Learning to listen (part 1)

It’s a noisy world. Listening is hard. Listening means lots of things to lots of people, and everyone recognizes that it is pretty important. I am gonna make this a multi-part post, since there is lots to talk about. This is part 1, and I’ll link to part 2 when it goes up! (Edit: here’s part 2!)

Listening is hard and important, which makes it a good candidate for learning and practice. TED talk:

Julian Treasure does a little bit of unsubstantiated fear mongering with an undertone of luddite Gen-Y bashing, sure. BUT, he has mindfulness exercises for listening, and exercises are wonderful, so it probably balances out.

Even if we aren’t losing our listening, we don’t practice the receiving end of communication nearly as much as the broadcasting end, at least not explicitly.  Listening is a skill we ought to think about and work on.

There are lots of things we listen to. Music, the thumping about of roommates, construction noise when we try to work. All kinds of online ed materials: Podcasts, lectures, TED talks. What does it mean to be good at it? How does one become a ‘good listener’?

Just as we mean different things when we talk about listening, doing it ‘well’ has different meanings. Today, I’ll focus on choosing the things you listen to and developing interpersonal listening skills.

Listen intentionally and choose the things you listen to.

If what we learn is who we become, and we learn through our ears, we should be selective about what we listen to, and how closely we listen to it.  I listen to C-SPAN radio as I drive. If I get stuck listening to C-SPAN callersNPR is often good too. I try to process what I am hearing, especially when there is a good interview or speech. I make connections to what I already know, but also consciously note information that is new or did not fit with my previous understanding. I think of questions that I would ask to clarify or delve further into particular issues. I have gotten good at filtering subtle, meaningful insight from what is not. (I might do another post on learning to recognize and learn from experts rather than others, since most people are mostly wrong about most things.)

You don’t have to listen to C-SPAN. That might not be your scene; that’s totally cool. I am me in part because of what I listen to. Maybe you like Ted talks, maybe you just want your Beyoncé playlist. It’s all good, as long as you know that choosing is part of defining who you are. So, choose!

C-SPAN or no,   discerning bull from not-bull is an awesome skill. If you are mentally engaged with what is being said, you will notice more and, consequently, learn more. Don’t tune out talking heads as background noise like you did when you were five – some of them are actually okay. Others are crappy. Telling one from the other is hard, and takes practice, but I believe in you.

[EDIT: Forgot to mention Night Vale, which is super cool. Got any cool podcasts or things you listen to? lemmeknowinthecomments]

Listen to those around you

Another habit or set of habits has to do with interpersonal listening – one on one and in groups, where your role is both listener and speaker. I’ve had the amazing chance to learn a bunch of good listening skills as a counselor at the Help Center, UMD’s peer counseling and crisis intervention hotline. Still, it takes effort and concentration to actually listen to friends and siblings, especially when I have opinions on the subject under discussion.

Some things to focus on:

  • Actually hear the words they are saying. Seems obvious, but there are times when a few words go unheard and we shrug it off, since we got the gist. Instead,
  • Ask clarifying questions. Even if it is “can you say that again?,” asking for clarification works to help us understand what someone is saying.
  • Don’t judge, jump in, or interrupt. Basically, listen instead of talking. This one is especially tough for the extroverts or those with strong opinions. I’m still no pro at this in some settings, but I’ve found that focusing on how much I should be speaking as a fraction of the number of people in a conversation helps. If I am one of three people, I should have one third of the speaking, or thereabouts. If I am one of twenty, a twentieth, and so on. Of course it is a guideline and there are exceptions, but it helps me shut up more.
  • Use nonverbal or monosyllabic cues. Nodding, saying ‘mhm,’ eye contact, generally using active listening skills. It can feel silly to overdo it, but it’s harder than you would think.
  • Summarize and reflect your understanding of what they said. Don’t worry about sounding dumb. If you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean you or your friend are bad people – communicating well is really hard!

Actually, wikihow has a wonderful post about listening well, with illustrations and generally more time and thought put in than I have. It’s worth actually reading.

Like most actual skills, listening takes time and practice for the benefits to show. It’s worth it. Your relationships get better, you retain more information, and the world sounds better. Pretty neat!

Music for now:

Note: Part 1 was about deciding your listening environment and tips for interpersonal listening. Part 2  includes thoughts about inferential distance and the difficulty of communicating, plus the concept of listening to stakeholder groups as a society, plus classrooms and listening to students. 

