How to Think and Act Like a Listener

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October 6, 2016

As I reflect on what it means to think and act like a listener, I continue to think about Helen Keller. She could not see or hear; yet, she was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She was also an author, activist and lecturer. To be and do the things she had been and done, Helen had to be a listener; yet, she couldn't hear. Curious, isn't it?
And what about her teacher, Anne Sullivan? I read that Anne started teaching Helen with a prescribed list of words that she wanted Helen to know. Ms. Sullivan discovered that it wasn't working. Anne then shifted to naming the objects that Helen was curious about by spelling the words out in her palm. Ms. Sullivan focused on the needs of her student, what the learner was curious about, and made her teaching about the learning of the learner. Anne noticed. And, Helen became an unstoppable learner.
So what?
So, is listening really more about noticing and seeking understanding and less about hearing? If so, how well do we focus on listening as an act that requires not only focus on others, but on intentional moves that enable us to open our minds to being challenged in new ways? Thinking and acting like a listener seems to require a great deal of energy, effort and time. Is it realistic to expect that we could or should listen to seek understanding with all of our students and colleagues? We are all so busy. Aren't we all on the same page anyway? I suppose the answer to these questions might be found in another question:
What do we want for the learners we love?
With the opportunity to explore the values and beliefs of many educators around the state of Michigan these past few months from varied backgrounds and roles, PreK through post-graduate, I have discovered similarities about the knowledge, skills and/or dispositions we hope to foster in our students, our own children and in each other. Responses to the question posed above were either these exact words or variations of them: strong work ethic, positive attitude, problem-solving capabilities, kind, respectful, literate, leader, self-aware, reflective, engaged, passionate, compassionate, curious, confident, collaborative, inquisitive, difference-maker, focused, driven, adaptive, empathic, growth mindset, risk-taker, critical thinker, responsible, inclusive, resourceful, happy and to be a lifelong learner.
Educators also believe that learning environments that foster these attributes in our students would be described as having or being: like a family, safe, judgement free, communicative, collaborative, supportive, productive, organized, flexible, humorous, focused on learning, purposeful dialogue, challenging, empowering, fun, interactive, technology, shared ownership, personalized, students & teachers lead, allowing for voice and choice, "alive."
These responses express our desire to create cultures in which learners are self-directed and that help students pursue their passions while making a difference for others. There is also a shared responsibility for the learning. Based on educator input, it is also clear that we do not believe that our purpose is to create test takers or to be content coverers. The really hard question to ask then is: Do our words and actions align with what we value and believe?
When I asked myself this question, I was learning about behaviors that inadvertently shut down student thinking. I thought my words and actions were aligned; they weren't. Well, not all of them anyway. And, I knew deep down that if I said that I valued students' thinking and that our learning environment was about growing our thinking together, not about being right or wrong, then I had better act as if. One of the quickest ways to align my words and actions was by allowing myself to be vulnerable through the simple act of listening. It's subtle. And, it's not easy. I also believe its power and effectiveness is underestimated.
For years, I thought I had taught students the importance of active listening. In addition to song, I broke out huge blown up boxing gloves, Beast slippers from the Disney Store, spring-loaded googly-eyed glasses and giant plastic ears. These props helped me model different levels of active listening that students were able to give feedback on and make determinations about what active listening should look, sound and feel like. We had a poster of a child who modeled what the students had described as attributes for being an active listener. I have continued to use this as part of my back-to-school-establishing-procedures-routine, and I would continue to do so.
Insert here: The big. fat. BUT.
I learned that even though students ”'knew” many things about active listening thanks to the co-construction of procedures and regular self-evaluations using a behavior rubric, they did not have a model in the classroom of someone who truly listened –– ouch. Hurts to admit this. But, I had to own it if I was going to improve my practice.
My dear husband knew all along that I really wasn't an active listener. I wondered why he often became frustrated in trying to explain his thinking about something that I had probably asked for his thoughts on. "I thought you were done talking," I would explain after interjecting my thoughts the second he trailed off or took a breath. I had so much thinking of my own that I could hardly wait to tell him just what I thought about whatever it was I had asked him to tell me his thoughts about. Nice, huh? And, I thought I was good at communicating. I sought out being understood more than I was seeking understanding. My communication was good from afar but far from good.
Fortunately, I moved from this "unconscious incompetence," or not knowing what I didn't know, into "conscious incompetence," being aware of what I didn't know but not quite sure what to do about it, when our district had some of us trained in Cognitive Coaching. After this training, I used what I learned and developed some tools for how I could think and act intentionally about listening to someone; however, it is taking me years to take on the identity of a listener. I still have so much to continue learning about what it means to be a listener, and I am amazed at what I discover every time I choose to listen. Listening actually fosters a desire to listen more often.
I learned that listening is not passive. I believe it requires more effort, intention and self-control than running a marathon. OK, running a marathon is a really close second. These activities require us to overcome the urge to do the opposite of what the activity actually requires us to do. In a marathon, at about mile 19, our bodies want to stop (If you hate running, we'll say mile one). With listening, at about three seconds (or sooner), our minds want to formulate a response to whatever it is someone is saying to us. We actually miss whatever it is someone has said in order to make our thoughts known. Which is weird because listening is not supposed to be about us at all. Listening is hard because it takes intentional behaviors that are not always taught or learned. We can teach procedures about how active listening should look, sound and feel with all sorts of crazy props, but the real work of listening happens more internally than it does externally. And, while running 26.2 miles does require sustained physical effort, there is more that happens inside a runner's head to overcome the mental hurdles of wanting to just stop running, join the spectators on the side of the road, and yell to the other racers, "You're almost there!" when they're really not.
So why bother?
There are benefits directly proportionate to the effort put into training and preparing for race day or the opportunity to listen; distance running and listening develop mental toughness. It develops relationships with those whom you run with or listen to regularly. The community and camaraderie felt at races or in opportunities to listen with so many people from so many different backgrounds is inspiring. It's motivating. Together, we celebrate our individual successes. We lift each other up and carry each other onward with perseverance.
So, how might we think and act like listeners?  Here are a few behaviors I have picked up from “The Thinking Collaborative,” Stephen R Covey, as well as authors Peter Johnston and Maria Nichols.
1. Establish rapport: A way to begin sending the message that we care about what someone has to say begins by displaying body language that indicates this. We stop what we are doing. (Walking away to move on to the next task or looking at our computers or phones while someone is speaking is not an example of rapport. I was amazed at how often I did this to students and colleagues without realizing it.) If our body language displays that we are ready to listen to the speaker, chances are, s/he will believe that we really care about what it is s/he has to say. This means we continuously seek alignment with our words and actions so students believe that we do value their thinking.  It's about acting trustworthy. Teaching the students how to do this with each other also helps create a culture in which we honor each other's thinking. Establishing turn and talk partners in the classroom can be helpful in transitioning in and out of this basic level of collaboration.  Learning to sit facing each other (EEKK eye to eye, knee to knee) can be a simple and quick way to have students establish rapport.

