Slowing Down: 6 Strategies for Deep Listening

[This is a guest post by Janine Utell, who is a Professor of English at Widener University in Pennsylvania. She teaches composition and 19th and 20th century British literature; she has also facilitated a number of on- and off-campus workshops on writing, critical thinking, and general education. Previously at ProfHacker, she's written on "Practical Wisdom and Professional Life", "How to Study Your Own Teaching (And Why You Might Want To)," and "Visualizing Your Promotion Portfolio with Cmap." You can follow Janine on Twitter: @janineutell.]

When I was younger, I would study for my science tests by shutting myself in my closet with headphones and favorite tapes in the Walkman (?! God, I’m ancient). I can’t imagine how I did this and still was able to focus (New York State Biology Olympiad winner for ninth grade!), even though I know that some research indicates that listening to music increases cognitive function. Nowadays it’s hard for me to listen to music while doing certain tasks without getting distracted — although I am listening to a Spotify list of the best songs of 2015 put together by a local university radio station as I write this, and I have been known to listen to the soundtrack to The Social Network while composing assessment reports.

But mostly I try to shut out distractions, and that includes trying to listen well to others, to practice a kind of deep listening. Listening well means I’m present for students and colleagues, and fully engaged in their discourse. When I’m at a conference and listening well to audience questions and feedback after a paper, it means I’m able to have a real give and take and get new ideas – I’ve shut up for a minute, put myself in a receptive and open frame of mind, and thus I reap the benefits of another who’s been prompted to engage with my ideas. I learn something that makes the paper better, rather than preoccupy myself with waiting for my turn to sound smart. When I’m leading class discussion, deep listening means I can keep a constant finger on the pulse of the room, make connections among students, and synthesize their thoughts; I model good critical thinking through my listening, rather than thinking ahead to the next point I want to make.

It can be a struggle to listen because of distractions and disruptions. (The ever-mindful ProfHacker Natalie Houston has written about distractions here.) We’re always waiting for our turn to say something, and so rather than truly hearing the person in front of us, we might be hearing that bbbrrrrrrpppp of a tape fast-forwarding as we skip through what they’re saying to our next point. We might be thinking of something else as someone is sharing an idea; we might not be entirely present for the student or colleague standing in front of us. Deep listening has emerged as part of the contemplative pedagogy movement as well as “slow” movements (such as “slow journalism”). It is meant to be an antidote to the hyper connectivity and quick takes that constitute our production and consumption of knowledge as well as our interactions with others.

I’m not especially into the contemplative pedagogy thing; I have a colleague and friend who holds weekly meditation sessions on our campus for faculty and staff, and when she suggested I attend I think I might have politely snorted. Mindfulness has so infiltrated our workplace culture that a recent piece on the Harvard Business Review blog cautioned against using mindfulness as a productivity strategy.

What I like about the idea of deep listening, which might seem counterintuitive, is the active part of it. Deep listening calls upon us to be active as we engage with others, as well as open to what they are saying without judging their ideas or attempting to control the discourse or discursive context. It calls upon us to be group-centered, rather than self-centered. I also think the classroom presents many opportunities to teach deep listening through discussion-based pedagogy, the use of story circles, and other practices that get students to do slow learning, distraction-free learning, and thereby engage with their peers in unexpectedly transformative ways. Deep listening echoes strategies of reflection and focusing and mindfulness we might already be familiar with, like journaling, which also help to improve retention of information and critical thinking.

So what might be some strategies for deep listening with students and colleagues?

  1. Ask yourself, is this conversation engaging the curiosity that brought me to the world of higher education in the first place? If you’re curious, you’re more likely to listen. I find this especially helpful in conferences with students: I’m always curious about them, their work, their thoughts, and this helps focus me on what they’re saying.

  2. Create a distraction-free environment if possible. I know I have to close the browser tab with my email in it when anyone is in my office if I’m going to properly attend.

  3. Know the context. If you come to a meeting prepared, you might be more inclined to listen to the ideas being shared as opposed to being distracted trying to get up to speed, shuffling through papers, etc.

  4. Avoid preconceived, notions, assumptions, judgments. If you imagine you know what someone’s going to say, you might not listen. Deep listening involves an openness to ideas, to others, and a willingness to suspend judgment.

  5. Be prepared to harvest. If you listen closely to what people are saying, with a free and open mind, you might find yourself in the middle of creative moments or original ideas you weren’t expecting. This happens to me all the time when I embrace the opportunity to have impromptu conversations about teaching, or when I get good discussion going in class or at a conference. (The trick then is to not lose my deep listening stance while I try to remember the awesome thought until I can get to write it down – another important component of harvesting.)

  6. Remember: deep listening is critical thinking. Being conscious of listening, processing, and synthesizing what others are saying gives you a chance to reflect, make connections, retain information, and refine judgments. This is as true for a class discussion as it is for a meeting.

What are some of your strategies for deep listening with students and colleagues? What benefits have you found in the practice? Share in the comments!

[Image: Listening Post, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from everett taasevigen]

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