Listening Skills of Court Judges, Gary Keller

Gary F. Keller, Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee, WI USA
An essential management and leadership competency is listening skills. Communication is superficially
covered in management courses; however, one of most frequently cited organizational challenges
continues to be interpersonal communication problems. Contemporary technology provides a plethora of
devices and systems to transmit information and messages. However, an overlooked component of the
communication process is high quality listening and decision making skills. Bloom’s taxonomy is
proposed as the basis to articulate and measure listening competency. Finally the author interviewed four
court judges ranging from a municipal judge to a former state Supreme Court justice to learn about their
listening and decision making skills. The judges asserted that the most important skills to hear a case are:
a) respecting all of the participants and judicial system; b) visualizing issues in gray tones rather than
black and white and c) observing the tone in which someone speaks. The judges also made suggestions
to improve the business curriculum.
Keywords: Communication; Listening Skills; Bloom’s Taxonomy; Decision Making, Judges Listening
One of the most frequently cited organizational issues is interpersonal communications. Although the
communication process is included in virtually every management curriculum; is the centerpiece of
thousands of professional developmental seminars to improve leaders’ and followers’ productivity skills
and a plethora of tests are available to assess one’s communication style, communication problems
continue to be cited among the top five lists of the most vexing organizational troubles. In an era where
electronic devices and satellite transmissions provide instant access to individuals regardless of time and
place why is communication cited as a barrier to harmonious workplace relationships and corporate
productivity? Is the sender portion of the classic communication process (sender encodes message –
transmits message – receiver accepts message – decodes and provides feedback) emphasized over the
receiver component? Is the medium the key obstacle or has the competency of listening as opposed to
hearing been overlooked?
As advanced economies continue the transition into the creative/knowledge/information (CKI) era, new
management competencies are emerging from the industrial model. The classic management aptitudes
articulated by Drucker, Maslow, McGregor, Michigan/Ohio State Studies and etc. are being challenged by
the demands of business conditions predicated on speed, innovation, change, global competition and a
new generation of employees with values and aspirations much different than the organizational man
period of the 1950’s - early 1990s. Management by Objectives (MBO) is being superseded by
Management by E-mail (MBE). The transformation from the industrial economy to the CKI era calls for a
new set of management skills comparable to the major transformation required when the agricultural
economy was superseded by the industrial system. However, simply appliquéing Managing Change and
Managing Creativity classes onto curricula that resemble those of the 1980s are anachronistic responses
to a more profound shift in managerial aptitude. If listening is a noteworthy managerial ability what
aspects of it can and should be taught?
A variety of explanations of listening are offered. Hass (2006) articulated that in addition to technical
know-how communication and listening are two of the most vital leadership skills needed in the CKI
milieu. Reichert (2006) stated that listening is a key leadership skill that is not taught; rather we learn to
listen at home, during early schooling and from other sources and experiences. As a consequence of
these diverse sets of instructions many assume that listening is simply a filtering procedure to gather
information and wait until it is one’s turn to talk. Reichert asserted that there are two levels of listening,
traditional and emerging. Traditional listening is composed of five stages ignoring, pretending, selective,
attentive and empathetic. Emerging listening is made of four phases: politeness - listening to those
focused on themselves; debate - listening to issues; inquiry- listening to engage in reflective dialogue and
flow - listening, to generate new thinking and principles. Schwartz (2004) defined the listening process in
the following dimensions: the listener; knowledge; skills and behavior and argued that oral communication
in the form of storytelling is a means of developing a context to encourage creativity.
If listening is a teachable and valued leadership skill, what are the most significant and useful
components that must be taught? A variety of aptitude choices are available. However, competency
models are not universally embraced. Hollenbeck et al. (2006) argued that leadership competency
models are problematic because of the focus on the individual rather than results. Many organizations
use assessment devices to determine a person’s skills regardless of past achievements. Educational
institutions use a variety of tests such as the ACT, SAT, GRE, etc. to decide if an individual can perform
at an acceptable level within the academy. Evaluating skills is a decedent of the guild movement.