Blog Changes and A Hint of Things to Come

Hi Reader! Just a quick post this time, since it is late and I have noticed that I get more traction if I publish posts in normal people’s waking hours. I am back from New Brunswick, and have updated the posts I did from the road, in case you wanted to go back and check out the links. I put some time into finding good sources, so the links are usually worth checking out.

You notice, I changed the look of the blog and some of the features – you can hit the bar on the left to search and view tags and follow on email, and the blogs I follow, archives, and such are on the right (as you can see.) I am still experimenting with the design, so if you have comments, lemmeknowinthecomments. Also, notes on the style of writing, the tone, what posts you like and don’t like, general positivity – it’s all helpful, so let me know!

I have started drafting a couple new posts about 1) making my own major, 2) the in media res aspect of starting a blog, 3) Learning to listen, 4) More stuff about overcoming akrasia with habits and developing mental fortitude, and 5) lots more about the many many many online tools and resources for learning.

I can’t write quickly enough to do them all at once or in magnificent depth, but if you let me know what you want to read about, I can write that.

Confessions of a former grammar prescriptivist

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: posted from the road, coming back from New Brunswick. Tomorrow or Tuesday I will come back to this post and the previous one to add links. Stay tuned!

I love words. As a lil tyke, I tore through series of all kinds, hardy boys and treehouse and animorphs and Lotr and Harry Potter and all the rest. Words were (and still are) the atoms of the worlds I escaped to.

I started learning the rules of grammar, both in school and from my parents and grandparents. Grandpa would make a loud ‘bzzzt’ if any of us grandkids used ‘like’ as a filler word, and Ms. Kopp had us diagram compound complex sentences. As a middle schooler, I took these rules for granted. While I liked to argue with teachers, having real, solid rules let me, with my advanced knowledge of said rules, hold a kind of power or superiority over classmates and siblings.

I looooooved to correct people’s grammar. I got in trouble at some point for passing a note in class, informing a classmate that ‘irregardless’ was not grammatical, at the expense of a teacher.

But I was wrong. Doubly wrong in that particular case, as ‘irregardless’ is a properly grammatical synonym for ‘regardless’. But I was wrong in a deeper sense, about what I was doing. It may not have been my fault; I had learned to correct grammar from a young age, and idolized, for instance, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There remains a part of me that grows frustrated with “improper” punctuation or usage.

But I have learned the error of my ways. Grammar, spelling, usage, all of these language elements: we made them. And we can break them.

See, the top-pro grammar folks study linguistics. How people come to understand each other and the complex meanings we can evoke with sound or sign or text. They take it as an axiom that language is not some unmoving monolith; the rules of grammar and punctuation were not inscribed on some tablets outside the universe and handed down to us.

We made them so that we can communicate, and if we can do that effectively, all the rules in the world don’t mean diddly.

Now, if you are a naturally skeptical mind, you might challenge me and say: but we need consistent rules if we are going to understand each other!! We need teachers to teach the grammar that my teacher taught me and that my pappy’s pappy taught him, straight from his King James!

Is our quest really for understanding? Or is it to keep in place the power structures that privilege those who descend from privilege?

See, if grammar is something that you can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ then those who learn from their parents ‘how to talk right,’ (or even ‘how to speak correctly’) will have the advantage over those who only ever used words to get their point across. Just another way for discrimination to work.

Natural language has rules. Those rules are the object of study of scientists, but should not be the aim of instructors. If you had certain students who grew up in a null-g background, you would not teach them to obey the rules of gravity or punish them on tests if they could not stay down.

Teaching English has a place, for sure. I know well the difficulty of communicating, and how much difference it makes to practice and keep on practicing, to see the powerful examples of language superusers, the Kings and Dickensons and Foster Wallaces.

But we gotta cease with the prescriptivism, guys. We gotta recognize the rules for what they are; outdated, mistaught, misunderstood relics from an era when we thought we could know everything, and that people who didn’t know what we did we less than we were, less than good, less than human. It’s hurting real people!

In media res

“You know what else you forgot?!”  The soles of her boots slammed into his chest and arm. He fell, hard. She somersaulted into a ready stance, palms up and eyes alert, just as Master Splinter had taught her all those years ago. She saw the damage her dropkick had done, and dropped her hands.

