“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Stephen Covey
As a school, we want to do our part properly to create the conditions for deep listening.
In fact, if you walk into any humanities room at The Grauer School, you will even find listening furniture: Based upon the original Harkness Tables of Phillips Exeter Academy, our tables are specially designed for close, eye-level conversation for groups of up to 14 students (12 is typical). Any larger table is not legitimate Harkness methodology, and may not produce optimal, intimate Socratic instruction.
Grauer has long advocated for a strong component of Socratic instruction in all courses of study. This listening-centric method of teaching is closely tied to making instruction “student-centered,” a goal virtually all schools hold. Why “student-centered?” Because, ultimately, it is the role of each student to develop his/her unique and personal voice and larger life purposes. Facilitating independent and clear voices is one of the highest goals of a great secondary school (and the point of Socratic method).
On the larger level, as advocated by legendary educator John Dewey, great listening is the bedrock of participatory democracy in America. At Grauer, we have a founding dedication to great listening, and we even optimize our class sizes in concert with rich research on group formation and listening. This ideal class size explains how a school like Grauer can develop articulate, engaged, and clear thinking students.
There are many research studies on listening and they reveal a sad truth is that we are only hearing one another about 45% of the time. It’s easier just to jump to conclusions about what others are trying to tell us.
However, continuing research on the art of listening is deepening our understanding of the value of great listening in an unexpected way: we are now learning about the great benefits of great listening… on the listener. We hope every parent and teacher in the world will know this research.
We have all noticed people who, rather than really listening to the speaker, are really just “waiting for their turn to talk, and planning what they will say rather than actually paying attention.” Real listening, says John Cavanaugh (Chronicle of Higher Education), “reflects openness to new ideas or points of view, based on what the other person is saying. Contemplative listening forces us to be present… [It involves] an ability to separate one’s personal needs and interests from those being expressed by the speaker, a mind open to new or different possibilities, an interpersonal trust… When done well, it may involve significant amounts of silence. All of this takes patience, practice, and courage. It is not the stuff of instant reaction on social media.”
Have you experienced great listening lately?
Cavanaugh says neuroscience points to early adulthood as the time when humans become developmentally ready to really listen, when emotion and logic begin to integrate. Teens are not always developmentally ready to listen—no matter how hard we demand that they do. They do, however, seem extremely well attuned to who is listening to them: this is a great challenge to parents and teachers.
But it is also a great opportunity—we find, as I have expressed often, we can “listen our students into goodness.” Winning the confidence, respect, and loyalty of a teen takes great listening even more than great talking does.
To become Socratic and student- or child-centered takes concerted effort and often years of practice: listening and questioning are artforms for great teachers. Listening and Questioning are the basic Socratic skills:
In his article for Harvard Business Review, Greg McKeown notes that concentrating on listening to other people takes the same focus people use when meditating. Like deep contemplation, deep listening makes our interactions immediately become richer. The other person can feel we are listening, almost physically. And when our students know we are listening, they form a bond of trust and respect with us faster. Life feels richer and more meaningful. As professor Graham Bodie has empirically noted, listening is the quintessential positive interpersonal communication behavior.
This tool isn’t merely about asking other people questions, it’s about questioning the thoughts our own minds create. Just because your mind creates a thought doesn’t make it true or relevant to the student. McKeown recommends developing the habit of asking ourselves, “Is that thought true?” If we are not certain it is, we let it go. One of McKeown’s subjects noted: “I found this liberating because it gave me an outlet for negative thoughts, a relief valve I didn’t have before.” We do not need to respond with every question or thought that pops into our minds. Great listening often means patience, empathy, restraint, and love.
The technique of questioning our own thoughts has been popularized by Byron Katie, who advocates what she calls “the great undoing.” What Katie is hoping we will all “undo” is the “emotional reactivity” so many of us experience. We observe our own thoughts, with no judgment, just as a great listener would do for us. Now we are ready listen to others with an open mind and heart, with real curiosity. What a relief! As teachers and parents of teens, we understand that, thanks to puberty, neurological and hormonal developments introduce teenagers to a few years of emotional fragility.
When we pass judgment on our students or try to “fix” them, it adds to both their stress and ours. Great, non-reactive listening enables teens to cope and clarify their own thoughts and feelings, free of threat—and all the while we cultivate our own patience, encouragement, and positive presence. Free of judgment, in great listening we are showing our own selves compassion.
In sum, great listening benefits not only our students and children, who feel accepted and confident when they experience our listening free of judgment, but it benefits ourselves.
To be considered a great listener is one of the highest tributes a person can receive. Likewise, it can be the highest tribute we pay ourselves.
“You Talkin’ to Me?” by John Cavanaugh in The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 27, 2017 (Vol. LXIII, #21, p. A48), no free e-link available
“Reduce your stress in two minutes a day,” Harvard Business Review, Greg McKeown, https://hbr.org/2013/11/reduce-your-stress-in-two-minutes-a-day
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