the Dragonfly journal

Who Is Really Listening?

By Alan Jervis - @Alan_Jervis

I believe that listening can have the biggest impact of all the communication skills.

I have been lucky enough to hear some very inspirational speakers who make the hairs on my neck stand on end, although it does lose impact if we fail to listen properly. Many people find listening difficult and have to exercise great restraint to avoid interrupting to give their opinions.

Many conversations can model tennis matches whereby people take turns in speaking. The ‘players’ are more concerned in giving their views rather than trying to understand the views of the others. Finishing other people’s sentences is a common symptom. I call this tennis listening.

Some teachers employ a ‘vacant listening’ strategy:

‘Stuart, why didn’t you hand in your homework?’ questions the teacher.

What ever the student says now is fairly irrelevant…

‘Sir, I had to deliver a speech to the United Nations’.

The next teacher’s statement will be, ‘That’s very interesting Stuart, report for detention next Monday night’.

Filtered listening is also a popular technique used in schools. You ask for opinions but only register the views that fit your pre-existing opinion. All opposing views simply wash over the listener and remain unregistered. The listener then shows real enthusiasm towards the desired views.

Sometimes the listener accidently/deliberately puts their own interpretation on what the speaker is really saying. This is twisted listening.  I once held an assembly to students who had been identified as underachievers. I overheard a conversation between two students after the assembly saying ‘my mum will be really proud; the school is sending her a certificate to say I am an underachiever’.

Some conversations employ higher order listening skills. The listener is aware of the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, use of language, facial expressions and understands the mood of the speaker. I call this type attentive listening.

Finally, there is full-on listening. This includes all the features of attentive listening but also requires the listening to have a desire to really help the speaker. A genuine conversation takes place without ego, politics or hidden motives and with a real enthusiasm to help the speaker. Such conversations have good eye contact, positive body language and pauses for absorption and reflection.

Things to avoid for full on listening:

  • Mobiles and  interruptions
  • Time limits
  • ‘Oh yes that happened to me last year’
  • ‘’I feel so sorry for you’
  • ‘has this sort of thing always upset you

Full–on listening needs time between each statement for absorption. The listener needs to rephrase the statement back to the speaker to check for clear understanding The listener must put the speakers comments first and respond to what is really being said. Full-on listening is really hard work and does not come naturally to many people. It needs to be practised and observed by a critical friend to offer positive feedback.

A couple of weeks ago I was working in a school that gives listening to students a top priority. They believe that full-on listening is crucial in the learning process. A student from this school called Sara explained:

’At my first high school the teachers never listened to me but now since I transferred here I feel a lot more confident. The teachers are really interested in what I have got to say and so now my hand shoots up to speak.

A student Ricky stated ‘Its great here because the teachers listen first and really hear what you say.’

Knowing how and when to listen to others is a difficult skill to grasp, but nevertheless a skill that can make a world of difference when communicating. Being attentive and responsive at the right times can have such a huge impact on confidence, belief in ability and understanding of others. So, no matter what kind of listener you are (or what kind of listeners your students/audience are), understanding the importance of listening as a key communication tool is really important to get the most out of your students.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and can take something away from it. If you have any of your own thoughts on listening techniques, I would love to hear from you so please comment below, or tweet @Alan_Jervis or @dragonfly_edu.

If you would like to see me in person or attend one of my CPD courses please feel free to have a look here.