Individuals desiring to learn a trade went through a variety of stages of assessment by masters
progressing from the apprentice, journeyman and finally to the master level. The medical profession is
another example of a profession utilizing the competency model approach to selecting future physicians.
The main goal of a competency model, regardless of its form is to sort out the proficient from the less than
promising aspirant. The merits of competency models are numerous including saving time and money.
These benefits and the statistical reliability of many types of assessment devices (SAT, ACT, etc.) are
touted as the main advantages of the instruments. However, Malde (2006) and Jackson, et al. (2005)
questioned the validity of assessment centers because assessment devices seek to measure highly
subjective leadership skills using techniques that cannot accurately capture the essence of a given
competency such as leadership or human relations. Emilani (2003) discussed the variety of applications
for competency models and determined that they do not result in any substantive behavioral changes
because the models and evaluations fall short of altering leaders’ core beliefs about management
Hollenbeck et al., Malde, Jackson et al. and Emilani challenge the paradigm that a statistically reliable
test can predict or change the actions of an individual by capturing an individual’s current set of skills or
comparing them to a predetermined best of breed set of principles. Although these researchers’
arguments have merit and are worthy of vigorous debate, the practical demands of the workplace and
classroom necessitates the progressive development and use of predictive models that at least attempt to
gather and pass on best practices.
A variety of techniques and toolkits are also available to assist organizational leaders assess their
listening and communication skills. The salient issue is the reliability and practicality of the assessment
and guidance devices. Several notable efforts have been proposed to measure the effectiveness of
listening skills. Pearce et al. (2003) offered a Listening Styles Inventory (LSI) which is a self-administered
tool for leaders to measure their perceived listening effectiveness. The LSI has four categories of
listeners: active (give full attention to speaker), involved (give most of their attention to the speaker),
passive (receive information as being talked to rather than equal partners) and detached (uninterested,
bored and easily distracted). The LSI consists of 10 questions asking the participant to rate their
responses on a one to five (Likert scale) basis. The respondent’s answers are weighed and interpreted
into one of four listening styles. The outcome of the LSI enables an individual to assess the strengths and
weaknesses of their listening technique and make adjustments if necessary. Nichols et al. (2006)
developed a reliable and valid listening test to determine the effect of listening training and concluded that
listening skills could be improved by training.
Another approach to improving listening skills is in the form of management toolkits. Szpekman (2006)
articulated the growing use of off the shelf management toolkits which contain resources to assist
organizational leaders build four core communication competencies: insight, feedback and coaching,
listening skills and communicating. The outcome of the toolkit approach is to propose a best practice
methodology to achieve outcomes compared to building on the assets of an existing listening style as
proposed by Pearce et al. and Nichols et al.
Several investigators inquired if differences in gender, personal variations and individual preferences
influenced listening styles. Sargent and Weaver (2003) claimed that females scored themselves higher on
people listening style compared to males who rated themselves higher on content listening style. Peer
listening styles were anchored by gender stereotypes. A study conducted by Imhof (2004) using a
standardized survey profile (Barker and Watson) designed to sort out listening styles, revealed that that
substantial variation exists within a given population. Bodie and Villaume (2003) examined the
connections between listening preferences and patterns of communicator style and anxiety.
The research showed that high people-orientation in listening relieves receiver anxiety, high content and
action orientations is linked with a clear-cut and thoughtful style of debating problems leaving a lasting
impression on the receiver and finally an intense time and action orientation devoid of content puts the
receiver in an apprehensive state and is less likely to completely comprehend the message.