2. Really listen/Park your thinking: Our purpose is to seek understanding; however, we usually listen to respond. This means that we're not really listening to what the speaker is saying at all. If we are seeking to understand, we need to take in and process what the speaker is sharing with us. We have to actually focus on someone else's thinking and try to understand from his/her point of view. We have to suspend judgment about what is being shared and try to see things in a way we might not have considered. This requires us to have an openness to new ideas and to think critically at the same time. This creates uncertainty. Tension. Discomfort. This might be why we tend to avoid listening; yet, this is how we show respect and foster empathy. And empathy is the key to not only developing social emotional wellness, it's how we know where to meet our learners.
3. Pause: After someone else speaks. Before you speak. After you ask a question. After someone asks you a question. Pause. Be still. Be quiet. Be pensive. If we can get comfortable with even just a few moments of silence, we will have greater clarity and feel more at peace. The pause sends a powerful message to the speaker that we value his thinking and want to understand him. It also gives the speaker the opportunity to get at his best thinking. Sometimes, our best thinking comes after we've had the opportunity to process it silently or aloud. Our pause honors this thinking. It also gives us, the listeners, the time and space to process what it is that we have listened to in order to respond in a purposeful way. We don't have to think about our response while someone is sharing thinking with us if we practice pausing  ... and trust. We have to trust that by pausing and processing for a moment, we will actually have thinking that is focused on what was shared with us and that we will be able to engage in dialogue that is much more rewarding.
4. Paraphrase: When we reflect thinking back to someone by paraphrasing his/her thoughts, we discern if what we have filtered through our own frames of reference, experiences, and understandings is actually what the speaker was trying to convey. We strive for clarity by capturing the essence of what was shared and keeping the focus on the speaker and not on our own connections, solutions or questions about what was shared. "So you're saying ... " is a way to begin a paraphrase that maintains the focus on the speaker (instead of, "What I hear you saying ... ").
As we become more comfortable with listening to others, we can become more sophisticated with our ability to paraphrase.
5. “Please, say more about that”: A go-to line that can help us, and the person speaking, strive for deeper understanding and clarity if the thinking shared was brief, unclear or if in our minds we were quick to judge. This simple prompt forced me to realize how quickly I had judged student responses. When they expound on their initial thinking, the evidence or reasoning they provide has caused me to change my own thinking.  There is often so much more just below the surface of their initial shared thinking. This is when I started to understand the power of giving students voice and how to share control with them. I was learning to learn alongside my students. They were teaching me.
There is power in listening if we choose to leverage what we learn from the process. We can maximize our time and efforts, and that of others, if we choose to employ our response–ability. This can apply to many different circumstances, and I found it incredibly helpful with being able to give immediate and appropriate feedback to learners (John Hattie's research has shown that timely and appropriate feedback has great impact on student learning). Also, by acting responsibly, we develop trust. Others feel supported by us. We are able to operate from influence and empower others as opposed to feeling like we have to manage everything. Listening actually makes our lives in and out of the classroom more focused, purposeful, efficient and enjoyable.
In addition to asking educators around the state what they want for learners, I've also asked them about barriers they face. I've chosen not to include them. Not because the list doesn't matter — it does. Some of our barriers are similar and some are very unique to the individuals and their learning communities. What are yours? And, with your list of barriers, what might you have control over? If the barriers are what we choose to focus on, we will most likely find ourselves up against a wall; overwhelmed and discouraged. By seeking understanding, as opposed to trying to be understood, we know how to think and act in ways that can overcome barriers.  So, again, I ask you to consider Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. They overcame seemingly insurmountable barriers by seeking understanding and helping others. I challenge us to shift our focus onto that which we have control — ourselves. We can listen to learn and respond in ways that will help us and our students overcome our barriers, together.
Thanks for listening.
Tracy Horodyski is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2016-17, the 10th year Meemic has partnered with the Michigan Department of Education for the MTOY program. She’s a reading interventionist and instruction coach at Zinser Elementary in Grand Rapids and has more than 15 years of classroom experience.

Top photo: Ferris State University College of Education professors engage in dialogue about what they value and believe about learning and explore thinking about possible learning barriers and how we might overcome them.
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