Stages of Listening: Definitions & Process

Jan 10, 2020 | Perception

What does listening entail? There’s more to it than meets the… ear. In this lesson, explore the five stages of listening and test your understanding, and listening, with a brief quiz.

What Is Listening?

Listen up! Hey, nice work; you can listen! A lot of people really don’t understand everything that this entails, and for something so important, listening is often misunderstood. Listening is the conscious awareness and interpretation of sounds. That makes it different from the subconscious reflex of receiving sound. You hear noise all the time, but listening implies paying attention, being aware of sounds, and giving those noises some sort of meaning.

Just think of the differences between having background music and say, going to a concert. In one, you hear music, and it’s relaxing and nice, but at a concert, you are putting a conscious effort into listening. We do this in every aspect of our lives, and communication is no exception. We’ve all been part of conversations where we weren’t really listening. Listening is a real skill and, as it turns out, true listening is a multiple-stage process. A 5-stage process, in fact. Don’t believe me? Just listen.

Taking in Information

Right now, you’re listening to my voice. Or if you’re not – hey, pay attention! So at this moment, somewhere deep in your mind, sound waves are being translated into structures that your brain interprets. That’s the first stage of listening: receiving, or the reception of sound waves and recognition of those as a specific sort of sound. For example, your brain is recognizing these sounds as words. A dog’s bark, the rain, a trumpet, my voice, all of these sound different to you and engage different parts of your brain. We call the ability of the brain to accurately identify types of sounds attending, and this is crucial to the first stage of listening.


Now that your brain has recognized that the sounds you’ve just heard are words, it goes on to the second stage: understanding, in which you determine the context and meaning of each sound. Bob, goat, fish, pancakes. In the receiving stage, your brain recognized that these are words. But in the understanding stage, your brain gives those words meanings, and you recognize that I’m just talking nonsense.


At this point, you’ve heard noises, you’ve recognized them as words, and you’ve given them meaning. But now you’ve got to decide what to do with that information. The evaluating stage is when your brain critically assesses the information being processed. What does this information mean to you? What do you think about it? How do you feel about it?

When you listen to music, or especially when you listen to a conversation, it creates a response. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, sometimes a voice in the back of your head, but that information has been processed and evaluated, and you’ve got to make a decision about how to handle it. In a conversation, that means choosing to respond or not. In this lesson, it’s more a matter of choosing to believe that what I’m saying is accurate. It is, by the way; don’t worry!


And that brings us to the fourth stage: responding, or reacting to the information. In a conversation, someone else just said something to you, and they are going to expect some sort of response. Deciding how to respond is actually a very important part of listening because it communicates not only that the information was received, but how you feel about it. Maybe you laugh, maybe you cry, or maybe you choose to ignore it to make a statement. If you respond verbally, the other person becomes the listener and their brain starts going through all of these stages as well, receiving, understanding, evaluating, and responding to what you’ve got to say.


At this point, it may seem like your part of the listening process is done, but actually, there is one more stage. The final stage of listening is remembering, or categorizing and retaining the information. What has this lesson meant to you? Most likely, your mind will categorize this as an educational lecture, as opposed to a conversation with a friend. You’ll remember the parts that resonated with you, at least until the end of the quiz, but hopefully longer!

Lesson Summary

Listening, or consciously being aware of and interpreting sounds, is a real skill. This is actually different than just hearing, which is a subconscious reflex of receiving sound. A lot of people don’t listen well. Maybe that’s just because they don’t understand the five stages of listening.

Receiving requires taking in sounds and identifying them. Next comes understanding, interpreting sounds with context and meaning, and then evaluating, critically assessing the information being processed. After this, you respond, or react to the information. But, there’s one last step: remembering, or categorizing and retaining the information. With these five stages, your brain has fully processed sounds in a way that means something to you, and all you had to do was listen.

Learning Outcomes

You may prepare to do the following as you progress through the lesson on listening:

  • Make the distinction between listening and hearing
  • List the five stages of listening
  • Interpret the ways in which each stage works
Anatomy of The Ear's External Structures