The ability to effectively and consistently communicate to a diverse set of employees is a premium
competency in a global workplace. Frequently, a manager/leader must facilitate teams located around the
world. Linguistic, socio-economic and cultural nuances must be honored to accomplish results. Lewis
(2007) suggested that listening skills was one of the most important elements for managing business
teams and bringing them to rapid consensus. Craumer (2006) added that a leader’s ability to listen
actively and carefully allows them to comprehend a given scenario and commence goal directed actions
without waiting for direction from their manager. Young (2007) and Eldred (2007) commented that
listening skills go beyond carefully hearing verbal messages; observing facial expressions, avoiding
interruptions and asking open-ended questions leads to the most prized indicator of success, solving
problems. However, the question remains, how can one know if messages are received, understood and
used to achieve some valued outcome?
In 1956, Benjamin Bloom identified three overlapping human learning domains: cognitive, psychomotor
and affective and depict the knowledge, skills, and beliefs of a human being The integrated structure of
Bloom’s work has become labeled Bloom’s Taxonomy (Adkins, 2004) and has been revised since its
introduction to incorporate Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Noble, 2004). The six-level taxonomy
classifies the level of understanding that takes place during the learning process. The categories include:
knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Quality Progress, 2004). The
importance of Bloom’s classification system is its ability to objectively measure learning progress and
refinement of the method of transmitting knowledge. Was the subject matter, learning goals and
instruction effective? One can use a variety of appraisal methods to determine the level of learning that
has taken place both in the classroom and workplace and simultaneously ascertain if teaching objectives
were appropriate and achieved (Morris et al., 2007).
Bloom’s Taxonomy
Bloom’s taxonomy provides a very useful method to assess an individual’s transmission and listening
skills. Bloom’s six-level approach can enhance and clarify the standard communication process. The
traditional communication process is a linear model and presumes that the sender comprehends the
information contained in the message at Bloom’s six-level and the process is repeated similarly by the
recipient. Also absent in the linear model is the consideration of learning styles: verbal and linguistic,
logical and mathematical, musical, kinesthetic and visual and spatial (Gardner, 1982).
Style of
Message and
Decodes It
Style of
Level of the
Bloom’s taxonomy could be used as a checklist to teach listening skills and improve the linear
communication model depicted above. The following questions should be asked by the sender of a nonemergency message before transmission occurs.
Knowledge: How completely does the sender understand the information?
Comprehension: To what extent does the sender appreciate the meaning of the message?
Application: Does the sender recognize how they can put the information to use?
Analysis: Can the sender identify the essential elements of the message/information?
Synthesis: Can the sender come to a conclusion based on the components of the
6. Evaluation: Can the sender determine the importance of the message/information?
If the sender of the message can respond affirmatively to these six questions, the message can move
forward to the transmission stage. However, the message sender must also be aware of the recipient’s
learning style. Even if the sender is communicating at a six-level, the message recipient may be an
auditory or kinesthetic learner and therefore, if practical, an adjustment in the message medium may be
critical. The receiver also needs to be conscious of Bloom’s sequence to grasp the sender’s intent. If
senders are the only ones who are versed in the Bloom approach to communication, the process will be
subject to all of the foibles and barriers that presently exist with the linear communication model. The
adaptation of Bloom’s taxonomy as the basis for upgrading the listening skills of managers and leaders,
regardless of their management/leadership/listening styles provides them with a systematic approach to
evaluate the messages they are receiving. Furthermore, the Bloom model also enables both the sender
and receiver to conduct a quick communication check to verify that the details, intent and importance of
the communication was received, evaluated and acted upon.
The judicial branch of government offers a case study in listening skills as proposed by the Bloom model.
Judges have various levels of interaction when hearing cases depending on the court level. However,
regardless of jurisdiction making sound legal policy is a judge’s definitive goal (Walker, 2007). The
strategies that judges use to obtain information to base their decision is critical given their unique
circumstances of frequently only being able to listen to arguments before rendering a verdict.
The author interviewed the Presiding Judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Ted E. Wedemeyer Jr.
(personal communication, December 14, 2006), former Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice Janine P.