 “Your face.” 

L brushed the stray hair from her ponytail, turning her back on her fallen former friend and lover. Never again would she let a man get so close. Never again would she share her secrets.

Everyone is coming to this blog from a unique starting point. All blogs are like that – you usually come in backwards, start at the end and scroll down towards the beginning. Most of the time, you get a small amount of context and head back out the way you came. In that way, reading a blog is very much in the middle of the thing. 

More than you, though, there’s me; I am hardly at the start of my learning. At 22, I am many years, many schools, many teachers and textbooks in. Even if I write lots of posts, and even if you read alllll of them and even if you know me outside of the internet, I won’t be able to provide all of the context I have for any of my thoughts, and I will even less be able to write with knowledge of where you are coming from as a reader, what experience you have and what will make sense to you.

I’ll take a page from the writers of action stories and use it as an advantage, dropping hints at the origins of my perspective, and hopefully by the end spelling out the whole story and tying up loose ends. I haven’t storyboarded the whole blog, so who knows if the loose ends will ever get tied. I’ll also try to make the drop-in to the blog soft and easy, accessible: if you stumble in out of the cold, it shouldn’t be too confusing and tied to all sorts of esoteric knowledge you can’t find. I’ll link and tag things so it’s navigable too.

I think three new posts (real ones) are coming this week, so keep your eyes open!

Learning to self-regulate

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: I am in the car going to New Brunswick for the World Pond Hockey Championship, posting from a smartphone. This post has no links until I can edit it + it’s hard to proofread etc. If you catch errors, send ’em my way.

Like what seems to be a majority of the population, I am a psychology hobbyist. I try to be a good amateur and learn the right terminology, take a few classes, and get rid of the worst of my misconceptions. If you are a real psychologist, apologies in advance for the mistakes. Let me know where I am mistaken or unclear; I am trying to learn on this blog.

It is a difficult field, even for the pros – analogies compare our current understanding of the mind to physics before Einstein, or, more pessimistic, before Newton. Those sayings don’t capture it, really; brains don’t seem to obey simple, consistent, universal laws that we can derive from lots of observation. People are more complex.

Of course, my interest in psych isn’t some attempt to push the field further and advance the state of human knowledge; it just seems practical! Other trite sayings reference the lack of an owners manual for the brain we get – some elementary neuroscience and psych and development seem as close as we have right now.

In psych, lots of the focus is on ‘outcomes’ of development given particular circumstances and influences. As someone interested in being successful and smart and happy and stuff, I look towards these outcomes as a source of explicit goals for my learning. Why futz around with guesswork if I can try to build up the best environment for myself based on the research, or find a shortcut to the outcome? I agree, no reason at all!

One of the positive outcomes the psych folk look for is self-regulation. The concept covers a wide array of emotional and mental skills – keeping anger in check, focusing on what you want, feeling how you want to feel. Regulating yourself.

I try to work on this. Mindfulness helps – noticing how I am feeling is necessary if I want to consciously change how I feel. Last year I wrote an article for the diamondback about practicing emotions. Basically, the idea was that we learn lots of things in school, but to get to super-saiyan, we’d have to expand our emotional capacity too. Get yourself terribly sad, then enraged, then overjoyed, flush with anticipation, annoyingly proud of yourself, repeat.

While I still think it is a cool idea, recently I haven’t been pushing it so hard. The more I read about the actual goals of the psych folks, the less the sheer emotional capacity seems the actual goal of development. In essence, don’t feel sad/angry/frustrated/lethargic unnecessarily. While I still try to mix my practice up with a range of emotions, I am sticking to the ones that feel good – amusement, self-satisfaction, excitement, hope, security, appreciation, and the like.

A big movement within psychology going on recently and now has been a gradual shift from a focus on pathology, i.e. what’s wrong, to thinking about how even the most stable of us can be happier and more fulfilled. I’ll add links tomorrow with some of the things I’ve been reading about this I added links to this, but for now, sleep!

It’s good for you!

Learning language

7 billion people in the world, uncounted words to read and listen to. Lots of the words are English – far more than I could hope to slurp up in eighty or ninety years. Far more are in other languages. I’ll return in later posts [EDIT: Hold me to that, please] to the question of which words to pay attention to. The Big Selection Problem, content overload, is one of the more compelling questions for curious minds, ever more so with our increasing access to stories and studies and blogs like mine.

