Listen to Me!

Listening skills are important both in and out of the classroom.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

Teaching our students the nuances of listening can help them to identify whether or not their listening behavior is suited to the task at hand.

For the past two months, I’ve been writing about a conflict management process (see part 1 and part 2) where students help one another resolve playground issues. At the heart of the process is listening, a skill that’s important not only at recess, but inside the classroom as well. On the playground, empathic listening allows students to respond effectively to those they care about, building social networks and cementing connections to their peers. In the classroom, attentive listening builds students’ cognitive skills, allowing them to transfer auditory information into working memory. From there, they can connect that new information to what they already know, increasing their knowledge base. Attentive listening also helps us to put new information into long-term memory, so we can use it in the future.

It stands to reason that if we want our students to utilize their empathic and attentive listening skills, we should first make sure that they know what those things are. Teaching our students the nuances of listening can help them to identify whether or not their listening behavior is suited to the task at hand, and can help them to choose the right skill for the setting, whether it’s church, school, the playground or a family dinner.

Wondering what those levels of listening are? Read on.

Ignoring (level of listening — very low) 

What it is: Paying no attention to another person, often by turning one’s focus elsewhere. In fact, when we’re choosing to ignore something (or someone), it helps to focus on something else.

What it looks like: Eye contact is minimal and the person doing the ignoring may be engaged — or even engrossed — in another task or pursuit. The person doing the ignoring might turn away or even physically remove himself or herself from the situation.

When to use it: When someone is doing something annoying or when a competing sound, conversation, or task is making concentration difficult.

Why it matters: What we pay attention to, we keep; what we disregard falls away, not making the transfer to long-term memory. When it comes to taking in information in an educational setting, ignoring everything that’s non-essential to the primary message increases our chances of storing the information we need so we can access it again later. In social situations, knowing what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to can make the difference between engaging in conflict and avoiding it.

Pretend listening (level of listening — low)

What it is: Giving the impression of paying attention to something or someone while actually paying more attention to something else (a distractor). The distractor can be something visible, such as a television show, or something invisible, such as the listener’s own thoughts.

What it looks like: Eye contact is indirect or sporadic and, as with ignoring, the person doing the pretend listening may be engaged — or even engrossed — in another task or pursuit. The pretend listener is usually physically close to the speaker and might even give the impression of actually paying attention, particularly if there are periods of sustained eye contact, however brief.

When to use it: This type of listening can replace ignoring when another person is intentionally trying to cause conflict (e.g. name calling or other bullying behaviors), but is otherwise not usually recommended.

Why it matters: Except in cases where pretend listening is being used to avoid conflict, its long-term effects are usually unfavorable. From a functional perspective, pretend listening is no more effective in cognitive tasks than ignoring. This type of listening can be particularly detrimental to social relationships, especially if used frequently, as it sends a message of disregard that can lead to anger and hurt feelings on the part of the recipient.

Selective listening (level of listening — medium) 

What it is: Similar to pretend listening, selective listening occurs when the listener seems to be only partially engaged in the conversation or information being delivered. Selective listening is different from pretend listening in that the listener’s focus is usually split between the speaker and the distractor(s), with some attention devoted to the speaker. As with pretend listening, the distractor can be something visible (a cell phone) or invisible (the listener’s own thoughts).

What it looks like: Eye contact is inconsistent, but often more prolonged than in pretend listening. As with pretend listening, the selective listener is physically close by, but a hallmark of selective listening is the fact that the listener appears to be engaged in the conversation, as evidenced by responses to some of the speaker’s questions and/or statements. This enables the selective listener to pick up part, but not all, of the speaker’s message.

When to use it: Not recommended. There are few benefits to this form of listening in either cognitive or social settings. In fact, this type of listening can result in a false sense of security about how much knowledge was acquired, or how much of a speaker’s message was actually received.

Why it matters: It matters mostly as a cautionary tale. Selective listening in both cognitive and social settings results in missed information which can cause future problems.

Attentive listening (level of listening — high) 

What it is: Giving one’s full attention to the task at hand. Distractions within one’s control are out of sight, out of reach and out of range. For most people, attentive listening requires a quiet environment with no music, sensory distractions, or electronics.

What it looks like: Eye contact is consistent and sustained and facial expression indicates interest. Level of animation or enthusiasm varies by personality but the attentive listener is responsive, engages in discussion and asks relevant questions that advance the conversation.

When to use it: Whenever instructional opportunities or conversations occur. Attentive listening is beneficial in learning and social settings and universally appreciated.

Why it matters: When it comes to cognitive impact, this listening style is top-of-the-line.  Both gaze and brain are engaged and, in advanced versions of this style, emotions and other senses may also be engaged, as appropriate. This style is physically relaxed and cognitively on high alert, listening not just for informational purposes, but in order to fully understand the information being presented.

Empathic listening (level of listening — very high)

What it is: This style of listening is unique in that it hones in on the seen and the unseen. Eye contact and engagement are high and the listener is fully engaged. As with attentive listening, distractions within one’s control are out of sight, out of reach and out of range.

What it looks like: As with attentive listening, eye contact is sustained and facial expression indicates interest. Like the attentive listener, the empathic listener is responsive, engages in discussion and asks relevant questions that advance the conversation. What takes this listening to another level is the listener’s ability and desire to hone in on the unsaid, particularly emotions, and respond in an appropriate, compassionate manner.

When to use it: When someone you care about is talking. This type of listening is to social listening what attentive listening is to cognitive listening — top-of-the-line.

Why it matters: Empathic listening advances understanding and connection between the listener and the speaker and helps to build and nurture relationships.

When we teach our students about the varieties of listening, we not only share a common vocabulary, but also raise our students’ awareness of the impact these listening behaviors can have on their learning and relationships. Armed with this knowledge, our students can learn to monitor and adjust their own listening behavior and become better communicators.

In a society increasingly consumed by technology, where multitasking has arguably become the norm, it’s more important than ever that our students understand the impact of choosing the type of listening behavior that’s the best fit for the situation. Teaching our students to utilize all aspects of listening in a nuanced and sophisticated fashion can help them not only process the massive amounts of incoming information that are a part of daily life, but do so in an efficient and compassionate manner. As long as oral communication is a part of our social and academic lives, effective listening skills need to be, too.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

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