Selective Listening: Definition, How It Works & How to Manage It

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Article by Hearing Partners, contributed by Benjamin Yeap, Senior Clinical Audiologist at Hearing Partners

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Do you find yourself repeating things to a spouse, family member or friend who seems to hear only what they want to? This scenario is often attributed to what’s known as selective listening, where individuals appear to tune out certain voices or sounds while focusing on others, especially in noisy environments.

Selective listening, also referred to as selective auditory attention or selective hearing, can sometimes lead to miscommunication or frustration in interpersonal interactions. In this article, we’ll explore the complexities of selective listening, offer practical tips for managing it and highlight the importance of seeking professional assistance. Keep reading to learn more!

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How Does Selective Listening Work?

Selective listening is a natural mechanism that helps us deal with the constant barrage of sensory information we encounter every day. With so much visual, auditory and data input around us, our brains automatically filter out irrelevant noise to avoid being overwhelmed.

This selective process allows us to concentrate on what matters most, enabling our auditory system to focus on specific sounds while ignoring distractions. As a result, our cognitive resources are optimized and we can operate more efficiently in our daily lives.

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Our brain processes sound based on a few factors:

  • Proximity to the sound: The distance between us and the sound affects our ability to concentrate on it. Sounds that are closer to us will be louder and easier to focus on.
  • Auditory environment: The auditory environment we are in influences our hearing. When there are fewer competing sounds, such as in a quiet setting with minimal conversations, it becomes easier to concentrate on a specific dialogue.
  • Visual cues: Visual cues significantly affect our ability to listen selectively. Observing the speaker visually while they’re talking can enhance our listening skills.
  • Personal interest: Our interest in a particular sound or sounds can overcome some of the distance and/or noise between us and the speaker. Even if the speaker is far away, if we have a strong interest in listening, we’re more likely to focus attentively and make out more of the words spoken.
  • Familiarity of voice/topic: Familiar voices are easier for us to pick up. Additionally, if it is a topic we are more familiar with, it would be easier to understand where a conversation is heading and less mental effort would be needed to process the words that were heard.
  • Alertness: We can pay closer attention when we are more alert. If we’re tired, focusing on what is being heard will be harder.

How to Manage Selective Listening

Selective listening isn’t classified as a hearing disorder. Thus, there’s no single solution or cure. However, there are some strategies to effectively manage selective listening and to minimize its impact.

Reduce distractions

When there’s too much noise around, it can be difficult to focus on specific sounds. Thus, try to steer clear of loud environments whenever possible and avoid unnecessary distractions. Instead, prioritize the most important sounds and concentrate solely on them.

For example, if you’re watching a movie while engaging in a conversation with a friend, it may help to pause one activity to focus on the other fully. This will enhance your ability to communicate effectively and understand the information presented.

Practice focused listening

Hearing is the reception of sound, whereas listening is making a conscious effort to understand what we are hearing. To handle selective listening better, try practicing focused listening. Paying attention to what you’re hearing helps to separate it from background noise. This can help you become better at tuning in to what’s important.

Move closer to the sound or increase the volume

For increased clarity, try going closer to the source of the sound or increasing the volume. By amplifying the sound, it becomes easier to distinguish, enabling you to concentrate on the specific details or information you need.

Improve visual cues

When having a conversation, try to position yourself so that you can face the person you are speaking to. This would improve access to nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and lip movements.  Repositioning yourself helps you focus on the person you’re speaking to, and the other party would also give you their attention for more effective communication.

When to See an Audiologist

When to See an Audiologist

Although selective listening depends largely on attention, it can confound or worsen with other hearing conditions. If you find it challenging to understand or hear clearly, we recommend scheduling a hearing test or consulting an audiologist to rule out these conditions.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss can cause many of the issues associated with selective listening. Whether it be a deterioration in hearing due to the aging process, injury, infection, or other reasons, a hearing test can identify any potential issues with your ears and determine if hearing loss is a contributor to your hearing difficulties.

Some signs of hearing loss in adults include:

  • Difficulty hearing in noisy environments
  • Frequently asking others to speak louder or repeat their sentences
  • Turning up the volume higher than usual
  • Difficulty hearing higher-pitched sounds such as birds chirping or women and children speaking
  • Difficulty distinguishing between consonants
  • Speech sounding muffled

Closely related to this is asymmetrical hearing. If you have poorer hearing in one ear, you might find it more difficult to focus on sounds from the side with poorer hearing. You might also face difficulties localizing sound and perceiving speech in noise.

Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)

Another possible cause of selective listening could be due to Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD).

Individuals with CAPD cannot process sounds the same way as others, and the condition is characterized by difficulties recognizing and interpreting sounds, especially the sounds that make up speech. It’s possible to have normal hearing but yet be diagnosed with CAPD.

In addition to a hearing test, various other diagnostic tests can be done to assess if a person has CAPD. This may involve testing your ability to detect changes in tones and gaps in noise.

Navigating the Complexities of Selective Listening

Do you suspect you have an issue? If you are constantly told that you have selective listening, it might be worthwhile to get it checked out to rule out any possible hearing conditions you might have. A previously unknown hearing loss could cause you to be labeled with selective listening!

A visit to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist would also be recommended if your hearing loss is accompanied by other symptoms such as pain, tinnitus and/or vertigo. By getting your hearing evaluated, you can address any concerns early on and explore appropriate interventions to improve your overall quality of life.

FAQs About Selective Listening

Is selective listening a hearing disorder?

No, selective listening is not categorized as a hearing disorder. Instead, it’s a natural brain process that allows us to concentrate on a specific sound while disregarding others.
Often, this process occurs subconsciously, as our attention shifts from one sound to another without us being consciously aware of it. There may not be an actual loss of hearing ability, just that the brain chooses to disregard sounds that are not of interest at that particular point in time.

Is selective listening good or bad?

Selective listening has its upsides and downsides, depending on the situation. On the positive side, it helps us focus on essential information, reducing cognitive overload. For instance, in a noisy and crowded environment, selective listening can prevent us from being overwhelmed by all the sounds around us.
However, it also has drawbacks, especially in communication. Missing important details while concentrating on something else can have negative effects on personal or working relationships.

Why is active listening important?

Participating in active listening can prevent over-reliance on selective listening. This is crucial as the overuse of selective listening can cause the brain to get lazy, in turn affecting its ability to process speech especially in noisy environments or with foreign accents.

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