It’s the best advice I’ve gotten this year and it hasn’t just been from one source. But it’s not just to stop talking, it’s to start really listening.
We’re taught from a very young age that if we listen, it makes the authority figure believe we’re following directions, therefore meeting expectations. Listening made our parents not ground us because we remembered to take out the trash. Listening allows our friends to feel supported in times of difficulty.
But I’m relearning how to listen, as I’m finding out that I’ve been doing it wrong for 33 years.
Dr. Brené Brown (2018) called me out:
“Really listen. Don’t formulate your response while they’re talking. If you have a great insight–hold it. Don’t do that thing where the listener starts nodding faster and faster, not because they’re actively listening but because they’re trying to unconsciously signal the talker to wrap up so they can talk” (p.68).
For me, listening was a me-centered event. Listening was something that I knew I needed to do in order to build social and relational capital with those around me. But I wasn’t listening to hear, I was listening to respond. Many times, the only person I was serving in many conversations was myself, not the person I should have been deeply listening to.
Through the AZK12 Center’s Cognitive Coaching and Arthur Costa (2017), I’ve learned that these thoughts that used to be racing through my head could most often fall into one of three categories: autobiographical (“Here’s what I think about that”), inquisitive (“I wonder about..”), and solution (“Let me fix your problem for you”) (p. 47). Now that I know they exist, I’m so much more cognizant how quickly these thoughts can break trust and rapport and impede my ability to listen deeply.
It is this deep listening that was missing in my life and the lives of those I have been interacting with on a personal and professional level. I spent so much of my time worrying about my thoughts on a conversation, I failed to give my full attention to who deserved it the most: the speaker. Armed with new knowledge, I set out to change the way I listen in order to be a better wife, mother, friend, coach, and coworker.
The first step was to identify my strengths and weaknesses as a true listener (not that I’ll smile and nod and wait to say what I want to say nonsense I used to do). I took more unscientific listening style quizzes than I probably should have, but finally came across one I believed in due to its simplicity as I was reading Shane Safir’s The Listening Leader. Watson, Barker, and Weaver identified four primary listening styles:
- People-oriented style, which tends to focus more on the person and less on the message
- Content-oriented style, which tends to focus on the meaning of the message and its accuracy
- Action-oriented style, which tends to focus on the potential result of the conversation
- Time-oriented style, which prefers brief conversations that get to the point quickly
Being able to identify what I focused on when I listened really helped me see my strengths as a listener (so very content-based) and my weaknesses (a little too action-oriented). Being armed with this knowledge also helped me communicate with those people around me: I know my husband is a time-oriented listener, one coworker is an action-oriented listener, while my grandmother is, without a doubt, a people-oriented listener. Knowing what I know now about listening, I was better able to craft a message for those people in my life.
In my work as a beginning teacher mentor, I’ve changed the way I listen to my teachers; I’ve started to shut up the million thoughts running through my head and be truly present, because as Safir (2017) argues, it is only through true listening that we earn the “right to push people outside their comfort zones and [create] a platform for hard conversations about equity, instructional practice, and school culture” (p. 124). Without this understanding and practice of deep listening by me, it would be unfair to expect my teachers to be open and honest.
I changed the way I listen and I’ve seen tremendous growth in my relationships with those around me, personally and professionally. It’s been hard, and I’ve failed more times than I can count, but through constant practice, attention to detail, paraphrasing and questioning, and the daily struggle to not slip back into the mindless head nods and interruptions of ‘listening’ past, I at least am aware of what I need to be doing.
And that’s a start.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York: Random House.
Costa, A., & Garmston, R. (2017). Cognitive coaching seminars foundation training learning guide (p. 47). Hawker Brownlow Education.
Safir, S. (2017). The listening leader: Creating the conditions for equitable school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Watson, K. W., Barker, L. L., & Weaver, J. B., III. (1995). The listening styles profile (LSP-16): Development and validation of an instrument to assess four listening styles. International Journal of Listening, 9, 1–13.