Skip main navigation

Speaker awareness

Discover why successful listening interactions are the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener.
Man holding a microphone talking to a small crowd
© Shutterstock Editorial

As you have explored in the previous steps, listening is an active process. This is not only true for listening in an academic environment, but also when we listen in our daily lives in social or work environments. 

When we listen, we don’t just take in information; we interpret it and question it. While listening is often an individual activity, it is also something that involves interaction with one or more other people. But what makes interaction successful? Read this quote from Farr (2003: 69) while considering this question: 

Where two or more parties engage in spoken discourse within any given genre, success is dependent on all parties playing their roles appropriately. Speakers provide talk and listeners react on cue using verbal and/or behavioural devices.’ 
We can infer the following from this quote: 
  • Successful interaction is the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener. 
  • In interactions, it is important for the listener to show ‘engaged listenership’. This means that the listener reacts to what the speaker says verbally and/or non-verbally. 


Listeners can show engagement with speakers through their words and through their actions. A listener in a conversation between a group of friends for example, might show they are listening while someone is talking by saying things like ‘yes’, ‘true’, ‘of course’, or by asking follow-up questions. 
Non-verbal engagement can be just as important in interaction, especially in conversations and discussions. A listener can show engagement without saying a word through body language, eye contact or facial gestures. Think of a time in interactions with friends or family when you have communicated without using words – how did you do this? Engagement also includes listening actively as detailed earlier in the course. 
Sometimes, a speaker can be affected by the non-verbal engagement of a listener. Consider this scenario: 
‘I was taking part in a seminar last semester during my university course. I was really excited to take part as I love this type of thing! There were four of us in the seminar group and while I was speaking, almost everyone was looking at me and nodding. However, one classmate was avoiding eye contact and looking at the desk the whole time. It put me off a little. At the end of the class, I asked him what he thought of the seminar. He said that it was really challenging for him as he is quite shy.’ 
So, what happened here? There are clear differences in the confidence levels of those involved, and all participants could have done things to make the interaction more successful. 
The speaker could have checked with the listeners on what they already knew or didn’t know about the topic, for example by asking ‘have you ever heard of x before?’. They could even have invited the other student to participate by asking a question like ‘what do you think, X?’. 
By interacting like this, they could have gauged the listener’s level of knowledge and supported their understanding by explaining more clearly or in more detail. They could have given the less confident listener a chance to join the conversation instead of having to interrupt. What the listener could have done is perhaps more challenging given the listener is shy.

University life

Now, consider the following events in university life: a lecture, a seminar, a one-to-one tutorial. What does engaged listenership look like in these events? In lectures, engaged listenership involves thinking about content, what information is important, links to other learning and taking selective notes. You can show your lecturer that you are listening by looking up from time to time and asking/answering questions if required. When you are in listening situations in seminars and tutorials, you can demonstrate engaged listenership by asking and answering questions, making comments and suggestions and through non-verbal cues like eye contact and facial expressions.  
During the pandemic, there was a sudden switch to online learning, and this changed how we interacted with each other compared to when we were face-to-face. So, how does engaged listenership happen online? Consider the following scenario from the point of view of a teacher: 
‘I find teaching online very different to teaching face-to-face. When I teach face-to-face, I rely very heavily on the facial expressions and body language of my students to gauge learning. I had not realised how much I relied on this until we moved to online learning during the pandemic. Suddenly, some students had their cameras off and some students only interacted via chat. The change in dynamics was really challenging!’ 

From the teacher’s perspective, how was online learning affecting her approach to teaching? From the students’ perspective, what might have been influencing their decisions on how to engage in the online space? As you think about your answers to these questions, you may notice a complexity to what was happening. 


Farr, F. 2003. Engaged Listenership in Spoken Academic Discourse: The Case of Student-Tutor Meetings. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 2, pp. 67-85 

© Shutterstock Editorial
This article is from the free online

Listening Skills to Succeed at University

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now