A neglected component of engineering communication: the role of listening

Anthony Haynes writes: Much of the advice and guidance available to engineers on how to communicate focuses on the productive language skills, namely speaking and writing. Less attention is given to the receptive skills — reading and, especially, listening.

Here, therefore, I’d like to highlight two useful resources on listening. The first is a wise and witty article by David D’Souza entitled ‘How to listen to a conference speaker‘.

The piece consists essentially of two lists, both designed to facilitate critical listening. The first list comprises wide-angled questions to help the listener achieve a rounded assessment of the presentation they’re listening to. For example:

Think about what the person is trying to get you to think. Are they taking you down a sneaky road to one inescapable conclusion – or is there really a rich exploration of the subject matter. Do they give options?

The second list alters the listener to ‘tricks of the trade’ commonly used by speakers. For example:

Speaker says ‘We all know this, right?’ and you feel obligated to agree and they then get to base the rest of what they do on that agreement“.

The second resource is an article on the IEEE website, written by Alan Chong: ‘Listening as engineering communication‘. The article focuses on a distinction between two kinds of listening: basic and contextual.

With basic listening, one’s “ability to hear or pay attention to the speaker is sufficient”. Contextual listening, in contrast, “involves making meaning from more than just speech, but involves using clues from the socio-cultural and historical contexts of stakeholders to facilitate deeper meaning making”.

A danger surrounding basic listening is that situations that are sometimes deemed to require only basic listening in fact require more. Chong illustrates this with an example, in the field of water engineering, where “well meaning engineers heard only the very basic needs of their stakeholders – acquiring potable water from underground sources – and insinuated their own biases into their understanding”.

The article, which is concisely written, contains useful links to two further resources.

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