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Listening: Reaction v Response

This post is written by guest blogger and English Language Trainer Michael Brooman.

In the process of study it can be easy to overlook the real reason for learning a second language and the purpose of language itself. Unless they intend to become a linguist or grammarian, people primarily learn English to improve their ability to communicate.

Communication is the main reason why language exists. However, expanding your vocabulary or your knowledge of grammar rules is only one aspect of improving your communication abilities. The reality is that there are many examples of individuals that have advanced knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but who are poor, or in some cases, very poor communicators. This is an important point, as it leads to a number of intriguing and challenging questions about what really matters in communication.

One of the most overlooked of communication skills is listening. By listening here I am referring to the ability to show that you are listening rather than the ability to understand. For the purpose of making a point here I would like to divide listening into two categories: reactive and responsive listening.

When we listen reactively we are listening through our past, through our preconceived ideas, prejudices and what we think we already know. Rather than being true listening, this is a reactive mechanism. We jump upon what the other person says with our existing opinions, often suffocating their ideas before trying to understand them completely in that moment. This kind of ‘listening’ can kill dialogue and exchange of information, and it can also ruin careers and relationships.

The other kind of listening is responsive. When we listen responsively we stop ourselves and allow the other person’s ideas to exist in the moment. Instead of assuming that we have ‘heard something like that before’ we actually allow the other person’s words to take on their own life and meaning. We take time to evaluate what the other person is saying and think carefully before responding. This is especially true if we are talking about proposals, ideas or serious suggestions. A response should be an authentic partner to the original statement, rather than an attempt to demonstrate what we know or to enforce our own ideas. It takes a considerable amount of practice and discipline to get into the habit of responsive listening but the more you can achieve it, the more others will appreciate you as a communicator and conversational partner.

Get into the habit of noticing what you do when someone is sharing something with you in a conversation. Are you being truly receptive? Try not to jump on what they are saying with your own opinions immediately but take a moment to reflect before giving a response.

By Michael Brooman


to overlook (v.) - to miss or not notice

primarily (adv.) - firstly or mostly

aspect (n.) - side, face or part of something

intriguing (adj.)- interesting and appealing because unknown

categories (n.) - grouping or classification

preconceived (adj.)- thought about or decided before

mechanism (n.)- a machine like or automatic action without consideration

suffocating (adj.) - not allowing something to breathe

to ruin (v.) – to destroy / damage something so that it can’t be repaired

to evaluate (v.)- decide the quality or value of something

authentic (adj.) - real, true, honest

discipline (n.) - controlled behaviour

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