Geske (personal communication, December 19, 2006), U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia J. Gorence
(personal communication, December 27, 2006) and City of Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge Robert
Mosley (personal communication March 14, 2007) to learn about their listening and decision making
skills. The judges were asked the following standard questions:
What do you believe are the three most important skills a judge needs to properly hear a case?
How did you learn to listen?
How do you maintain your attention during a case?
What are the three most important skills required to hear a case to prevent personal biases from
influencing your judgment?
5. What is the process you use to filter away any preconceived thoughts/beliefs/impressions while
you hear a case?
6. Describe your decision making process.
7. What course(s) should be added to the curriculum to teach managers/leaders to listen, think and
make decisions similar to a judge?
1) The judges agreed that the most important skills to hear a case are: a) respect – show the speaker you
are willing to hear what they wish to tell you, b) see the world in gray tones (rather than a simplistic
black/white mindset) to understand the speaker’s point of view and c) observe the tone in which someone
2) Each judge learned to listen by different means. Judge Mosley learned to listen during his training as
an attorney and his eight years experience as a District Attorney. As an elected judge, he also has
developed his listening skills to learn about constituent issues and concerns. Judge Gorence learned her
listening skills from her previous careers as a teacher, journalist and lawyer. Judge Geske claimed that
she is a natural, empathetic listener. In fact she conducts sessions in prisons that bring perpetrators face
to face with their victims to hear of the impact that they have had on their lives.
3) The judges pointed out that they maintain their attention during a case by: a) determining who had the
most credibility, b) controlling the environment and c) focusing on the point at hand, because each
person/situation is unique.
4) The three most important skills needed to hear a case are: 1) being helpful to both sides in the case,
e.g. going into chambers to talk off the record, 2) using standards of review, facts and evidence and 3)
individuals want to be heard so it is necessary to actively find out the elements of the case.
5) The judges screened personal prejudices while hearing cases by: a) constantly checking their biases,
b) using standards of review to wall off irrelevant thoughts and information and c) listening to find out
significant facts and evidence.
6) The judges opinioned that they made decisions based on: a) logic, b) taking time to collect their
thoughts and reviewing the credibility and inconsistencies of the case and c) being able to explain why
they made a particular decision.
7) The additions to the business curriculum they recommended include: logic, teaching ethics across the
curriculum to prevent a myopic view of the subject and educating leaders how to treat people with
1. Teaching listening skills is a relatively new area of inquiry. In the global
creative/knowledge/information (CKI) economy communication skills are vital for organizational
success. Technology is not the salient communication issue. There are more devices and
systems available that are overwhelming individuals with information. Devices of all kinds are
designed to talk to or at someone regardless of location and time. However, little attention is paid
to actually listening to messages/information that results in productive actions.
According to Pike (1989) over a period of three days, learning retention is as follows:
a. 10% of what you read.
b. 20% of what you hear.
c. 30% of what you see.
d. 50% of what you see and hear.
e. 70% of what you say.
f. 90% of what you say as you do (e.g., orally work out a problem).
3. Bloom’s taxonomy is an excellent method to base teaching communication skills, especially the
proficiencies of classifying, making use of information, using information, thinking critically,
combining information into new ideas and making judgments based on information. Moreover,
Bloom’s classifications also provide opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of
communications of senders and recipients.
4. The judges interviewed proposed the additions of several courses that would compliment and
strengthen leaders’ listening, interpersonal and thinking skills. Classes in logic and weaving ethics
across the curriculum are worthy of consideration.
5. Adding judges as adjunct instructors to a business program is strongly recommended. Judges
could add a perspective and vitality to a curriculum and could serve as mentors for future decision
There are other professions that could contribute to the analysis of listening skills including psychologists,
veterinarians, medical doctors, police investigators, district attorneys, emergency dispatchers and etc.
These professions are predicated on the ability to listen before any action is taken. It is important that
listening skills be taught, learned and practiced. If the information age becomes nothing more than a
tsunami of data, entertainment downloads and soliloquies the goal of linking people to pursue common
objectives but rather contribute to isolation and a poverty of spirit.
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