Listening is a core competency to succeed in any walk of life.  Listening is the combination of hearing and interpreting.  Failure in either part is a failure in listening.Many signification failures in software development are failures to use the right type of listening.  Each type of listening is useful in different scenarios and are often practiced intuitively.  Knowing that there are different types of listening and how each can be applied is useful for being a better listener. Requirement defects (misinterpretation of a requirement or a failure to capture a user story) are almost always listening problems. We will tackle many of these when we consider listening anti-patterns.  Examples of types of listening in IT include:

Basic types of listening:

Discriminative listening is when the listener interprets and assigns meaning to sound rather than to words. In discriminative listening, the listener interprets the differences and nuances of sounds and body language.  The listener is sensitive to attributes including rate, volume, pitch and emphasis in speaking.  This type of listening is the most basic form of listening. We learn this form of listening early in life. Recognition and interpretation of accents are an example of discriminative listening. 

Comprehensive listening is the interpretation of the words and ideas.  Comprehensive listening involves understanding the thoughts, ideas, and message.  This type of listening requires that the listener understands the language and vocabulary.  Comprehensive listening builds on discriminative learning.  If you can’t understand the sound, you will not be able to interpret language. Mismatches in vocabulary can disrupt comprehension.  

More specific types of listening to that build on the basics:

Informational listening is a type of goal-based listening that requires the listener to interpret verbal and non-verbal cues to learn. Students in a lecture hall are often in informational listening mode (alternate modes might include critical thinking or sleeping).  The listener typically is a less active participant in the listening process.  One non-verbal signal that someone is in informational listening mode is that they are taking notes. In this form of listening to the listener focuses on understanding the speaker’s message postponing critical thinking and processing until later.  In the corporate environment, this type of listening is often used when listening to reports, briefing, and speeches.  In a recent story development session in which an Agile team was interacting with a group of experts, I observed one person leading the questioning and probing while several other team members listened and took notes. The note takers were using informational listening.

Critical listening focuses on evaluating and analyzing information.   This is a more active form of listening that includes evaluating and making judgments.  The listener is interacting with the information in order to make a judgment.  In a scenario where someone is trying persuade a listener that they should adopt a technique, the listener is typically using critical thinking.   Almost all sales scenarios use critical listening.  In the story development scenario alluded to earlier, the questioner was using critical listening to evaluate the answers and to plan the next question.

Therapeutic listening is technique often used by Scrum masters to help facilitate the team.  Therapeutic listening is a form of active listening in which the listener helps the speaker to draw out and understand their feelings and emotions.  The goal is for the help the listen evaluate and cure their own problems.  I am not suggesting training Scrum Masters as therapists, but leaders often use therapeutic listening to facilitate the resolution of people problems rather than using more authoritarian techniques.

Once upon a time, I sat in a lecture hall for an ECON 101 class twice a week at 8 AM.  The instructor had an accent that I had heard on my radio, but others had never heard the accent.  I was able to immediately meet the basic listening needs and listen to learn.  Others in the class struggled with comprehension (comprehensive listening) and, therefore, could not get into informational or critical listening modes.  Many dropped the class (or slept through it).  As communicators, we need to understand which mode of listening people are using so that we can deliver our message.