Listen Up

“What’s the difference between hearing and listening?”

That’s one of the questions I ask my students when we do our lesson about whole-body listening. There are usually a few students that are able to answer that question fairly accurately – usually because their teacher had recently gone over the same lesson with the class and they were actually paying attention.

I’m sure that there are some much better ways to present the technicalities of the difference between hearing and listening, but I like to keep things pretty simple (not just for my students but just as much for myself). Hearing just happens – you don’t have to work at it or try to do it. Noises and sounds hit your ears and stuff happens in your brain without you really thinking about it, but you don’t really pay much attention to that “stuff”.

Listening takes work. Listening takes thought. When my students and I talk about whole-body listening, we discuss how important it is to make sure your eyes are looking at the speaker; your ears are listening to what the speaker is saying; your voice is quiet/off; and your body is calm.

I’ve done that lesson for several years now with some variations for the different grade levels but the overall content and message is the same. But then last year, during one of my 2nd grade classes, we added in another step: Your brain is thinking.

It was one of my “duh” moments in my job. “Duh” your brain is thinking about what is being heard when you’re listening. That’s exactly what the other steps are designed to do – to help the listener focus on the speaker so that her brain can really think about what is being communicated.

After I finished having my “duh” moment and questioning if I really needed to teach that fifth step, I realized that the answer is a resounding, “YES”.

We are surrounded by distractions. It can be as simple as a mosquito buzzing in your ear or a bird chirping in a tree nearby. It can be as complex as a major life decision buzzing around in your head waiting for you to find the right answer or trying to decide between the Tempranillo or the Grenache or if you should just stick with the Cabernet. And then there are the parts of our lives that might be so ingrained into our daily routines that we don’t think of them as a distraction: TVs, phones, tablets, children, spouses, the never-ending to-do list.

As a school counselor, I’ve been trained to listen. I’ll be the first to admit that when I first started the Skills class to become a counselor, I was a horrible listener. Horrible! I was the worst about thinking of my own response before the other person finished talking or playing a game on my computer while I was talking on the phone. After A LOT of instruction and practice, I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping my visual focus on the person talking to me, staying quiet as he speaks or takes some time to reflect on things, keeping my body calm even when what I’m hearing makes me want to grab the person by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, and of course, listening to what the speaker is saying. When a student is talking to me, I am consciously working to minimize my distractions. I am not looking at my phone or my computer. I am putting my mental to-do list aside and being as fully present with the student as possible. I am repeating things back to the student to make sure I understand what she said, and sometimes to help her understand what she said. I am working to help the student feel better, and if possible, figure out solutions to whatever issue he or she is facing.

Do I stay in this stellar-counselor-whole-body-listening-mode all day every day? Absolutely not. I am 100% guilty of turning off that whole-body listening. I let those distractions right on in. Do I try to really understand every completely fabricated story Josie tries to convince me is true? Ummm, no. Do I look at Moses every time he’s hanging on my leg because he wants another snack? Ha! On the rare occasion that someone actually calls me on the phone, do I give my full-fledged attention to that person? I wish I could answer yes to that one, but I have the bad habit of checking emails, looking for the latest toy Josie can’t find, or trying to figure out what snack Moses is currently wanting. To expect myself or anyone else to be a model listener at all times is simply unrealistic. However, I know that I can and should do a better job of listening.

This is where I want to challenge you as I’m going to challenge myself. The next time someone is talking to you, I challenge you to stop what you’re doing. Stop typing even if you haven’t finished the email or text. Stop looking at the TV. Turn it off. Stop looking at your phone. Put it down. Face down so you can’t see who that next text is from or that you got a new Facebook notification. Just stop.

Then, listen with your whole body:

  • Look at the person talking to you. Keep your visual focus on that person the best you can.
  • Listen not only to the person’s words but also pay attention to nonverbal cues such as tone and body language.
  • Let the person talk without interruption. Not only does this help you to listen, it also communicates respect to the speaker. 
  • Keep your body calm. Now is not the time to start cooking supper or looking for your car keys so you can make your escape.
  • Think about what the person is saying. If you find yourself thinking about how you’re going to respond to a comment, stop. Put your focus back on the person’s words, not the ones you want to say. You’ll get your chance to respond and will want the person to do the same for you.

Why am I challenging myself and others to work to on our listening skills? Because listening is one of the most important things we can do for others and for ourselves. Because listening is a essential part of communication, oftentimes more important than the talking part. Because communication is key to establishing and maintaining relationships. Because we all need someone to really listen to us. Because, for many of us, we have young people watching how we listen to them and others and will learn do to the same. And because when we don’t listen, we miss out on more than we may ever realize, especially from the people who mean the most to us. So listen up…

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