Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Art of Listening

As a mirror image to my previous discussion about rhetorical sensitivity, and as an extension to what I wrote about "expert listening," I would like to write a bit more generally about the art of listening.

I think we do not teach enough about skilled listening. We too often think that saying something is sufficient for it to be heard exactly as we meant it.

Maybe it is teachers especially who become aware of how much people miss. We teachers are used to saying many things and then receiving direct feedback about how much does not get through! The temptation is to accuse students of "not paying attention." While it is true that people sometimes zone out, there is a lot more going on as well in listening than just whether the attention is turned on or off. We teachers see, for example, those students who are in fact trying really hard -- their attention is focused, they may be taking notes, they raise their hands and ask questions.

Looking at students' notes can be an amazing experience. (It is usually very humbling, actually.) It can be like looking through a distorting lens at your own thoughts and words.

Eventually, I have let go of all of the anxiety, self-doubt, and even indignation that I initially experienced, and I feel that I understand all of this better.

People do perceive everything through lenses. The lenses are shaped by their own cognitive development so far. And everyone's cognitive development is different, since everyone has had different experiences and different education so far in life.

So, when people listen, they are not actually taking in your words exactly as you say them. They are translating your words first into their own native language: that is, their own set of concepts -- their own cognitive structure.

When you talk, some of what you say becomes incorporated into your listeners' ever-evolving cognitive structures, but other pieces of what you say bounce right off because their cognitive structure does not have a place for it.

Reciprocally, some of what others say to you may "fit in" to your cognitive structure, but other pieces may bounce off because of ways your own cognitive structure is too different from theirs.

Cognitive structures are flexible and ever-changing, however. Since we are constantly learning new things and having new experiences, our cognitive structures shift and change to adapt to the new information.

The main principle of skilled listening is understanding the translation process. When you listen with awareness that others may not be using words and concepts exactly as you do, you are more careful to pay close attention to how they connect the words and concepts they do use (rather then immediately reading your own definitions onto their words and concepts).

When something that the other person says "doesn't make sense," instead of accusing them of becoming irrational, you try to identify your confusion more precisely, and ask good follow up questions. For example, it is usually especially helpful to identify their key phrases and ask them to say more about what they take these phrases to mean. Very often, you then become very surprised. You realize that you had been reading a lot into their words that is different from what they were actually trying to express.

When we listen in this way (instead of stubbornly insisting that we are always right, and our definitions are the correct ones!), our own cognitive structures become more powerful and flexible. We become able to move from conversation with conversation more able to tune into where the other is coming from, and therefore communication improves.

The most highly skilled listeners adapt their language to others' as much as possible, and are careful to explain their own use of key words and concepts carefully when it is necessary to do so.

So, not only is it helpful and affirming to others to be listened to well, but it is enriching to the listener too. Listening well is a way of opening yourself to richer experiences -- moving beyond the limits of just your own experiences and your own current ways of thinking. It is a way of polishing your own "lens" so that you are able to "see" more and more.


  1. thank you. this is an excellent entry and after nine years of teaching, i found myself nodding in agreement often.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words! The art of listening is so important, and is something I am always learning more about, myself.