Name and describe processing barriers and their coping strategies.

Distinguish among statements of observation, inference and judgment.

Distinguish between the acts of hearing and listening.  

Describe your listening habits.

Construct a program to improve your listening behavior.

This unit underscored barriers and coping strategies associated with reception.  It also focused on becoming a more effective listener.

Sensory limitations and selective perception are information inputting barriers.  Sensory limitations involve problems or defects with the sense organs themselves.  You can cope with sensory limitations through awareness, sensory aids, compensatory aids, and external verification.  With selective perception, information is registered by the sense organs, but the information is filtered out or altered before it reaches our conscious awareness.  You can cope with selective perception through  awareness, expanding our experiential base, and emotional release or control. 

Observation-inference confusion, three faulty assumptions, and selective memory are information processing barriers.  Observation-inference confusion takes place when a person treats inferences and judgments as if they were statements of observation.  You can cope with observation-inference confusion by recognizing differences among types of statements, distinguishing among types of statements, delaying our conclusion reaching, and labeling inferential statements.

Observations differ from inferences and judgment.  Observations are based on sense data; inferences and judgments involve assumptions.  Unlike inferences and judgments, observations are made only after observing, do not go beyond what was observed, and use denotative words. Observations intend to report; inferences interpret and judgments express attitudes.  Observations approach certainty; inferences and judgments are probabilistic.  In addition, judgments express value preferences. 

(1) Words have meaning, (2) things don’t change, and (3) items belong in rigid categories are the three faulty assumptions.  Strategies for the first assumption include being person-minded, not word-minded, asking questions and paraphrasing, and being sensitive to verbal and situational contexts.  A corrective for the second assumption is to use the "Dating" device.  You cope with the third assumption that includes stereotyping and either-or orientations by searching for differences rather than similarities, using "Indexing" devices (the which index and how much index), and avoiding "allness" and "either-or" words.

Also called “selective forgetting” and “selective retention,” selective memory causes a message or parts of a message to be forgotten.  Correctives include making good notes and using mnemonic devices.

In addition to reception barriers, listening skills merit special focus.  Listening and hearing are related, but different, activities.  Hearing is an involuntary or automatic activity.  Listening is an voluntary or deliberate activity.  People may not have intentions or purposes to hear something, but people have intentions or purposes when they listen to discourse.  We listen for the same reasons that we speak:  information, problem-solving, persuasion, entertainment.  

There are eight habits of poor listening that are common.  Often we (1) dismiss the subject as uninteresting when we should actively seek areas of interest, (2) yield to distractions when we should resist them, (3) avoid difficult material instead of exercising our minds, (4) criticize the delivery of speakers rather than focusing on their meaning, (5) fake attention rather than work at listening, (6) let emotional deaf spots block out messages instead of keeping an open mind, (7) just listen for facts when we should listen for central ideas, and (8) tune in and out on the message rather than use thought speed to allow us to thoroughly process the message. 

Poor listening habits can be improved with awareness and effort.  Make a commitment to practice good listening habits both inside and outside of the classroom.








Table of Contents of this Unit:

Preview of the Unit

Objective 01, Name and describe inputting barriers and their coping strategies.

Objective 02, Name and describe processing barriers and their coping strategies.

Objective 03, Distinguish among statements of observation, inference and judgment.

Objective 04, Distinguish between the acts of hearing and listening. 

Objective 05, Describe your listening habits.

Objective 06, Construct a program to improve your listening behavior.

Review of the Unit 

Communication Challenges

For Further Reading