Impact of self-reported listening preferences of business communication students on choice of college major.

Author:Hemby, Virginia


What makes one student select accounting as a career path while another selects marketing? Does each student possess certain skills that best suit his/her choice of career? Do listening preferences play any role in the choice of career for college students? A plethora of information is readily available concerning the effects of listening on learning, employability, and promotability. However, no answer can be found concerning the connection, if any exists, between an individual's listening preference(s) and his/her career choice.

Research has shown that the average person spends about 80% of his/her waking hours communicating--reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Approximately 45% to 50% of that time is spent listening to people, music, radio, television, etc. Yet, less than 5% of people have ever concentrated on developing their skills in listening (The Sacred Art, 2009).

Listening skills are vital to success in any work environment. Ask any employer what skills are most desired in prospective employees, and the answer will be communication skills (writing, speaking, and listening) (Job Outlook, 2010). However, listening is not a subject that is addressed in the classroom environment with any specific skills training intended (Johnson, 2010). Most business communication textbooks dedicate segments of chapters to the topic of listening; some offer tips for overcoming barriers to listening and/or identify the types of listeners most noted in the population at large (Guffey, 2011; Lehman and Dufrene, 2008; Shwom and Snyder, 2012). However, skills development activities are few in number, and students often do not consider listening to be a topic of serious importance to their future success in the work place.

Through reinforcement in early classroom settings, children grow to rely on teachers repeating assignments and instructions or posting these assignments or instructions on the board or on a course web site. As they progress through the educational process, students find course calendars with assignments, email reminders of assignment due dates, and various other mechanisms for the distribution of assignments, instructions, and/or reminders of assignments, projects, etc. , none of which require listening as the primary method for acquiring the information.

When faced with situations that include listening as a requirement, people rely on their listener preferences--"the habitual responses that have been cognitively structured, practiced, and reinforced over time" (Watson & Barker, 1995, p. 1)--behaviors that are automatic. With the advent of technologies that require listening as the primary communication method, individuals have simply learned to be selective in their listening preferences. Podcasts, YouTube videos, iTunes--these tools are just a sampling of the myriad technologies available to people to receive information on an as-needed basis, with the commonality being that listening is required. However, individuals have developed habitual and comfortable patterns of listening behavior and are not willing to adapt their listening styles to accommodate different environments, events, or people. As such, "unknowingly, people make judgments and decisions based on their habits that may affect their communication effectiveness" (Watson & Barker, 1995, p. 1).

Just as research has suggested that every individual has a preferred learning style, so too have studies led to the supposition that each person has an individual preference for listening--a preferred listening style (Weaver, Watson, and Barker, 1996). While one person's preference may be people oriented, another individual may be time oriented. Also, many individuals have multiple listening preferences and may switch among them according to the situations and/or the people involved. The latter process would be the one preferred because individuals who understand their preferences for listening will also be able to adapt their listening to specific environments, individuals, time situations, and the needs of others. People can be trained to adapt their listening styles but most are unaware that changing the way they listen could make the act of listening more enjoyable or more efficient (Watson & Barker, 1995).

The goals for this study were (1) to determine business communication students' self-reported listening styles preferences; (2) to discern whether any one listening style preference was dominant among business communication students as a group; (3) to examine students' listening preferences by identified major to determine whether a correlation existed between listening preference(s) and choice of major; (4) to determine whether students' listening preferences vary significantly between two regions of the country; and (5) to ascertain whether students' listening preferences have shown a change over time.


The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between personal characteristics and choice of college major of Business Communication students from two regions of the United States. Personal characteristics were divided into gender and listening preference(s). Listening preference was defined by the Listening Styles Profile as being one (or more) of four orientations: People, Content, Action, and Time (Watson & Barker, 1995). The examination of listening preference(s) was important to this study because the researcher hoped to identify characteristics and factors contributing to significant differences in individual participants' choice of college major. The second part of the study asked participants to identify their choice of college major and reasons for their selection.


The following questions guided the research:

  1. What are Business Communication students' self-reported listening styles preferences as measured by the Listening Styles Profile (Watson & Barker, 1995)?

  2. What are Business Communication students' majors?

  3. Do Business Communication students' listening preferences vary by region of the country?

  4. Have Business Communication students' listening preferences changed over the course of time encapsulated in this research project?

  5. Does choice of student major relate to student listening preference(s)?

  6. Does gender of Business Communication student relate to student listening preference(s)?

  7. Does choice of Business Communication student major relate to student listening preference(s), controlling for the effects of gender?


    Research into the art and science of listening is not new. One need only conduct a search for published articles on the topic to find numerous ones spanning decades of work. Researchers have argued that Plato had a philosophy of listening (Haroutunian-Gordon, 2011). Rousseau, research has noted, "stressed that listening is involuntary: we cannot choose whether or not to listen, nor can we decide when we do so" (Laverty, 2011, p. 157). Even Dewey distinguished between listening as a one-way process and listening as "positive transactional listening-in-conversation" (Waks, 2011, p. 194). Dewey viewed one-way communications as a process for rote memory. In transactional listening, as he viewed it, "the listening is constructive in that the participants, the contents of their communications, and even the very vocabularies they adopt are all constructed or reconstructed through the conversational give-and-take" (Waks, 2011, p. 195).

    Journals devoted to listening research (i.e., International Journal of Listening) and a literature search revealed that the plethora of current research regarding listening as a communication process primarily focuses on the skill as it relates to second language learners. The second most recognizable area of research on the topic of listening involved medical and counseling segments of the population (i.e., doctors/nurses interacting with patients, social workers counseling clients and families, etc.). However, a paucity of research exists regarding the relationship between listening skills and success in the business environment.

    In 1975, Weinrauch and Swanda examined the role of listening in business, using a sample of practitioners from South Bend, Indiana. The researchers contended that more attention needed to be directed toward listening. Therefore, they sought to ascertain the amount of time businesspeople reported spending on listening activities and other communication tasks. From an examination of their data, Weinrauch et al., discovered that listening was, in fact, the primary communication activity. From these results, the researchers believed that recognizing the importance of listening and developing an interface between theory and practice was an imperative for instructors (1975).

    Moving forward three decades from the Weinrauch et al., research, Brunner (2008) reported that listening was still being overlooked in the academic venue; and that because of the lack of emphasis on listening training, few people actually possessed this important business skill. Brunner's research findings reiterated the belief that students would benefit from "learning how to become effective listeners. With this knowledge, they could be better equipped to build successful personal and business/organizational relationships, which could lead to better workplace environments, better customer relations, and better community relationships" (2008, p. 81).

    In 2008, Flynn, Valikoski, and Grau concluded from a review of research regarding listening in the business context that a lack of empirical research existed in the area. As Flynn et al., concluded "Despite listening being considered so vital a skill for leaders and managers to master, little empirical research has been conducted into the mechanics of effective listening in the workplace or into the nature of listening as a factor contributing to the success of a business" (p. 148).

    Adams and Cox (2010) sought to examine how (and if) listening was...

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