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Kolovou, Tatiana A. M.B.A.

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ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 15(4):p 24-28, July/August 2011. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31821ec8a6
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• To understand the communication model and the role of the listener in the communication process.

• To recognize and avoid common listening process pitfalls.

• To incorporate effective listening response techniques in day-to-day communication situations.



We’ve all worked with them; we may even be related to them — poor listeners that interrupt, constantly get distracted, and prefer to talk about their agenda rather than anything related to anyone else’s interest. We also know listeners who have the amazing ability referred to as the “Power of One,” the ability to make you, as their audience, feel like you are the only one in the room. No matter how noisy it is, the number of distractions in the environment, or how important the person standing next to you is, a great listener makes you feel like you are the only thing that matters to them at the moment. So how can you begin to learn these skills? This article will present a model of communication from the perspective of a listener. Common pitfalls of ineffective listening, as well as ways to avoid them, will be described. Suggested ways to signal active listening to the speaker also will be discussed.

According to interpersonal communication theory and the original Shannon-Weaver model, a message comes from the speaker or sender to the listener or receiver with the following components at play (Figure):

The Communication Model.


Sender/Speaker (the left oval in the figure): the sender initiates the thought, feeling, or idea and passes it along as the message. It is the responsibility of the sender, or speaker, to “encode” the message, meaning to select the best words to describe it. Encoding also includes choosing the tone of voice to emphasize the main points and structuring the message so that it is easily understood.

Receiver/Listener (the right oval in the figure): the receiver has to “decode,” or make sense of, the message. This requires reading into the body language and vocal tone of the sender. Because each receiver is unique, he or she will decode the message based on his or her own emotions, past experiences, and method of comprehension. Most misunderstandings in communication result from the receiver not completely understanding and decoding the original message. From a listening standpoint, we will focus on ways for the receiver to be more effective.


Message and Feedback (arrows below and above the sender and receiver): the information travels from the sender to the receiver as a message. The communication loop is complete when the receiver sends some type of feedback back to the sender to confirm understanding.

Senders who are not open to any feedback from their receivers end up speaking in a monologue, which is rarely effective. On the other hand, listeners who do not provide any active listening feedback to their speakers will come across as being disinterested or distracted.

Filters (circles around the Sender/Receiver ovals): you have your own mental filters. They include your beliefs, values, prejudices, and experiences, and they influence every aspect of communication with others. Mental filters influence the way you listen. For example, have you ever assumed something — positive or negative — about a sender based on the circumstances, her appearance, origin, or what you have heard about her from others? It is important to recognize that we each have mental filters — filters that we must set aside if we want to listen effectively.

Channels (parallelogram boxes above and below each side of the large ovals): channels refer to the tools of communication that we choose to use. They can range from face-to-face communication, phone calls, email, voice mail, text, or handwritten notes. The choice of the correct communication channel is crucial to the success of the message. In the case of effective listening, it is much easier to decode a message when we can see nonverbal cues and hear the tone of voice. Consider your choice of channel the next time you decide to have a serious conversation via phone or email. Some conversations are best in a face-to-face environment.

Noise (zigzag line in the middle): we all can relate to this. Noise may be external and involve different senses. For example, consider the floor of a crowded health club or the visual distractions in a busy office floor. Noise also can be internal, when you have a distracting thought running through your head or are mentally reviewing the day’s to-do list; it can be difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate on what another person is saying.

Overall Context (large box that all this is set in): the context of a message represents the physical environment and time of day when the communication is taking place (e.g., work, home, car, and airport). Communication conflicts often arise just because the timing and location were inappropriate. In some cases, the overall context is not appropriate for a conversation (someone trying to discuss business with a colleague at an age group swim meet), and in other cases, the context is not conducive to the type of communication (a serious question posed when two colleagues are walking through a busy office space).


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, on a day-to-day basis, we spend 55% of our time listening, which is more than speaking (23%), reading (13%), or writing (8%). A lot can get lost and misinterpreted as information goes from the sender to the receiver. Listening is the process of receiving verbal and nonverbal messages, analyzing them for meaning, understanding them (essentially the entire process of encoding), and responding to the sender. As Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and author of the New York Times bestseller, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, concludes: “80% of our success in learning from other people is based on how well we listen.” Good listening takes a lot of work and requires solid habit building around the behavior. Let’s look at some common encoding pitfalls we often face daily and some strategies to overcome them.



