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. 
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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!