Listen, Really Listen

active listeningThere is no better way to show respect to a student than to listen. If you listen, learners will teach you how to teach them.

If you listen, you’ll be surprised. And when you’re surprised, you’re not bored. That’s a good thing if you’ve been doing this job for a long time. It’s counter-intuitive, but true, that the listener has a lot of control over where a conversation goes, as I discovered in my doctor’s office one day. Just as I was asking the third question on my prepared list, she got up and walked towards the door. I knew immediately that my appointment was over. Before I knew it, I had stopped talking, got up and followed her to the door.


So if you want your students to talk, you can make that happen with Body language, Eye contact, Following their words, putting yourself On-the-Level and Relaxing. Here’s more about BEFOR

If you’ve been reading or writing about active listening, there’s nothing in BEFOR that you don’t already know. However, it serves to remind me to get ready to listen BEFOR I ask, “How are things going?” 

Make Yourself Uncomfortable

The tricky part about listening is to be willing to be uncomfortable yourself, in order to make the other person comfortable.  If you’re working across cultures, it means making the eye contact that they are used to, even if you find it hard; it means accepting the physical distance between you that they find comfortable, even if it makes you squirm a little. If you’re working across age differences, it may mean listening to their music in the background, not yours.

teaching adult literacy (This is the first of five strategies for developing stronger relationships with learners. You will find all five written up here.)



3 thoughts on “Listen, Really Listen

  1. Pingback: Listening Skills – Are You A Good Listener? – articles4friends

  2. You have sparked quite a discussion over here in Vancouver about what ‘being comfortable’ means, about ‘making yourself comfortable’…

    We noticed that if we feel entirely comfortable as the teacher (person with power) then we are almost certainly acting from our own internallized dominance Comfort is not equally available to everyone. People with the power are more likely to feel comfortable than people without.

    So it can be the case that our comfort comes at the expense of our students’ discomfort, even if we do not set out to make them pay. There is a dignity cost to inequality: the person with less power has to pay the dignity cost. Much of what is in your blog Kate which I love is ways to contradict that inequality so that the dignity cost is reduced or eliminated.

    If I turn it around, I find that DIScomfort is actually very useful. My discomfort, that is. Because it means that some settled notion that I have about how the world should be working has been disrupted. Feeling bad can be a good sign. That discomfort can lead me to inquire of myself how I think things *should* go, and then to see why I think that. Often I discover that I think that things should go a particular way from a habit of thought and assumptions that I have absorbed from the dominant north american culture, but without much more than that.

    In turn THAT means I have expectations and asummptions about how learners should be behaving. We know that this culture’s assumptions about learners are, on the whole, that learners are less-than teachers, for example. That students will appease/mollify/follow/etc the teacher.

    So then I have to ask myself, in the privacy of my own mirror, what I get out of being the Teacher: which parts of my ego are invested. I notice that I like the Respect that the teacher gets. Hmmmm. Ka’CHING: what is the dignity cost of Respect?

    Back to what you were saying, Kate. To contradict that dignity cost I need not to require the learner to do things my way. Because if it makes me uncomfortable to do things the studen’ts way, it will certainly cause the student discomfort to do things my way. Who should be the uncomfortable one?

    Since we know that learners learn less well if they are stressed – if, in fact, they are uncomfortable, and since we already have the power and the security of our role as Teacher, I think it should be us. That’s fair, and it’s the only way to make learning more rather than less possible.

    So: how to do that? I think the first piece is to notice the ways that the learner’s approach is different from my own. Second is to not assume that if the learner knew more they would be approaching it the way I do (a common misconception of mine ). Third is to learn to do things the way the student does, to take the way the learner does social interaction as the norm. Kate mentioned accepting learners’ ways of eye contact, physical distance, and so on.

    One ofthe ways I have found for myself to work toward that is to imagine that the learner (and I am using the word ‘learner’ for anyone in the less-power role of a power dynamic) has much more power than I do. That this person is the Queen or the Prime Minister or …insert your own most-power figure). All of a sudden the things I would do to offer them comfort seem much easier to discern. I would ask: what can I do to make you comfortable. I would assess the situation and consult others. I would assume there were things I needed to know about them in order to know what would make them comfortable.

    Of course, once I know what will contribute to comfort, I can begin to do those things.

    And that offers me a way to think about comfort – theirs and mine – and discomfort – mine, and theirs. A useful thing, that.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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