  • ○ Internal Noise — below are several factors that can distract a listener. All of these factors are internal to the mental focus of the listener.
    • Speech-thought differential — consider that the average person can speak at a rate of 100 to 150 words per minute but can mentally process 500 to 600 words per minute. This excess is approximately 350 words that can be processed by our brain while we are listening to someone speaking and is referred to as the “speech-thought differential.” The speech-thought differential is what gives us the ability to make mental lists, listen to a radio program, or eavesdrop on another conversation while we are listening to a colleague tell a story. If you find yourself getting distracted by internal noise, try the following exercise. The next time you are listening to a person tell you a story at a party or staff social, use the speech-thought differential to mentally summarize and synthesize what the person is saying while you are being told the story. As with any behavior change, you have to make an effort to do this, so start with someone you are interested in and who has interesting things to say.
    • Lack of energy — internal noise can be the result of fatigue and lack of energy. Fatigue can result in microsleep, a brief period usually only lasting a few seconds in which the brain enters a sleep-like state, regardless of the activity the person is performing at the time. Are there times during the day or situations where your energy flags or you are particularly distracted by internal noise? If so, try to schedule high-impact listening (e.g., a meeting with your boss) around those times to minimize internal distractions.
    • Lack of focus — the most obvious reason for internal noise is what I call the “puppy factor.” In our daily training of multitasking and multiprocessing, if you don’t train your brain to focus and follow “commands,” your attention will wander and disrupt your work just like an untrained puppy. If you find your attention wandering while you listen to someone, here’s a drill that you can use to raise your “distraction awareness.” The next time you listen to a presentation at work or at a conference, hold a piece of cotton in your hand. When you find yourself drifting or being distracted, tear off a piece of the cotton. At the end of the speech, count the cotton pieces to find out how many times you were distracted. Practice again while listening to future speeches of similar length, and concentrate on limiting mental distractions. Another way to stay focused is to choose face-to-face communication as your delivery channel. Online listening, cell phone listening, or conference calls present opportunities to become distracted. Become aware of your own particular listening challenges, and whenever you can, set yourself up for success.
  • ○ Mental Filters — these are the biggest barriers to listening. We listen based on our perceptions, values, and beliefs, which all subtly influence the message we take away.
  • Mental filters ultimately limit our ability to direct our entire attention to listening. One way to overcome mental filters is to use speech-differential to question yourself about your perceptions and assumptions. This practice will help bring you back to effective listening. A good listener is one who puts herself in the shoes of the speaker to fully understand her viewpoint.
    • External noise — where do you do your best listening? Can you handle side conversations around you? Do you get visually distracted? Be aware of when you perform your best. Open workplaces, such as fitness floors for personal trainers and treatment rooms for physical therapists, are a huge challenge for people that are easily visually distracted. When someone stops you in the hall or another busy area to talk about something important, try to position yourself so that your speaker’s back is to a wall. This position will minimize those distractions and keeps your eyes from wandering. If the other person becomes distracted, you should both move to a different location before continuing.
    • Try this listening endurance exercise for external noise. Read something that interests you out loud for 2 minutes while your TV is on a channel that doesn’t interest you. Then make the exercise more challenging by flipping the variables. See if you can read something out loud that doesn’t interest you (the microwave user manual) while your favorite TV show is on. If you can listen to only your own voice and tune out the external noise, you are training for maximum listening impact.
    • Trigger words — these words are notorious for causing inattention. Is there a word that you have an emotional reaction to or that can completely distract you? The solution to this is to know your trigger words and then use the other 350 speech-thought differential deficit words to talk yourself into the fact that the speaker is not aware of it. Personally, the word foreigner has a negative connotation. In a university environment, when an administrator uses the word to refer to an international student, I catch myself affirming that this is not the best word to describe the student. I remind myself that the speaker may not know that the more politically correct term to use is international, and in this case, I use my speech-thought differential to listen for the whole message and avoid getting distracted by one word.
    • Attention to delivery — when we get caught on a delivery detail, it is tough for any of us to listen mindfully. Imagine listening to someone who has broccoli in his teeth or a magic marker smear on her forehead. When this happens, use your 350 speech-thought differential words to analyze the message and keep your eyes on the person’s eyes instead of what is distracting you.
    • Information overload — this often occurs in the workplace. For example, a member is giving you so many details that you realize it is becoming difficult to keep track of the main message. Your only strategy as an effective listener in this case is to take notes. Be sure to ask for permission though. “Do you mind if I note some of this information so I can refer to it later to better serve you?” is something I always coach customer service representatives to do. In some cultures, breaking eye contact may be impolite. Taking notes is the best way to improve your skills in lecture type of listening situations and when given directions or instructions.

