Friday, February 1, 2013

Active Listening: Are you Talkin to me?

Karen Hamilton - Saturday, 17 April 2010, 10:57 am

You talkin’ to me?.... You talking to me?

Who said that?

If you are like most people, it won’t take you long to say it was Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. More specifically character Travis Bickle, the alienated on the edge character, who according to Roger Ebert has “ a desperate need to make some kind of contact somehow – to share or mimic the effortless social interaction he sees all around him but does not participate in.” (Ebert , 272)

The off-kilter outsider Bickle as a taxi driver is privy to conversations night after night. We might make the assumption that Bickle is a listener. But what is he hearing? And is he a good listener? Isolated, angry and removed, his viewpoint is subjective; his listening is passive and he speaks only to his own reflection in the mirror.

Communications Breakdown

So what exactly is the problem? Well simply, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” While most breakdowns in communication are not as severe as Travis Bickle’s, miscommunication can come from many areas. In most communication models we see the sender of information on one side and receiver of information on the other. Between the two, we have what is often called noise. Noise can be any barrier, external or internal, that interferes with communication. If you are hungry, that could be noise because you are thinking about food. If there are distractions where you are, that too can be noise. If you believe Deborah Tannen who wrote the book You Just Don’t Understand; Women and Men in Conversation, even if there is little noise, your interpretation of words may be partly determined by your gender. One thing is certain: communication is complicated.

Active Listening

Many researchers have studied communication and communication breakdown. One area of interest is listening. How well do we really listen? This is a question that Carl Rogers and Richard Farson addressed in their 1957 article, “Active Listening.” They make the point that listening is a growth experience and to be an effective listener, a person should be active rather than passive. An active listener must have an interest in the speaker, be sensitive to what the other person is saying, and create an atmosphere where the speaker feels comfortable enough to speak openly without being judged. The active listener uses empathy to understand the other’s point of view. Rogers and Farson suggest listening without interruption for both content and feeling and paying attention to all cues like inflection of voice and body language. When responding, the listener first reflects back in his/her own words what the speaker has said to check comprehension and to set up a pattern for open and active interaction. For Rogers and Farson active listening is about building relationships for growth and change.

Today the term active listening is used by many and is also referred to as empathic or reflective listening. It is used in a variety of situations from conflict management to journalism to medical worker/patient relations to counseling and group settings where consensus is desired. Several studies report the positive effects of active listening and how widespread poor listening is. Olson and Iwasiw (1987) in “Effects of a training model on active listening skill of Post-RN students” found that a six-hour training session on active learning increased active listening skills. In a 1995 journal article Promoting Active Listening in the Classroom in Childhood Education, Mary Jalongo reports that teachers express concerns about students’ poor listening skills but that studies report that American adults only listen at 25% efficiency. It is Jalongo’s belief that “If we expect children to become good listeners, we need to do more than worry, complain or demand. We need to teach them to become active listeners.” Many textbooks from student success, to communications to conflict management and organizational behaviour include descriptions of active learning to improve learning and group interactions. With all the information out there on listening, one might wonder why not everybody is listening, why it is not taught more often.

Teachers, Personality and Active Listening.

Every person is unique. Teachers have different personalities, as well as different learning and teaching styles. Wolfgang, in Solving Discipline and Classroom Management Problems, talks about teachers and “personality fit”. He believes that teachers can be categorized as either controlling or autonomous. A control teacher will primarily use rules and consequences to get order in the classroom. A strict authoritarian may not be comfortable becoming the empathetic active listener. An active listener takes a risk; an element of control may be relinquished; the listener may be transformed. For a controlling individual, that may not be desired. The autonomous teacher may more readily adapt to active listening as the autonomous teacher more likely uses a relationship building style. Teachers who are forced to teach and interact in ways that are unnatural may experience dissonance in their own actions.

Administration and Theories of Teaching and Learning: Discipline Models

Depending upon the grade level, teachers are subject to the administration system that rules them. At different times, different theories are mandated by administrations. Sometimes the theories are compatible with active listening, while other times they are not.

