A few months ago I attended an interesting seminar on Active listening. In this post I would like to share some insights and practical tips about how to become a better listener.
Being a good listener is one of the most important skills of a good teacher/learner. When you really listen, you demonstrate your interest in what is being said and you show your genuine and sincere respect for the individual saying it.
Good listening skills are needed to assess whether your students understand what they are being taught, and also to develop empathy and understanding with them. Active listening is an intent to “listen for meaning”, in which the listener checks with the speaker to see that a statement has been correctly heard and understood. The goal of active listening is to improve mutual understanding, i.e. to avoid conflict and misunderstandings.
Stages of active listening
The first stage of active listening is to try to really listen and sense the real, underlying meaning of what is being said. You should listen for ideas, implications and feelings, as well as the facts being conveyed. Try not to close your ears to words you do not want to hear and only hear the words you want to hear.
The second stage is to interpret, or reconstruct, what is being said, remembering always that words have different meanings to different people. Do your best to listen with full attention, and withhold judgment, assumption and criticism at this stage.
The third stage is to evaluate what is being said, only after you have made a reasonably objective interpretation of the message. At this point you should reflect on the information and options being presented, and sift through the evidence.
The fourth stage is responding. Here you demonstrate that you have a real interest in what the other person is saying, and that you have truly been listening. Reassuring the speaker that you have been giving him full attention is a critical aspect of constructive listening. Feedback is usually given by asking for clarification or for more information, or at least giving some visible acknowledgment by making small remarks such as “Ah ha”, or smiling, nodding or frowning.
Here are five ways to increase your listening abilities:
- When listening try not to be distracted by other things that are going on around, but focus on the speaker.
- Pay attention not only to the words but the tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. This will give you information that will be as important as the words themselves.
- Do not keep interrupting or trying to change the topic; wait a few seconds after the person finishes speaking to make sure they have finished their thoughts.
- Do not think and rehearse in your head of how you are going to reply instead of listening.
- Do not be afraid to ask the speaker to explain something you have not understood.
In the classroom, it is not always easy to empathise with your students’ viewpoint. Personality clashes, age/status/cultural differences are just some of the obstacles to empathic listening and communication between the teacher and students. Despite this, genuine communication between teacher and student can only occur by showing a willingness to try to understand the students’ feelings. When they are speaking, make an effort to think of where they are coming from, imagine what their life is like and what struggles they might be facing. Empathic listening in the classroom promotes honest communication and builds trust and confidence, reduces tension, enhances the students’ self- respect, and keeps communication active and alive.
For example, in the following dialogue, a teacher (T) provides feedback to a student (S) by guessing the student’s implied message and then asking for confirmation.
S: I don’t like this school as much as my old one.
T: You are unhappy at this school?
S: Yeah. I haven’t made any good friends.
T: You feel left out and lonely here?
S: Yeah. I wish I knew more people.
Some of the ways teachers can convey the genuine desire to understand are:
- Listen in a friendly way – Create a positive atmosphere with your nonverbal behaviour (your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice: don’t cross your arms, use appropriate eye contact, have a sincere tone of voice,…).
- Be interested in the students’ needs – do not be judgmental and do not criticize.
- Act like a mirror – reflect what you think is being said and try to paraphrase (“Are you saying…”, “You seem…”, “If I understood you correctly, you ….”)
- Never belittle or negate any aspect of a problem, even if it seems unimportant to you. Don’t brush aside the person’s feeling with phrases like ‘It’s not that bad’ or ‘you’re making a mountain out of a molehill’.
- Don’t get emotionally involved, angry, upset or argumentative. You need to remain professional in your interactions with students, as you are a role model and the students are looking up to you for guidance and direction.
- Don’t jump to conclusions or judgments about any students. Try not to have any pre-conceived ideas about any student based on what you may have heard from another colleague or former teacher.
It is really important that your students see that you have enough regard for them to give undivided attention to what they wish to say. By using active listening with students, you build the relationship of trust and caring essential to students’ motivation to learn.