Now that you are aware of what some of the encoding or processing pitfalls are, rank them for your situation, and tackle your top two for the next month.


The step that follows processing the speakers’ information is responding. The following are effective listening responses that you can practice in day-to-day interactions:

  • ○ Paraphrase — adopt the simple habit of rewording what you have heard to indicate understanding. It assures the speaker that you are actively processing their information and are trying to contextualize it in your own words, for example, “Let me see if I have this right….”; “I hear you focusing on two issues that are…..”; “So if I hear you correctly, what you are saying is…”
  • ○ Be speaker focused — even if what the speaker is saying reminds you of your own experiences, do not be tempted with what is known as the “autobiographical response.” Stay focused on the speaker and her story — do not get sidelined by yours. If you can’t help being distracted by your need to interject, write yourself a note and share when the speaker is finished talking.
  • ○ Ask clarifying questions — or clarify what type of listener the sender wants you to be — we all hate the listeners who immediately tell us what we should do or interject their own opinion on the matter. Maybe the speaker just wants you to listen. If you are not sure, ask: “let me be clear, do you want my opinion, or are you just telling me this to get it off your chest?”
  • ○ Match emotion — a good listener picks up on the emotional state of their speaker and matches it. If the speaker is enthusiastic, concerned, or sad, you can reflect that in your body language and the tone of voice in your response. However, there are a few exceptions to this tactic.


All of the tips previously mentioned are easy to practice in casual day-to-day conversations. However, there are some interpersonal communications or customer service situations where emotions on the part of the speaker can run high (i.e., an interaction with an irate member). In that case:

  • ○ Listen for both facts and feelings

In this situation, when paraphrasing, it is important to affirm feelings and then link them to the content. Over the long run, people do not remember what you said but rather how you made them feel. If you dismiss feelings and jump to facts, or even solutions, your speaker will not feel she is being heard. Here is a simple formula:

Paraphrase = Lead in + Affirmation of Feelings + Content Verification.

Always lead in with a statement that confirms you are actively listening, then proceed with affirming feelings and, finally, paraphrasing content. The following is a dialogue example with a member that disagrees with your facility’s use policy:

Member: “I think this is a ridiculous policy. I’m paying for my kids to use this whole facility and the kids’ court. It doesn’t make any sense; why can’t I just drop them off!”

Front desk staff: “I can tell that this policy is not meeting your needs. If I hear you correctly, you are frustrated with not being able to drop your kids off in the kids’ court because you want to exercise at the same time. Is that right?”

In this case, the staff member leads with a statement about the policy, reaffirms feelings, and restates the needs of the member. The sentence that follows the above dialogue would have to try and meet the member’s needs or offer an alternative solution.

Whether it’s paraphrasing, clarifying your role as a listener, or matching the speaker’s emotion, listening responses can improve your quality of overall listening and make the speaker feel appreciated. Do any of these response behaviors intrigue you? Pick two and practice them with the same three or four people daily for a week. At the end of the week, ask for some feedback. Did they notice that you were a more attentive listener? Did they feel that they had more of your attention? If you receive positive feedback, continue your “experiment” with three or four different people. Soon, these listening behaviors will become second nature for you.

The field of health and fitness is rich in interpersonal communication. Success requires that we listen actively to accurately interpret and respond to our clients’ or staff members’ needs. Be aware of some of the pitfalls to effective listening, and practice the habits and exercises suggested in this article. As the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, said “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”


Much of our daily communication is spent listening, yet we have never received formal training on how to be effective listeners. This article describes the communication model and the important role that the listener plays in face-to-face interactions. Common listening pitfalls, such as internal noise, mental filters, and trigger words, are described and followed by helpful tips on how to avoid them. The role of meaningful listening responses is analyzed, and suggestions, such as paraphrasing, using open-ended questions, and responding empathetically, are all described as effective listening responses in daily life.

Recommended Readings

Barwise P, Meehan S. So you think you’re a good listener. Harvard Business Review. 2008;86(4).
    Gallo C. Why leadership means listening. Business Week Online [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2007 Jan 31]. Available from:
      Goldsmith M. The skill that separates. Fast Company. 2005 (July);86(96).
        Nichols RG, Stevens LA. Listening to people. Harvard Business Review. 1957;5(35):85–92.
          Young DJ, Marcel MF, Wondra DL. Foundations of Business Communication: An Integrative Approach. Boston (MA): Irwin/McGraw-Hill; 2006.

            Encoding; Decoding; Mental Filters; Internal Noise; Listening Response

            © 2011 American College of Sports Medicine.