When others speak to us there are several ways of listening that we implement. There is some reasoning behind each mode, when to implement each and why you might do this. Sometimes others truly seek advice and feedback. They really care about what you have to say. At other times you recognize that it is foolish to even imagine that the speaker has any intent of absorbing what you have to say.
For example, when Uncle Bob chatters endlessly and there is never a chance to add a comment or to intervene to stop his never-ending diatribe, listening is rarely full. This is what I call pretend listening. Pretend listening includes occasional head nods and sighs. This indicates to the speaker that you are engaged while to you it is simply a means of keeping yourself awake. The best part of pretend listening is that really the speaker is not interested in your ideas or reactions so the fact that you are not listening is never a problem. You will not be asked for insight or opinion as the speaker is replete with ideas and so no one else's thoughts are of value. The biggest problem with pretend listening is being able to disengage your body from the clutches of the blabbermouth. It seems these folks do not pause but rather somehow breath in and out as words pour forth. Sometimes the only way to end pretend listening is to slowly inch away. Yes, you may run but this draws attention while a dawdling exit may go completely unnoticed.
A second type of listening is that with half-an-ear. Half-an-ear entails listening, nodding, and sighing but with a tad bit more attention. A good example of this type of listening is when you are multi-tasking - unloading the dishwasher while young daughter complains about her math teacher or continuing an Internet search while a co-worker runs over the agenda for an upcoming meeting. You have half of that ear operational and ideas do flow in but because the opening is one-sided the true understanding of the conversation is tiny so many gaps occur when it comes to action and reaction. But at least you possess an inkling of the information shared and can answer questions or fill pauses with fairly adequate feedback.
One-ear listening pulls you further into the depths of a conversation. You hear, you respond, you offer advice but you are never fully engaged in the conversation. This may be because you are busy with other projects as in half-an-ear listening, but to differentiate it from that mode, with one ear you are listening only to the extent that you can insert your own ideas, adventures, advice, and knowledge. One-ear of the listener means the other ear is free to mull and roll and then prepare an onslaught of interesting, pertinent, and valuable comment and personal views. This listening is typical of an office boss where s/he is the boss and the rest of the employees are simply a part of the mob. They are important and their opinions matter but only as they work in accordance with the wishes of the boss. "I want your opinion" translates to "Glad you are thinking, however,... " This may be discouraging, but you can often fool yourself into thinking that your ideas do matter.
The final type of listening is complete, full-on, attentive, and compassionate. You listen (nodding and sighing are optional) without interruption or offering unsolicited advice. Even when you are asked an opinion, you respond in such a way that the deliverer of the speech is in charge of his or her own choices. Your lead-ins include words such as "What would happen if... ?" or "What do you think about... ?" enabling the speaker to reflect on what s/he has said, pick up nuances of wisdom from you, and then intertwine these to formulate a decision. You may have terrific ideas but you hold them close and release snippets as the speaker is ready to hear and each dose is small enough that thoughts and ideas can be integrated into the picture as they fit and are needed.
This fourth type of listening is exhausting. It is extremely difficult to withhold feedback as the speaker wanders through anxiety and trepidation. This person came to you because of your intelligence and astuteness and you could just spout off at will (sending you into half-an-ear/one-ear listening) but the recipient of your advice would then not be forced to fit your feedback into a package that solves issues with deep understanding. This whole-hearted listening also moves you out of the position of "fall guy" as you shared insight but you did not demand action. The speaker took his/her thoughts and mixed them to form a satisfying answer.
Of course, the degree of listening may vary throughout a conversation. Sometimes the pretend listening mode advances and your advice, once the speaker has worn out his/her voice, actually does want to know what you think and feel. The same is true with complete listening. Sometimes your frustration at another's lack of focus and direction may force you to blurt and assert to end a muddle of confusion. The most important information here is to be aware of your personal listening behaviors and note when and how you apply these. Also pay attention to how your listening is perceived. When the speaker actually notices your attentiveness and adjusts and manipulates your advice to become his/her own, you have accomplished something wonderful.