Listening actively is a body, heart and mind workout. It requires attention to self as well as a full immersion into the collective, while aspiring to keep every individual in mind. It demands that we keep our ego at bay and maintain a targeted focus on the other. The hardest part about listening is to minimize our natural tendencies to step in to fix, advise, or even advance. The most elegant acts of listening are those in which the listener provides the speaker with the space, the tools, or the nudges for sense-making. A great listener knows that the answer to a question needs to be constructed by the asker and not by the responder.
By Giselle O. Martin-Kniep*
Listening to ourselves
To listen to others, we need to listen to our internal state and center ourselves in the present. As we do this, we become aware of our breath, physical, mental, and emotional state and needs, and let go of unnecessary baggage. We then zoom in on our current context, recognizing that we are functioning in a group setting in which their behavior is constantly scrutinized. We listen with our body and with all our senses because listening well demands far more than hearing. When we walk into a learning space, we act as if we are fully present in the room. We pay attention to how people are positioned, who they are talking to, and how they are sitting. We feel the temperature of the room, both literally and figuratively. We sync ourselves with our environment and let it become the universe of our attention.
Listening to ourselves requires that we are mindful of our own sense-making filters, recognizing our own tendencies to confirm what we think we already know. It also demands that we listen to what is said and to what is not said, knowing the importance of what lies behind a comment or question, without assuming that we know precisely what that is.
Listening to other bodies
As we begin the learning experience, we attend to body language, checking who is relaxed or tense. We note if individuals are looking at us, the screen, each other, or their electronic devices. We pay attention to how people are positioned, to whom they are talking to, and how they are sitting. Our eyes travel across the room pausing here and there to connect with others and make them visible. We use our eyes, our proximity, and our words to invite participation and learning. Periodically, we shift the group’s attention to key individuals who are positioned in different sections of the room to assert their visibility and invite participation. We physically approach others to establish non-verbal rapport with those who may appear to be on the fence about their presence in the room.
Listening to individualize
We understand that every human being comes into a room with a unique emotional and mental state. We promote meaning-making by actively leveraging multiple needs, agendas and interests. We scrutinize for differences in age, power, culture, gender, and other variables that may increase or decrease someone’s status. In a small group, we establish eye contact with every individual, asking about who they are and what they do. In large groups, we gather data about the roles and responsibilities represented in the room (i.e., elementary teachers, coaches, etc.), or about interests or needs, and use these as categories to attend and connect to. We also use it to offer illustrations and examples that will relate what we discuss to individual contexts.
Listening through questions
Deep listening requires us to make sense of questions and comments that we and others ask. Paraphrasing comments and questions helps us check our understandings, as does making connections between what is being said and the person saying it. When we solicit questions from our audience, we listen for tone as well as substance. If possible, we capture questions so that we have time to process them and to show that we care about them. Documenting everyone’s questions allows for clustering and for the identification of patterns. It also facilitates connections between learning experiences and the questions asked.
We use questions to help others deepen and reflect upon their learning. We pose invitational questions that empower our audience to ponder on their meaning, make connections, explore and imagine possibilities. These questions sound like: What ideas do you have about…? As you envision…., what do you think might happen….? What are some of your aspirations for….? What hunches do you have about this…?
We rely on feedback loops to assess our impact and effectiveness throughout the learning experience. When we ask for feedback on a specific learning segment, our questions convey precisely what else we need to know more about. We invite elaboration on yes/no questions and minimize their reliance on questions like: Does this make sense? or Do you have any questions? since these kinds of questions rarely produce additional information. We use questions like: How did the pace of the activities influence your learning? What could you do with the information you acquired over the past couple of hours? What segments of what we did intrigue you or confused you? What new questions does this experience raise for you about your work in this area?
We know we have listened well when we have had a meaningful exchange with everyone, even if not all exchanges are verbal; when we have learned as much about our audience as they have learned about our content; and when we know that we would never be able to replicate the learning experience we facilitated in terms of what was said and done with any other group. Each facilitated act becomes as unique as the individuals who participate in it. At our best, the energy and effort we invested in listening exhausts us and enriches us at the same time.
*Giselle O. Martin-Kniep is an American educator, researcher, program evaluator, and writer. As the president of Learner-Centered Initiatives, and the CEO of Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change, she has worked with hundreds of schools nationally and internationally in the areas of alternative assessment, standards-based design, school improvement and action research.
Reprinted with permission