Receptive Roles in Communication Situations

Instructor: David White
A receptive listener is the person receiving the message from the speaker, but it can be a little more complicated than that. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines receptive listening, gain insight into how it develops, and explore some barriers to the practice.

Two Main Roles in Communication

Imagine that you're having coffee with a friend and she's telling you all about the fantastic vacation that she took last week. As she enthusiastically describes trips to the beach, fancy dinners, and relaxing mornings, you're picturing her doing these things and you can easily understand why she would have had such a great time. This is an example of a very common practice that we engage in every day, but it's really much more formal and structured than you might think.

Despite being a two-way process in which you are both speaking, this type of communication has two distinctly different roles that require different types of language. As the one describing the vacation, your friend is using expressive language to translate her memories of the vacation into coherent sentences and send them to you verbally. As the receiver of the story, you use receptive language, which demonstrates that you understand what she's saying. For instance, as she tells you about the beaches, you might respond by saying 'that does sound beautiful,' illustrating that she is effectively describing the scene.

In receptive listening, the listener receives and interprets the message being sent.

In this example, you are actively participating in the conversation using your receptive language skills, but being a receptive listener isn't necessarily dependent on language skills. As a passive role, the receptive listener is allowing something to be done, rather than taking an active role in the process. Given that, receptive listening only requires that you understand the language being spoken, but you're not required to speak it.

Developing Receptive Listening Skills

In the previous example, your friend's role (the sender) probably sounds like the more challenging of the two. After all, as the receiver of the message, all you have to do is sit and listen, right? Well, not necessarily. Like our expressive language abilities, receptive listening is not an innate skill, but one that we develop over time. For example, six-month old babies can't speak, but they also lack the ability to understand the majority of what is being said to them. This demonstrates the most important difference between listening (hearing sounds) and receptive listening (understanding the message being transmitted) and underscores the fact that receptive listening skills are something we develop through practice and use.

Another way to think about the role of the receiver is to put it into the context of a sport like football. In a football game, you could throw the ball to any one of the players on the field, but that doesn't mean that they'll be expecting it or be in a position that will allow them to catch it. Instead, you would want to throw it to the receiver, who's role it is to be in a position and open to catch the ball. Like the football player, the receptive listener has developed the skills to be open to the messages being thrown to him and is able to respond and adapt under changing circumstances.

In the context of human development, receptive listening is the first step towards developing strong language skills. For example, if you were taking a foreign language class like Spanish, you would start out by listening to other people speak and by reading the language. This helps you to develop an understanding of the language, which you will eventually put into practice by speaking. Another good example of this is babies, who begin their lives with no expressive language. After many months or years of developing basic receptive listening skills, they begin to take what they've heard and use it to form expressive language.

Barriers to Receptive Listening

Fundamentally, receptive listening is the ability to receive the speaker's message and interpret it using your knowledge and understanding of language. This is a simple concept, but there are times when certain things prevent us from being good receptive listeners.

One of the more obvious barriers is a limited vocabulary, which is the number of words that we know, use, and understand. For example, a toddler wouldn't be a very good receptive listener in a college physics class because the majority of the words used to explain fundamental concepts in physics are not a part of his vocabulary.

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