Schools that have adopted Canter and Canter’s Assertive Discipline Model seek to have their teachers gain control over their classroom through behaviourist techniques like reward and punishment. The initial premise of Canter and Canter’s theory is that students innately misbehave, and it is a teacher’s job to teach them discipline. The teacher lays out a set of rules and students are to follow the rules or face escalating consequences. In a system such as this, there is a definite line of power. The teacher is boss. To adopt active listening which is clearly a more cognitive approach under a strict enforcement of assertive discipline may be giving up too much power from the teacher to the student. Modifications of Assertive Discipline like Frederic Jones’ Positive Discipline theory where there is more focus on positive interactions and less on punishments may lend themselves more to active listening but still they are behaviourist methods and may be inherently incompatible with a cognitive approach.

Constructivist Classrooms and Choice Theory

On the opposite side from behaviourist models are constructivist classrooms and William Glasser’s Choice Theory. Both of these two models lend themselves to active listening techniques. Glasser’s theory stresses the importance of belonging, power, freedom and fun. Students have choice in what they learn. He believes that the only behaviour a person can control is her/his own. In this system, students are involved and experience freedom. Active listening with its relationship focus is a fit. Constructivists see learners as active participants who learn through their experience. A teacher is a facilitator of learning, a guide. In both these types of approaches the learner is more in control. The balance of power is not as distinct as it is in behaviourist models, so closer relationships develop and levels of trust are increased making the natural and open environment more conducive to active listening.

Conflict Mediation

Active listening is an important part of many types of conflict mediation. To mediate any dispute a person should be objective. Most closely related to active listening are transformative and narrative mediation. Active listening requires the mediator to have an open mind and take in what the speaker is saying. The listener reflects back in his/her own words what the speaker is both feeling and saying. The mediator listens to both sides and allows an open dialogue to occur, so that both sides see clearly what each side sees and feels. The skilled mediator allows the participants to find solutions to issues giving both sides opportunity to create a win-win solution. In group settings and conflict scenarios active listening is an effective method.

The Reality

Having discussed situations where active listening fits best above, it is necessary to now look at what really happens in classrooms. A skilled communicator will pick and choose the times to truly use an active listening style, no matter what system or theory is in place. If a teacher has a disruptive student, in a large classroom, would a long drawn out active listening technique be effective? Personally, I believe it would not. The active listening technique lends itself to situations where groups are smaller and where time is not an issue specifically counseling, mediation, or one on one consultation. Even if schools are run under behaviorist models or cognitive models, does either include or exclude active listening? Even though I have discussed fit above and determined that one lends itself more readily, the reality is that teachers are different. In their careers they evolve and grow and no matter what system is imposed upon them they will use their own personality and style. A more experienced teacher may use a wider variety of tactics, techniques and theories.

Should teachers teach active listening?

Not only should teachers teach it, but they should also try to model good listening skills whenever possible. In college classrooms, teachers don’t have a lot of time to teach active listening, unless the teachers are in community service programs where it is an integral part of most courses. Many colleges, however, do have student success courses that have modules on the importance of active listening. In my own classes when mediating group conflict situations, I often use the strategies of active listening. Any time students work in groups they should know how to listen to others; they should learn how to understand things from other’s points of view. They should learn to accept and respect differences. To do that listening and the resulting understanding is key!

The Confessional

If I were to access my own listening skills, I’d give myself an A+ sometimes and a D other times. To be completely honest, I’m either great or bad but never in-between. When I am one on one with people, I can be the best listener. I’m so objective that people feel comfortable telling me the strangest things. My students know I am there to listen and understand. Most people find me to be an excellent understanding empathetic listener. That’s the good me.

However, there is also hyper me-- if I am with a group of people like colleagues and we are all trying to make points on a subject we are passionate about, I have to admit I am an “interrupter.” I’m not sure if it is the nature of passionate teachers to be like this, but my close friends who are mostly teachers are also chronic interrupters. When we get together we are all stepping on each other’s conversations, going a mile a minute trying to get our points across. To an outsider, this may seem distressing, but to the group it is our style and it works. It may also depend on the topic matter. If an issue involves something personal and sensitive, we would be more likely to stop and pay close attention, but if the topic were one to do with issues or theories it’s usually every person for themselves, and take no prisoners!


If we want to be good communicators, we have to learn to listen to all of the words and all of the actions. We all have work to do.


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