Communicating in Businesses and Professions

COMMUNICATING IN THE WORKPLACE

Listening Types

Listen and Understand Styles


Listening serves many purposes, and different situations require different types of listening. The type of listening we engage in affects our communication and how others respond to us. For example, when we listen to empathize with others, our communication will likely be supportive and open, which will then lead the other person to feel “heard” and supported and hopefully view the interaction positively.[6] The main types of listening we will discuss are discriminative, informational, critical, and empathetic.[7]

Discriminative Listening

Discriminative listening is a focused and usually instrumental type of listening that is primarily physiological and occurs mostly at the receiving stage of the listening process. Here we engage in listening to scan and monitor our surroundings in order 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.[8] In the absence of a hearing impairment, we have an innate and physiological ability to engage in discriminative listening. Although this is the most basic form of listening, it provides the foundation on which more intentional listening skills are built. This type of listening can be refined and honed. Think of 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 behavior.[9]

Informational Listening

Informational listening entails listening with the goal of comprehending and retaining 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, voice mail, and briefings at work. Since retention and recall are important components of informational listening, good concentration and memory skills are key. These also happen to be skills that many college students struggle with, at least in the first years of college, but will be expected to have mastered once they get into professional contexts. In many professional contexts, informational listening is important, especially when receiving instructions. In truth, you may be expected to process verbal instructions more frequently and more effectively in your professional life than you are now are in college. Most college professors provide detailed instructions and handouts with assignments so students can review them as needed, but many supervisors and managers will expect you to take the initiative to remember or record vital information. Additionally, many supervisors are not as open to repeat questions or requests as professors are. (Note: while we are discussing listening in verbal communication contexts here, it is also crucial to understand the importance of listening when reading instructions as well. Reading business documentation carefully often equates to listening carefully.)

Critical Listening

Critical listening entails listening with the goal of analyzing or evaluating a message based on information presented verbally and information that can be inferred from context. A critical listener evaluates a message and 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 important during persuasive exchanges, but should be employed to some degree in all listening situations. Have you ever become aware you were being persuaded even though the situation was supposed t0 be informative? People often disguise inferences as facts. Critical listening skills are useful when listening to a persuasive speech in this class and when processing any of the persuasive media messages we receive daily. You can see judges employ critical listening, with varying degrees of competence, on talent competition shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice. While the exchanges between judge and contestant on these shows is expected to be subjective and critical, critical listening is also important when listening to speakers that have stated or implied objectivity, such as parents, teachers, political leaders, doctors, and religious leaders.

Empathetic Listening

Empathetic listening is the most challenging form of listening and occurs when we try to understand or experience what a speaker is thinking or feeling. Empathetic listening is distinct from sympathetic listening. While the word empathy means to “feel into” or “feel with” another person, sympathy means to “feel for” someone. Sympathy is generally more self-oriented and distant than empathy (Bruneau, 1993).[10] Empathetic listening is other oriented and should be genuine. Because of our own centrality in our perceptual world, empathetic listening can be difficult. It’s often much easier for us to tell our own story or to give advice than it is to really listen to and empathize with someone else. We should keep in mind that sometimes others just need to be heard and our feedback may not be desired.

Mother with glasses holding her young child Empathy and Comfort


Empathetic listening is key for dialogue and helps maintain interpersonal relationships. In order to reach dialogue, people must have a degree of open mindedness and a commitment to civility that allows them to be empathetic while still allowing them to believe in and advocate for their own position.


  1. 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), 48. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.2003.10499055"
  2. Watson, "K. W., Barker, L. L., & Weaver III, J. B. (1995). The listening styles profile (LS-16): Development and validation of an instrument to assess four listening styles. International Journal of Listening, 9, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.1995.10499138"
  3. Hargie, "O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London: Routledge."
  4. Wolvin, "A. D. & Coakley, C. G. (1993). A listening taxonomy. In A. D. Wolvin & C. G. Coakley (Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation (pp.18-19)."
  5. Bruneau, "T. (1993). Empathy and listening. In A. D. Wolvin & C. G. Coakley (Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation (p. 188)."
  6. 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), 48. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.2003.10499055"
  7. Watson, "K. W., Barker, L. L., & Weaver III, J. B. (1995). The listening styles profile (LS-16): Development and validation of an instrument to assess four listening styles. International Journal of Listening, 9, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.1995.10499138"
  8. Hargie, "O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London: Routledge."
  9. Wolvin, "A. D. & Coakley, C. G. (1993). A listening taxonomy. In A. D. Wolvin & C. G. Coakley (Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation (pp.18–19)."
  10. Bruneau, "T. (1993). Empathy and listening. In A. D. Wolvin & C. G. Coakley (Eds.) Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation (p. 188)."

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