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Critical Listening


Techniques Listening > Critical Listening

Subject and logic | SIER structure | Skills | Fallacies | See also


Critical listening is a rational process of evaluating arguments put forward by others.

Subject and logic

The focus of criticism may be either or both of the subject matter being discussed or the logical structure of the argument being proposed.


Critical listening may be based on the subject-matter being talked about and assumes the listener is sufficiently expert in the subject matter to be able to form a valid opinion.


It may also be based on the logic and structure of the argument being proposed, which assumes the listener has a sound grasp of logic and argumentation.

SIER structure

'SIER' critical listening breaks the process down into four repeating parts:


Sensing is simply hearing the words. This is not automatic and requires careful focus and attention that excludes any distractions.


Interpretation is the process of understanding and assigning basic meaning. It is based on the mental models and schemata of the listener, many of which may be based on commonly accepted knowledge and paradigms.


Evaluation is the process of judging the argument, assessing 'facts' presented for real accuracy and seeking structural integrity and fallacies in the argument presented.


Finally, having judged the argument, the critical listener may assign worth to it. An argument may thus be judged as strong, rational, truthful and worthy, or weak, illogical, false and unworthy.

Critical listening skills

Understand person and context

When seeking to do critical listening, it can help to understand the person and their context. Many arguments do not stand alone and understanding why the person is saying what they are saying can help in the understanding and consequently evaluation of their message.


When people speak, there may be much that is assumed or otherwise left out of what is said. A useful approach is to probe, asking questions to add useful information and help them develop their argument.

Care here is needed to avoid leading questions, and other ways your interaction can 'pollute' the argument the other person is giving, turning it into a normal conversation rather than an assessment of another person's views.

A useful tool for probing are the Kipling questions of how, what, why, when where and who. These can give you much extra, useful information.


An important part of listening and evaluation is in separating one thing from another. This may take more time and questions, but lets you more accurately understand differences and get to important detail.

An unskilled listener will quickly categorize what is said into one of a few types of argument. A more skilled person will have many categories and always seek more intermediate or extended cases.

Knowledge of argumentation

Logical argument is a well-developed field that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. An understanding of this field will help you analyze and probe to assess the effectiveness of any proposition.

Fallacies in critical listening

It is easy to get critical listening wrong, which is a particular sin as the critical listener, setting themself up as a judge, must be impeccable in their judgment or lose serious credibility.

Judging the person, not the message

A common error made by those who would be critical in their judgment is that they stray into judging the person rather than their argument. In this way the speaker is found bad, deceitful and so on.

False positives

A 'false positive' in evaluation of the argument is where you judge it as good whilst it is actually flawed in some way. This can happen when your ability to judge is limited by your knowledge or logic capabilities.

False positives also happens where you make an evaluation based on the character of the speaker rather than what they are saying. Similarly, social desirability bias leads you to be 'kind' because you want to be liked.

False negatives

A 'false negative' occurs where you incorrectly judge the argument as being flawed when in fact it is actually valid. This can again happen due to lack of skill of the evaluator. It can also happen if you are overly critical of the speaker.

See also

Argument, The SIFT Model


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