Learning to listen (part 2)

Communication is hard. We have all of these pictures in our mind, and we try to put them into words. Even when we say what we mean, whoever’s on the other end has other pictures in their head, and the words don’t always match the same pictures. (And sometimes we promise follow up posts in two days and don’t post for two weeks…)

When I wrote about listening in part one, I was talking about the act of listening; the mental process of turning sounds we hear into meaning, especially in conversations. But when people say ‘listening,’ they mean all kinds of things besides that. Today’s post is about some of those other meanings – particularly, what adults mean when they talk to children about listening and what we mean when we talk about listening to a group’s perspective.

‘Good Student’ Listening

When humans sit in rows, there are expectations and norms of behavior. The one at the front is important, those sitting must be silent, attentive (head up, facing forward, perhaps taking notes), obedient. Throughout formative years in western schools, the successful students, the ones in rows, learn to meet these expectations, to listen this way, and they are called ‘good students’. Those who cannot sit still and face forward silently face mounting consequences. They are called ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’ and made to go to principals offices and their parents have conferences and the letters they take home make them feel inadequate and insecure. This is one mode of listening we learn.

This kind of listening skill is useful to have – those who learn it can attend college and conferences, rise in tax bracket and status, move to nice neighborhoods whose schools have children who sit in their rows and listen.

I’ve said that communication is difficult. Even one-on-one, we all too frequently need to clarify our meaning, restate and reframe our sentences. Teachers in classrooms have a Sisyphean task, to corral the students into their silent, forward-facing rows, and then somehow communicate with them, transfer knowledge to all of them, unilaterally.  If the students are very good, they will appear to hear everything, and perhaps take notes. As is often the case, however, their questions after the fact and their quiz and test results reveal a tragic lack of hearing.

Didn’t I go over that in class? Weren’t you even paying attention? Were you listening?

Some of the difficulties in communicating come from bad estimates of inferential distance. You should click the link to find out more, but in short, we assume that others have a similar frame of understanding that we do, and will therefore understand what we are talking about. More often, those we speak to don’t have our background knowledge or assumptions, so much of what we say falls short in conveying the intended meaning.

Teachers and lecturers run into this problem all the time – they expect students to have read and comprehended more than they have, or know that their students lack prerequisite knowledge and have to reteach. Moreover, those at the front face rows of students with different backgrounds. Whether or not they know the inferential distance between them and their students, juggling the expectations and abilities of a heterogenous group is nigh-on impossible. Some students get left behind, while others are bored with coverage of concepts they already know. Some teaching strategies and assumptions and examples work with some students, but not with others.

What’s the point here? Listening in classes is hard for students and speaking to rows of very different individuals is hard for teachers, but what do we do about it, besides recognize that it is hard?

I wish that I had a way to make all classrooms places of genuine communication and learning, but I am long on problems and short on solutions. I have been a fan of learning models that get away from rows and lectures. You’ve probably heard of Montessori and not heard of Sudbury or Summerhill. For some, rows are a ludicrous proposition for learning, and they are done away with. I don’t know if the free school model would work for everyone; it has its own problems.

Listening to groups

Another meaning of ‘listening’ is giving time, weight, and credence to the perspectives of a group of people. Commentators talk about listening to “the experts,” politicians talk of listening to their constituents, social justice peddlers talk about listening to the downtrodden, education reformers (some education reformers) talk about listening to teachers or, in rare, shining moments, listening to students.

It turns out that in order to help people, the necessary first step is to listen to them. I can’t say it better than people who are very very good at talking about listening, but I can repeat what I’ve heard my experience and send you off to better sources.

You are likely clever and already see where these listenings overlap, and what conclusions I intend for you to draw from reading all this, but bear with me as I spell it out.

The ‘good listening’ we learn as students is not really listening, and it prevents the kind of listening we need in order to help kids learn. If we care about changing things, we have to listen to those in need, not sit them in rows and tell them to shut up and listen. While this group listening concept applies to any sort of world-saving you might want to engage in, I care about education most, and you, reading this, probably care about it at least a little.

There are some signs that students are slowly having a say in the conversation about their education. Not all is bleak. But there is a long, long way to go if we want to get out of the rows.


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.