Eike Mark Rinke, Patricia Moy
Political correlates of apophatic and cataphatic listening styles

114th APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, Boston, MA, August 30th to September 02nd, 2018

“Democratic listening” across lines of difference are increasingly vital to the functioning of democracy in both democratic theory (Dobson, 2014) and political sociology (Bassel, 2017) – and can be equally important as its counterpart “democratic voice.” In political contexts especially, the inclusion of marginal groups requires communication across lines of social difference. For such precarious communication to be successful, members of all involved groups need to be not only heard, but also listened to. In this study, we distinguish productive from unproductive forms of listening at the level of individual communicators, drawing on the normative conceptualization of listening practices introduced by Andrew Dobson (2014). By bringing his distinction between apophatic (“good”) and cataphatic (“bad”) political listening to existing literatures in empirical listening research, we develop an instrument that allows, for the first time, to study apophatic and cataphatic listening styles on an individual level in large-scale general population surveys, providing evidence of its reliability and validity from a two-wave panel study of German students (Study 1). We replicate these measurement properties and provide the first available exploration of cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral political correlates of different listening styles using data from a representative survey of Latinos following the 2016 U.S. presidential election (Study 2). According to Dobson, apophatic listening occurs when a listener puts his/her own mental categories (i.e., their concepts and schemas) into temporary suspension in order to “hear out” a speaking other without disrupting them internally, for example, by thinking of counterarguments to what is just being said by them. In this way, apophatic listening is dialogic and facilitates the productive, structured negotiation of political disagreement in communication across lines of difference. In contrast, cataphatic listening is characterized by a listener who imposes his/her own preexisting categories onto what is being said by a speaking other, potentially disrupting the transmission of meaning. In this sense, cataphatic listening is monologic and may impede true understanding between interlocutors who do not share the same set of categories, considerations, and interests. The two dimensions of Dobson’s normative conceptualization are captured by the Listening Styles Profile-Revised (LSP-R) the most widely used self-report listening instrument in the communication discipline (Bodie, Worthington, & Gearhart, 2013). Cataphatic listening corresponds to the LSP-R dimensions of “critical listening,” a tendency to search for errors in what others are saying, and “transactional listening,” a tendency of listeners to reduce listening to the transmission and reception of information relevant to solving a problem at hand. Apophatic listening, on the other hand, corresponds to “analytical listening,” in which a listener attempts to understand and process all communicated information before forming an opinion as well as “relational listening,” which is the tendency of a listener to be empathetic and listen out for the emotions of the speaker. Next to validating a new 8-item short form of the LSP-R for use in general population surveys in Study 1, the LSP-R8, the paper focuses on the first available empirical exploration of political correlates of listening styles in a national sample of respondents. In Study 2, the LSP-R8 was implemented in a national online survey of U.S. Latinos (N = 720). The empirical analyses support a largely positive view of relational and critical listening styles for several key democratic outcomes. Both listening dispositions, especially critical listening, are positively related with several indicators of political interest. Unlike other listening styles, individuals disposed to listening critically to others also place a higher value on getting exposed to diverse political viewpoints and disagreement as well as possessing broad political knowledge. Critical listening is also associated with greater self-reported attentiveness while consuming political news. However, listening dispositions were not associated with the extent of citizens’ actual knowledge about public affairs. In contrast, a self-reported tendency to engage in relational and critical listening did predict higher levels of overall political participation. In terms of political attitudes, none of the individual listening dispositions was associated with satisfaction with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Remarkably, relational listening dispositions were associated with higher general political trust and lower social dominance orientation. Overall, this first empirical study finds that “good” and “bad” forms of listening for democracy exhibit associations with several key individual-level democratic outcomes, both enriching and complicating the normative analysis of listening for democracy.