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Philosophical Meanderings

Why I Want to Listen and Not Just Hear

After reading John’s honest and powerful post, Nine Reasons I Quit Listening, I wanted to respond with a cross-post from my Philly Teacher blog in which I contemplate the difference between listening and hearing. If you haven’t read John’s post, go read it and come back to read mine. I’m hoping to build a conversation around listening in general.

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m not always the best listener. During conversations with others I have to remind myself to sit back and listen before I jump in. Often, I get so excited about an idea in my head that I can’t wait to get out that I can be impatient. As I’ve gotten older, I have made a conscious effort to close my mouth and really listen before I jump into a conversation. That doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered the art of listening, but I have at least realized the important difference between hearing and listening.

I don’t know about you, but some of the people I most respect for their ideas and opinions are those who do the least talking. I’m always enamored by the way they can absorb, reflect and respond in such a thoughtful way. While I have learned that I am someone who needs to talk through an idea in order to make sense of it, that doesn’t mean that I am truly engaging in listening. What I am really doing is hearing what my idea sounds like out loud. If I were truly listening, I would be incorporating what someone else said, and sharing my own reflections. An even better indication of true listening is when I am able to ask a question or push for clarification. I know that this is something that I must do consciously–truly listen before I jump in. In order to do that, I need to do more than hear what the other person is saying. Otherwise, their voice just becomes a jumping off point for my own and I have not absorbed what they have said.

Which takes me to my own learning network.

We often talk about the ‘echo chamber’ that is created by our online networks. That we can select what kinds of opinions we are exposed to, that, even worse, companies like Facebook and Google purposefully fill our search results and ads with things that, according to their algorithms, should interest us. So are we really listening to those voices? Or are we hearing those voices and simply reiterating or praising their ideas because they sound familiar or coincide with our own beliefs? If we are truly listening to our peers, wouldn’t we be asking questions, probing for clarification or incorporating others’ ideas into our own? While I see a lot of the latter, it is much less common for us to question each other, ask for clarification or probe for deeper understanding. These are signs of true listening. Otherwise, we run the risk of singing with the choir. When we sing with the choir we hear the voices around us and make sure that ours fits in with the rest. We hear when one or more voices is out of tune and when we do, it hurts our ears and we try to block it out. I envision Lisa Simpson in the opening credits to The Simpsons playing her trumpet out of sync with the rest of the band. Rather than either droning out voices that are different from ours or blocking them, we should be listening to them and wondering why they sound so different and how we can incorporate their voice into our choir.

Speaking of choirs, every once in a while, take a look at your network’s stream. Do you see people retweet links faster than anyone could possibly read the linked article? Do you read a lot of ‘great post!’ ‘totally agree!’ ‘couldn’t have said it better myself!’ Don’t get me wrong, I make those kinds of comments from time to time, but what I see in those kinds of comments is that people are hearing what others have to say, or they are hearing what they want to hear, but they aren’t listening because either they aren’t seeking out opinions that require them to listen, or because it’s easier to feel good about what you hear than really listen, inquire and engage.

So the next time you are deep in conversation and have something you want to share, take a minute, look the speaker in the eye and really internalize what they are saying before you respond. Ask them a question, refine your understanding of what they are sharing and then share your thoughts. When interacting with your online network, be aware of the voices you are hearing. Are you really listening, or are you just singing along with the choir?

Of course, we should also be thinking of how this relates to our students and our interactions with them as well!


3 thoughts on “Why I Want to Listen and Not Just Hear

  1. 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
  2. Mary Beth, One of the great joys for me of an old-fashioned lecture (oh god, I’ll admit it) is the sitting in silence, listening, and not having to respond, simply being in a meditative place where I am allowed to be a listener. Isn’t that a terribly schoolish thing to reveal? But it’s true. Sometimes I really need space where I’m not expected to say anything, to know what I think…

    Thanks for the pace reminder. Also, quote we use in our work that I think is really true: “Being listened to is so close to being loved most of us cannot tell the difference.” David Oxenberg.



    Posted by Kirsten | September 7, 2011, 11:26 am
  3. I like this for the epigraph of our first Coöp book:

    If we are truly listening to our peers, wouldn’t we be asking questions, probing for clarification or incorporating others’ ideas into our own? While I see a lot of the latter, it is much less common for us to question each other, ask for clarification or probe for deeper understanding. These are signs of true listening.

    How could we help one another offer more comments and questions here, Mary Beth? Part of our founding vision for the Coöp was to create a place in which we were accountable to one another not just for change, but for challenge.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 8, 2011, 6:59 pm

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