listening anxiety associated with oral communication

In oral communication the audience to the communication may struggle understanding some of the thoughts and ideas being presented to them live and orally.

Apprehension or anxiety can occur when listening 1 to an idea being communicated orally where the information or ideas being communicated are not already known to the listener and where there is an expectation of an outcome, that is dependent on the information or ideas being communicated, for which we are responsible. For instance, a life threatening emergency – calling 999, ATC transmission, etc., learning a foreign language 2, workplace listening,3 witness under cross examination, etc., etc.; communication dependent situations where listening plays a crucial role in consequences and where anxiety 4 becomes an impediment to listening or comprehension 5, and therefore the resulting outcome or action. 6

The outcome becomes the object 7 of the subject 8 not the information needed to effect the outcome.

To listen 9 is to consciously process sound. 

Sometimes, where there is an impediment to listening, not an impediment to hearing, we focus on the perceived outcome of the sound, i.e. the expectation of a consequence rather than the sound itself which holds the information we need to effect an outcome. 

In listening there is a conscious act on the part of the listener in response to the sound heard.  This act can be mediated or interfered with consciously or unconsciously in a non-physiologically way. Sometimes our ability to listen or consciously process sound is interfered with, i.e. what we hear is mediated by an additional element.

My argument is that anxiety, even the mildest non-specific form of anxiety imperceptible to the object 10 of the anxiety, the audience, is that additional element or shadow.

I’m late, I’m late, For a very important date. No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”.… 11

You are standing in the street and someone asks you for directions. They are lost and late for something important and, when you tell them the way, they look at you blankly.

There are times when something prevents us from being able to fully process what is said to us – something prevents us from listening. It could be a number of things such as the perception of an expectation that the outcome is predicated on. i.e. that your response has been pre-determined, personally or professionally in some way. Learning a foreign language would be one example of this. You are expected to understand what is being said to you and you are expected to respond with an appropriate and relevant reply. And, importantly, you know what the expectations are and you know in advance you will know when they are not or can’t be met.

There is a disconnect between the event and the outcome, a disconnect that is dependent on a piece of information someone else has; a piece of information that is now being communicated to you orally; a piece of information that was not previously known to you, i.e. not pre-learned or prescriptive. And importantly, what you do next is dependent on the outcome of listening.

At some point all of us will be or have been in a situation where important information is being communicated to us and, for whatever reason, we won’t be able to consciously process what may ordinarily be a very simple oral communication.

Something happens that interferes with our ability to comprehend what is being said when we are in a state of anxiety and where the outcome is not pre-learned or known to us. In other words, where the ideas being communicated orally are crucial to the subsequent outcome or action.

ANXIETY – definition

  • a state of apprehension, a vague fear that is only indirectly associated with an object. 12
  • negative expectations and cognitive concerns about oneself, the situation at hand, and possible consequences. 13  14

A crucial relationship exists between what is being said and what the recipient has to do with what is being said that is being determined by anxiety.


  1. Listening – the conscious processing of the auditory stimuli that have been perceived through hearing. (Wikipedia)
  2. In learning a foreign language, it is commonly known. that anxiety plays a big role in listening
  3. Workplace listening – Wikipedia
  4. Anxiety – The quality or state of being anxious; uneasiness, concern; a cause of this. E16. OSOED
  5. Comprehension – noun. I.1. The act, fact, or faculty of understanding, esp. of writing or speech; mental grasp. LME. 2. An understanding, an adequate notion, (of). L16.
  6. Horwitz, E.K. Horwitz, M.B., & Cope,J. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70, 125-132. Substantial research has been carried out on this topic in the learning of a foreign language – the impact anxiety has on a student’s ability to understand what is being said to them orally in a foreign language in a learning environment. I want to take the idea and apply it more generally to everyday life and the act of communicating ideas orally.
  7. Object – noun. 1. The end to which effort is directed; a thing sought or aimed at; a purpose an end, an aim. LME. 2. A thing or person to which action, thought, or feeling is directed; a thing or person to which something is done, or on or about which something acts or operates.
  8. Subject – noun. A person or thing towards whom or which action, thoughts, or feeling id directed; an object of attention, treatment, thought, etc. L16
  9. Listen [verb] – 1. verb trans. Hear attentively; pay attention to (a person speaking or some utterance). Now arch. & poet. OE 2. verb intrans. a) Give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance or person speaking; make an effort to hear something. ME. b) Give attention with the ear to, unto; (in extended use) pay heed to, yield to a temptation or request. ME. D H Lawrence She stood and listened, and it seemed to her she heard sounds from the back of the cottage.
  10. Object – Grammar. A noun or noun equivalent dependent on or governed by a verb, esp. an active transitive one, or a preposition. E18.  (subject – Grammar. A noun or noun equivalent about which a sentence is predicated and (esp.) with which the verb agrees; the grammatical element typically denoting the actor in a predication. M17.
  11. The white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, is distracted, he is focusing on his meeting with the Duchess.
  12. Scovel, T. 1991
  13. Morris, David, & Hutchings, 1981.
  14. UK Essay article

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