Today is about learning languages. Speaking multiple languages is one way to be smarter – this NYT article says it fights Alzheimer’s and improves children’s ability to sort colored shapes. Cool.

Even if you aren’t a professional block sorter, the research seems to show your brain grows more robust when you learn to switch between different languages. On top of that, multiple language proficiency has become a big ol’ status indicator with real career implications. Plus it is fun and cool. Travel and stuff. Seems like the reasons in favor are overwhelming. 

But it’s hard! It takes time you don’t have, energy you can’t afford, and who’s to say if you could even do it, even if you decided that you wanted to? And don’t you lose the ability to learn language once you get old and start reading blogs?

I took Spanish in high school and did okay. I wanted to keep going with it, but didn’t have people to practice with or any particular goal in mind in terms of fluency. When I went to Norway last year (spring semester ’13), I picked up enough to follow a few conversations, but not hold one myself. I felt bad, but everyone spoke much better English than I spoke Norwegian, and it seemed much more important at the time that we communicate than that I painfully practice my pitiful language skills. In retrospect, it was a huge missed opportunity! Although, if I had my choice, maybe I would pick a language with more than 5 million speakers…

Thankfully, technology.

I started with Duolingo about a month ago, and I’m at level 6 in German. Where that actually places me in my learning, I don’t know – I know a couple hundred words, probably. Still, it’s free and fun and simple and it only takes ten minutes a day, and I have learned words that I certainly did not know before. Learning a whole language will still require tons of time and effort, but it somehow feels manageable – it’s just a quick lesson. Just a bite-sized chunk of time. I can handle that. I can make that a habit. It helps that I have friends registered too, so I can compete with them and reinforce my learning socially.

This will be a recurring theme. Technology makes it easier to put massive hours into learning. Whether it is e-readers or apps or that thing that blocks facebook for you, it’s all getting easier and closer. It’s okay to feel intimidated, right?

I can’t tell yet if I will learn a whole language for free online, but I feel more excited than scared about it.  Language learning seems like a thing that the internet should be able to do. Das Internet ist gut. Lernen ist gut. Zusammen sind sie wunderbar!

Auf Wiedersehen!

P.S. Let me know how you like your posts – quick and topical, like this one was (sort of), or meandering and journally? I am definitely planning on including  tools like Duolingo that you might not have known, which are making the world a more fun place to learn. Let me know what you think! It’s your blog too!

Learning Habits

I had excellent teachers throughout my K-12. I remember hearing from several of them, at different points in my young learning career, that what mattered about the schoolwork I was engaging in at the time was not the content itself, but the habits I formed by working diligently as I was assigned. While I have since come to disagree with that justification for assigning otherwise meaningless work, the implicit principle still seems valid.

Habits are the key.

In my first post, I started the idea that learning is the way we become who we are. I won’t waste your time with a bunch of baloney speculation on what exactly makes up our identity as individuals – better writers than I have stabbed at it and come closer than I would. Suffice it to say that habits are some significant fraction of our daily actions, and worth shaping. Learning the meta-skill to develop the habits I want on demand is a top-priority long term learning objective. Some habits I am currently working on (I will try to keep you up to date on the interesting ones, fans, if you want. lemmeknowinthecomments.)

The world (read: internet) is full of advice. Advice animals, thought catalog faux-wisdom, the next thing-you-won’t-believe on buzzfeed or Huffpost or Cracked what have you, or the life-changey wisdom we see on TED or Medium or my blog(hah). Some of the insights seem at first to be crap and turn out to be nothing more, some seem actually inspiring or wise or faking it well, but rarely if ever does any of it actually change the way we act.

Instead of just sharing the things I like and ignoring the things I don’t and staying who I am no matter what I see, I want to build myself an effective wisdom-filter. I want to be on the lookout for things that I can actually use, advice that will change my habits. I am trying to grow my spidey-sense that will warn me of wise-sounding but unhelpful advice and other insight, so I can stop wasting my time feeling good but not changing. There are some things that are worth absorbing for their content – knowledge of interesting subjects is inherently worthwhile. But I’ve only got so much time, and there is a lot of internet out there. The most impactful content empowers me to develop good (useful, powerful, smart, time-saving…) habits.