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When it comes to teaching effective listening skills, it’s not so much about the ears as it is about being observant. “Listen” is a single word with such big implications. A good listener receives information, processes it, gives feedback for clarity, and decides how they will act on it—and all this happens in a flash.
Words are simply inadequate for true communication. At best, they are symbols for elusive deeper meanings and ideas. Once an idea is put into words, it becomes less adequate than the ideal thought. Once we know this, then we can search for deeper means of understanding and empathy. Since we’re not capable of the Vulcan mind meld (that we know of), words are what we have.
So how does one go about teaching effective listening skills? In a word, we model them.
Here are some barriers to watch out for which hinder the development and honing of effective listening skills, from skillsyouneed.com. They fall under 2 categories: distractions and biases.
- Many noises or conversations grabbing your attention at one time, or any other close-by dominant noise such as television or music.
- Physical appearances can certainly be distracting if they evoke extreme emotions of pleasure or displeasure.
- Disinterest causes boredom.
- Personal habits such as fiddling with your hair, fingers, or a pen. It also includes daydreaming.
- Unmet needs such as illness, tiredness, hunger, thirst, or needing to use the toilet.
- Personal issues keep us preoccupied.
- Facts take precedence over empathy.
- Feeling sorry for someone, rather than empathizing.
- Personal prejudices such as race, gender, age, religion, accent, or any aspect of personal appearance; and/or past experiences, preconceived ideas or biases which make you perceive the other as unintelligent or uncredible.
- Having a closed mind and being unable to get past your own beliefs to see the other’s viewpoint.
Break Down the Barriers
Now it’s time to look at 10 ways of teaching effective listening skills with all your students. As you employ them in your practices, be sure to take your kids along for the ride by listening, observing, and telling them what you’re doing where appropriate and comfortable.
1. Stop talking: If you’re talking, you’re not listening. Quiet yourself, your responses, and your interjections. Be open and available to what is being sought by the other person through your listening.
2. Get into your listening mode: Quiet the environment. Mentally open your mind to hearing by getting comfortable and engaging in eye contact.
3. Make the speaker feel comfortable: Examples of this might be nodding or using gestures. Seating is also important. Decide if the speaker will feel more comfortable if you stay behind your desk, or if you took a chair beside them. For smaller children, get at their eye level instead of towering over them.
4. Remove distractions: This is something you might not think of at first. It means things like clearing the room, quieting screens, and silencing your phone, If the speaker requests privacy, honor that by closing the door or asking others to give you a few minutes in private.
5. Empathize: At the very least, try “learning instead to embrace and wonder at their “otherness.”
6. Be comfortable with silence: Some people really need time to formulate a thoughtful response. Rushing them through, or suggesting what they want to say, robs them of the opportunity to communicate honestly.
7. Put aside personal prejudice: This is also quite difficult, as our experiences form who we are. Putting all those experiences aside is a skill which requires help and practice.
8. Heed the tone: Sometimes the tone can hide the meaning of the words, and sometimes the tone enhances the meaning of the words. Know which is which.
9. Listen for underlying meanings, not words: Listen first for comprehension, and then a second time for ideas.
10. Pay attention to non-verbal communication: People communicate through body language and facial expressions. This is why eye contact is necessary.
Leading (and Listening) by Example
Teaching effective listening skills is, first and foremost, a process of learning how to listen yourself and then modelling that behaviour. Perhaps one of the most oft-quoted steps in Stephen R. Covey’s seminal work 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is seek first to understand. St. Francis knew this, and Solution Fluency begins with this.
By listening well to your students, modelling it for them, and making them aware of what you are doing, you make kids feel safe. Then they can practice listening with each other.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Nov 28, 2018, updated Dec 16, 2021