Even before the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, verbal communication had fallen into a degree of disfavor. With social media ever popular, written communication had already replaced spoken word in many settings. With the the need for schools to resort to distance learning and for us all to suspend much of our social calendars to avoid infecting others or being infected by the virus, written word has, out of necessity, gained in usage. Even with virtual video meetings, non-verbal communication, which is dynamic with in-person conversation, can easily be obscured from inattentive listeners. Communicating through body language and verbal nuance can more easily go unnoticed on a computer or mobile device. Even so, active listening, including perceiving non-verbal communication, is essential to teaching success and remains relevant and necessary.
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has provided an excellent visual representation of 7 key active listening skills. I will discuss each one here. Though CCL serves the business and corporate community, their outline is equally valuable for educators. Teaching and learning depends on teachers and students effectively communicating and understanding each other. This cannot occur without effective listening.
The first key active listening skill is to be attentive. When a student is speaking, peers and the teacher must be attentive to what is being said. Equally important is to give the speaker time to say what they are thinking. Often, thoughts take time to form, and points require real-time reasoning to be accurately spoken. The speaker must have time to fully voice what is on their mind, and must not be interrupted, but instead must be given “wait time” to fully develop their thoughts. All must be respectfully and attentively focused on the speaker. The listeners must not focus on what they think of what is being said, or of what they want to say in response, but instead must devote themselves to just taking in what is being said. All who are listening must keep an open mind, and welcome, even expect, that new ideas and possibilities will be revealed through careful listening. As with all of these key skills, the teacher must practice them in regard to their students, and students must learn and practice them with each other and with the teacher.
When the speaker has concluded, the second key is to ask open ended questions. This type of inquiry avoids voicing judgment on what has been said, but instead moves the conversation to better understanding for the listener. Good ways to start these questions is with phrases like, “so would you say that,” or “does this mean that,” or “do you think.” The object here is not to lead the speaker into modifying their position, but to for the listeners to gain understanding of what has been said. The listener is not asking the speaker to prove or document anything, but only to speak further on what they mean, and what the applications and ramifications of their points are. This key is for the benefit of the listener.
The third key skill is to ask probing questions. Whereas the open ended questions were for the benefit of the listener, these probing questions are for the benefit of the speaker. Here, the listener asks questions that make the speaker analyze, refine, and drill down on what they have said. We want the speaker now to gain a deeper understanding of what they started. In a class, other students can be brought in to ask these questions, so that the class takes on the format of a practicum. If the speaker responds “I hadn’t thought of that,” or “I’m not sure,” then the teacher and the other students can begin to collaborate to try to answer the probing question the speaker considering. In this case, the speaker becomes the listener, practicing attentive listening and then is free to engage in asking questions to further their understanding.
The fourth key skill is to request clarification. Anything that is not understood or is unclear needs to be the subject of questions. Doubts and confusions need to be addressed until the listeners and speaker agree that they no longer exist. This is a good time to make statements like, “let me see if I’m clear,” or “wait a minute, I didn’t follow you.” Questions at this stage might also begin “tell me about,” or will you please explain. The emphasis is always on asking instead of telling, because you are practicing listening skills, not speaking skills. The idea is to encourage thoughtful responses and an enthusiasm over collaborating to arrive at understanding.
The fifth key skill is really a sub-skill of the fourth; it is used to gain clarification. This skill is to paraphrase. This is a basic and often used strategy in many classroom situations to check for students’ understanding of a text; it is often stated as “say in your own words.” We know that just being able to memorize and recite text or a bit of spoken instruction form the teacher does not indicate understanding. It is possible to read or hear a text without understanding any of it. Paraphrasing helps a listener understand what a speaker has just said. Listeners might say, “what I hear you saying is.” The speaker then can either respond, “yes, that is the meaning of what I said,” or “no, that’s not what I meant,” and then try to explain it in a different way. An accurate paraphrase encourages the speaker, because it lets them know that they have been understood, which is better than just being heard.
Very often, the feelings or emotions of the speaker amplify the meaning of the spoken words. The wry humor, agitation, anger, or disbelief with which a speaker delivers their message provides valuable subtext that a good listener will not miss. This key skill, being attentive to and reflect feelings, is the non-verbal version of paraphrasing. “I can see that you are very excited about this. Tell me about what makes you feel that way.” Or the listener might respond, “I can see that just talking about this makes you feel angry. It must have been really difficult for you to listen to that and not start a fight. You handled it very well.” As listeners, we need to give an extra level of attention to emotionally charged narratives our students give us. As we attend to those feelings and reflect them, we are teaching our young charges how to manage those feelings in a positive way.
The final of the 7 key active listening skills is to summarize. This is not the same as paraphrasing. The latter was a formative strategy that assured understanding and provided an opportunity for further clarification. Summarizing is taking the whole of what has been said, that is, the presentation of the original speaker, answers to the open ended and probing questions, clarifications, and reflections, and stating them concisely so that the understanding gained is something all students can take with them and if so assigned or desired, reflect and discuss further with each other or with you at another time. Practicing this level of listening and the ways of acting on what is listened to elevates a classroom to a higher level of scholarship, trust, feelings of worth and relevant, meaningful understanding.