How do we listen? Research indicates that we have an amazing ability to “fill-in-the-blanks” when we are unable to hear everything that is said. In effect, we carry around in our heads mathematical models that can yield good accuracy relative to predictions on what will be spoken. However, as hearing loss takes its toll, this predictive capability becomes more suspect. Additionally, men and women process information differently, and this can also have implications on one’s listening ability.

The most obvious connection between hearing and listening is that, if a person does not hear the sounds, we cannot expect that person to interpret the meaning of the sounds with any accuracy. One of the things we know about listening is that people tend to hear what they want to hear (or, more accurately, what they expect to hear). Each individual literally creates in their mind a fairly accurate mathematical model of what they expect a message to be like. This capacity makes it possible for us to predict somthing about what a person is likely to say.

The advantage is that often when we’re listening and we don’t hear a small part of a sentence, we can guess quite accuratly at what the rest of the sentence is. However, if you lose some hearing, you still have the mathematical models in your head, and predictions for what comes next in a message remain pretty strong. Yet, if you’re not hearing accurately or are missing some of the sounds (or even some of the words) your capacity for accurate prediction is greatly reduced. If you have a hearing loss, you must learn to be conscious of the effects it has on your ability to predict. If you’re careful, prediction can help you understand because your brain often knows how to fill in some of the missing parts. But if you assume this process is still as accurate as it was before your hearing loss, and you interpret messages based on what was heard with the old models, the number of intepretation errors you make will increase dramatically.

One of the things we know is that men and women process information differently. Thus, it’s important that we not talk as though all of our advice will work exactly the same for both sexes. In broad generalities, one of the major differences is that men better than women are often able to stay focused on one speaker and ignore others in the environment. This has the advantage that many men may be able to work in situations that are noisier than many women can tolerate. This has the significant disadvantage that men often do not hear someone call to them when they are concentrating on a message such as a TV program, or more specifically, like Monday Night Football! This is true for men with good hearing. If you are hard of hearing, listening becomes that much more difficult.

On the other hand, women far more often then men tend to check their environment for other important messages. The advantage is that women can often work on one task and be able to check another task often enough that they can also complete the second task. For example, many women can work intensely on something while staying aware of a small child without putting the youngster at risk. Their multi-focus ability exceeds that of men. The disadvantage is that, when women listen to a sustained message that requires a great deal of concentration (perhaps because the material is new or difficult), they will still check their environment for other messages and have a slightly greater potential to miss critical parts of that difficult message.

So, listening requires focus despite your gender, and whether you have good hearing or not. Hearing loss merely makes the listening process more challenging.

) Richard Halley, PhD, is professor of Communication at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah. He is an expert on the topic of listening, is a board member of the International Listening Association, and has written several articles and books on the topic. This article, adapted with permission, originally appeared in the book, Hearing Loss & Hearing Aids: A Bridge to Healing (2nd Edition), edited by Richard Carmen, AuD, and published by Auricle Ink Publishing (

Halley R. From your research, what have you discovered about the process of listening? In: Carmen R, ed. Hearing Loss & Hearing Aids: A Bridge to Healing (2nd Edition). Sedona, Ariz: Auricle Ink Publishers, 2004: 130-131.