Thoughts on Listening

I grew up in a family were interrupting was standard operating procedure. I thought of this recently when I was in Hawaii, where when talking in groups they “talk story,” and the flow of conversation is about building upon one another’s ideas. In my family, conversation was about grabbing the microphone. As the youngest of four children, I rarely got the microphone and when I did I was interrupted, not listened to, sometimes lectured and corrected.  So, I chose not to join conversations at home, and was shy about speaking at school.

In college I took some risks and began speaking up but I hadn’t really come to understand the other side of talking: listening. I interrupted, finished other people’s sentences, thinking that I was showing my interest, that I was listening, that I felt connected. In my early thirties I met Andy (later my husband) who once said to me that if I wanted to hear his point of view I should wait until he finished. A very attentive listener, it was from Andy’s example that I learned to appreciate the power of listening.

Obviously, listening is key to positive relationships and effective communication, in our personal lives and in the work we do as educators. Communication means how we experience, process, organize, store, and retrieve information. Effective communication refers to the quality of the connection between the senders and receivers of information, ideas, thoughts and feelings. Central to effective communication is listening. But… what does it take to listen?

Fran Lebowitz once said: The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.

Listening, above all, takes patience. I practice listening by quieting my mind and my voice long enough to absorb someone’s message. For me, listening takes a lot of practice and patience. I have to concentrate. I have to focus on a speaker's words, body language, intended message and even unintended message. Hardest of all is that I try to practice listening without judging what I hear. Assumptions or judgments are huge roadblocks to listening — to children and to adults. Assumptions are the lens through which we see.

When we see or hear something we form an impression – that impression is based on an assumption – “Oh I know what she means.” Or “I’ve heard that before.” While making assumptions is a fact of human nature, it’s important to recognize that they influence our every interaction. We take it for granted that when we speak, others know exactly what we mean. Or - we assume that they don’t and we keep saying the same thing over and over again.

I practice being an effective listener by practicing self-awareness.

  • I pay attention to the cues that I’ve stopped listening. My mind is wandering. I’m waiting for my turn..
  • I try to stay present in conversations, keeping my static as quiet as possible.
  • I try to stay open-minded and ask questions for clarification or elaboration.
  • I work at avoiding interrupting.

Being a good listener makes for closer more engaged relationships. I find that when I really listen, I learn more. From children and from adults.  What about you? What are your experiences with listening? What do you find difficult? What tips have you found helpful?