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Learning at its Best

Nine Reasons I Quit Listening

Megaphone Man screams gigantic curses at the oncoming traffic.  I stop my bike for a moment, stand next to him, not in solidarity, but not in confrontation either.

“Is it possible you might be wrong?  I mean, not entirely wrong.  Not even wrong in your message, maybe.  But is it possible that nobody will ever believe God loves them when they’re being shouted at?”

Megaphone Man shouts louder, so that I can’t even hear his voice.  He can’t, either.  All I can hear is volume and power of a messy, mechanical amplification.  It’s a crazy cacauphony of hell and fire and maybe even a little brimstone every once in awhile.  I can hear him, but I can’t listen.  So I ride away, as he quotes verses in King James English in such a way that he resembles a Screaming Shakespeare on 19th Avenue.

Last week, I became Megaphone Man.  I engaged in a ridiculous debate on a few blogs regarding home-schooling and un-schooling.  I grew defensive on this blog when I commented on comments.  I felt attacked (though I wasn’t) and I looked toward language (the more flowery the better) to power-up in an effort to defend the self-evident.

I quit listening.

This happens sometimes at a cocktail party when someone says we should deport all the immigrants and I forget to ask questions, but instead launch into a heated debate.  It happens when I’m really tired and I push my way through with my children, using manipulation and coercion instead of gentle persuasion or patience.  It happens in the classroom when a kid interrupts me unexpectedly when I’m giving directions and so I snarl back with sarcasm and my words become venomous.

Here are a few reasons I quit listening:

  1. Victim Status: When I feel like a victim, I lash out.  I fight back.  I make it about power and payback rather than humility.  This last week, I began to feel like a victim after someone compared my profession to that of a slave-driver.  The truth is we’re all wounded in some way or another by our experiences in schooling.  Instead of hearing the words of a wounded soul, I heard an attack on me.
  2. Shame: I’ve written before about how moments of shaming (from parents, school and church) lead me to a place where I feel the need to be right.  When I was in the primary grades, I once asked a teacher, “If this is preparing us for the real world, what kind of fantasy world is school?”  She laughed.  It didn’t matter that she was a kind woman.  It awakened in me this intense drive to be right even when I don’t vocalize it.
  3. Bad Metaphors: I use bad metaphors that prevent any kind of real debate.  I once wrote, “Learning can’t be measured.  Schools  know this, but then boast of test scores. It’s like finding love immeasurable, but then deciding to post your penis size on the marquee outside your home.”  Sex is generally a bad metaphor for education and it doesn’t leave much room for a conversation. Plus it can come across as a little creepy.
  4. Semantic Environment: Often, there is a clash in the semantic environment.  I might be using natural language and talking to someone using a pseudo-scientific corporate language to discuss learning.  As long as this happens, there is no common language and I stop listening altogether.  Instead of looking at it as a new perspective from a different viewpoint, I shut people off who seem too “corporate” in their approach to education.
  5. Competition: This might sound cliche, but my dad used to warn me, “Nobody wins an argument.”  If I’m looking to win, I’m not looking to listen.
  6. Lack of Nuance: For all the times that I argue for nuance and paradox, I can slip into a place where I fail to see the nuance and push others to believe my ideas, systems or beliefs.
  7. Unexpected: Sometimes someone says something so bizarre or outrageous that I miss the beauty of it.  I miss the need for the radical alternatives.  I need a reminder that while I might believe strongly in nuance, a paradox is often an acceptance of two very distinct extremes rather than a moderate middle.
  8. Language: I get way too critical of tone.  If something sounds arrogant or pejorative, I tune a person out.  If your voice isn’t humble, it’s hard for me to listen to you.  And yet, there is an arrogance to this approach.  I expect a humble voice, but I have really arrogant ears.
  9. Imperfection:  I live my life in the imperfect tense.  Always imperfect.  Sometimes tense.  I usually listen better when I remember this.  But when I forget this, I get really arrogant and selfish and I stop listening.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


9 thoughts on “Nine Reasons I Quit Listening

  1. Interesting piece. We all need to remember to listen at times especially when we are in a heated debate.

    Posted by Denisha Jones | August 28, 2011, 10:23 pm
  2. Here’s to you and the outrageous transformation of public education, John –

    With thanks,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 29, 2011, 8:05 pm
  3. Get out of my mind! I relate to every single one of these reasons. My wife has helped me step back from some of these, but I still get caught up and stop listening far too often.

    A wonderfully well written piece. As always.

    Keep up the great work,


    Posted by Nick Provenzano | August 30, 2011, 7:42 am
  4. Dear John:

    I also fall into the same trap(s), perhaps due to my being ‘over-educated’, that is to say, so fully imbued with language as embodying The Message that I forget the real message rests beneath the symbolic and multi-tiered layers of verbage used in the attempt to communicate Meaning.

    From my perspective and in my experience, I sometimes ‘get’ The Message only in retrospect while attempting to make sense of, and derive meaning from, what others may have said. I do not believe time heals all wounds, but do think time is required to communicate Meaning, and while using ‘the right word’ or ‘most appropriate’ phrase may shorten the communication path, those words and phrases often preclude understanding of The Message.

    Sometimes merely withstanding the urge to immediately speak in response to another’s words, whether they are spoken or shouted (a tough thing for an attorney to pull off), leads to actual communication taking place. This seems to fly in the face of what many of us learned/were taught in school, that is to say, that we come up with “the right answer” as quickly as possible.

    I enjoyed reading your perspective…

    Posted by Brent Snavely | August 30, 2011, 10:13 am
  5. I love this John. I don’t think there’s a single one of us who can’t relate. Thank you for your humility, perspective-taking and sense of humor.



    Posted by Kirsten | September 1, 2011, 11:34 am
  6. I just had an experience this summer where I jumped down a guy’s throat before I really gave him a chance because I assumed his position before he got a chance to explain. It is part of the reason that I just wrote a post on hearing vs listening. It’s important that we are aware that we have stopped listening. It’s the first step to opening our ears and minds. It’s also the reason why I never engaged in too much politics in college, even though I attended one of the most activist colleges in the US (Oberlin). I found that the far Left were acting just as immature and closed-minded as the people they were blasting. They had chosen not to listen, and it just wasn’t cool. Thanks, as always, for your honesty.

    Posted by marybethhertz | September 5, 2011, 8:54 pm
  7. I over heard this truism at a local bakery/cafe, “Americans don’t listen very well” when talking about partaking in bilingual conversations……. I posted it on facebook and got given this ted talk on listening….


    Posted by dloitz | September 6, 2011, 2:16 pm


  1. Pingback: Nine Reasons I Quit Listening | Cooperative Catalyst | - August 28, 2011

  2. Pingback: Why I Want to Listen and Not Just Hear « Cooperative Catalyst - September 5, 2011

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