We were all taught at home and at school to “pay attention”. OK, yes, that makes sense… but “pay to attention to everything“? Is the goal of “paying attention” to fully understand what someone is saying? to fully understand what everyone is saying?

No, of course not!

I remember an old episode from The Twilight Zone called 20/20 Vision in which a severely nearsighted man was granted his wish to see everything… Spoiler Alert: He wound up going crazy and committing suicide — he simply couldn’t process everything he was seeing and it drove him mad.

It’s the same principle in everyday life: if we paid attention to everything, we’d go crazy. We simply can’t take in or process everything that is going on in our “attention space” .

So the solution is: selective attention.


In terms of teaching listening – which is triggered by the act of “paying attention”, the key is to focus on how to make more conscious choices about what to attend to.

And…the final twist on this: We always and only pay attention to that which is relevant to us… (This principle is well articulated in the work of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson.)

So (finally!), the principle of teaching selective listening (or selective attention, if you prefer) is to heighten the listener’s “attention radar” for what is relevant.



This is what I mean by “selective listening”: paying attention deliberately to what is relevant to your goals.


Selective listening is a listening technique that filters input to achieve the listener’s goal.


Selective Listening Explained

One metaphor for understanding selective listening is to imagine yourself as a high school student with a massive history chapter to review for a test and a yellow highlighter.

Because you’re studying for a test, you use a highlighter to focus on key ideas in the book that you think will be on the test – that’s your goal.. You’ll just skim over text that doesn’t seem critical but focus on text that seems most relevant to your comprehension goal.

To take this metaphor back into the realm of social listening, here are some common features of selective listening in a typical conversational or business meeting context:


Giving listening less than full attention. For example, planning what you’re going to say while someone is talking.


Deciding when to retain important information and when to ignore non-critical information.


Focusing on high priority information (e.g. in a meeting, when your boss speaks, you pay more attention, even if it doesn’t seem relevant! ).


Developing a general impression of what is said rather than memorizing an accurate account. You’ve got to preserve your energy after all!


Selective Listening Explained – Simplicable

Is Selective Listening A Bad Habit?

Selective listening is often considered a bad habit. Like tuning out what you don’t want to hear.

In social contexts, selective listening can certainly be a bad way to get to know someone or to build rapport with someone. People tend to know if you’re fully listening to them. Most people will feel ignored or even insulted if they catch you selectively listening and drifting off when they’re talking about something you’re not interested in.

So what’s the advice?

Think of selective listening as a conscious strategy – something that you choose to do or not to do. Don’t think of selective listening as a default, as a habit, as the inevitable way you have to listen.

If you decide to listen intensively, not selectively, start by eliminating distractions. Try to pay full attention. Use clarification and confirmation. Paraphrase what the person says (“Do you mean…?”, “Are you saying that…?”). This slows down the communication process in a sense, but it deepens the connection between you, the listener, and the speaker. Form closure at the end of a conversation or meeting segment, such as by saying, “OK, it seems that we have agreed on these points…” Don’t be afraid to become a more intensive listener, a more active listener. It’s your right as a participant!




About The Author

, What is Selective Listening?, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.

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