Five Factors Associated With Deep Listening
Most parents understand the difference between surface-level and deep listening all too well. Listening for details about what exactly their teenager will be doing, and with whom, are just as important as hearing their teen’s promise to be home no later than midnight. When they can take the time to do it, parents know that deep or advanced listening can have real payoffs. The same is true for qualitative researchers.
Most of the listening we do as we go about our everyday lives does not require a high level of skill. We interpret the words and gestures of coworkers and family members quickly and automatically with little conscious awareness on our part. Most of the time this surface-level listening is all we need to interact effectively.
If, however, we are conducting focus groups or interviews with individuals we have never met and from whom we want to obtain meaningful data, we need more advanced listening skills. Advanced listening is different from ordinary listening in that it involves in-depth processing of the messages we receive. It’s a cognitively demanding activity that requires a mindful, systematic scrutiny of the message and its source.
So what does it take to engage in, or learn to engage in, advanced listening?
Dr. Brant R. Burleson of Purdue University has identified several factors associated with the deep listening process in his recent article in The International Journal of Listening (vol. 25). In the article, he points out several situations in which deep listening is essential, such as uncertainty about how to interpret a message or confusion about the speaker’s motivation for saying what they’ve said. The advanced listening factors Dr. Burleson has identified are equally applicable to qualitative data collection. Here are five of those factors along with my tips for implementing each one in a qualitative setting:
1. Motivation. Motivation deepens listening. For example, we are more likely to be motivated listeners when we strongly desire accurate information or a full understanding of the matter from the speaker.
Tip: Be committed to collecting the most accurate data and seek to truly understand what your interviewees are trying to convey.
2. Thinking. Some people have a high need for cognition—the tendency to engage in and enjoy thinking. Others who are less patient prefer “cognitive closure”—the need to make judgments or decisions quickly. Those with a tendency toward cognition, or at least a low need for cognitive closure, are more likely to process information deeply when listening.
Tip: Don’t come to the interview or focus group with preconceived notions or be in a hurry to find the answers. Instead, bring your curiosity and “need to know more”.
3. Focus. Distractions of any kind have been shown to undermine the ability to process messages deeply.
Tip: Conduct interviews and focus groups in a quiet, pleasant environment with good lighting and a comfortable temperature. Be sure to also turn off mentally distracting thoughts that compete for your attention (which is sometimes easier said than done!).
4. Preparation. The more pre-existing knowledge we have about a topic or individual, the easier it is to deeply process new information.
Tip: Learn as much as you can about the study topic and the general characteristics of the individuals you will be interviewing before walking into the focus group or interview.
5. Person-centeredness. Acknowledging and legitimizing the feelings and perspectives of the respondent within the broader context of the questioning increases the complexity of our thinking and therefore the depth of our listening.
Tip: Consider the feelings and context of the person from whom you are collecting data to achieve a better understanding and deeper meaning of that individual’s words.
Short of confidence intervals and p values, your ears are your best tools for collecting accurate and meaningful qualitative data. Maximize their effectiveness by embracing a determination to collect accurate data, taking your time to think through responses, reducing distractions during questioning, knowing your topic and subjects, and considering the feelings of the person in front of you.
What are your experiences with advanced listening? What would you add to the list?
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