The Art of Listening

by Brandi Willis Schreiber

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”  –Karl A. Menniger

When was the last time that you really listened to what was being said or communicated to you? Not just pretended to listen with your reply running through your head, waiting to burst out the minute the other person stops talking, but really listened to what was being said, without an expectation of replying?

We often confuse hearing with listening.

Hearing is the simple mechanics of sound: the perception of sound waves. Interestingly, hearing is also defined as “an opportunity to state one’s case.”

However, listening is about recognizing sounds, understanding their meaning, and responding to them. It involves taking notice about what someone says or making an effort to hear what’s being said. In other words, hearing is involuntary and ego-centered, but listening is a chosen action with the ultimate goal of connection.

The space between what is being said and what it means to us is invaluable, but we frequently stomp over it, missing how what’s being communicated can change us and make us better.

As a professional who has worked with college students for over 10 years in a variety of capacities, I find that it’s becoming increasingly harder in a world of technology, distractions, busy schedules, to-do lists, media disconnect, and “the next thing,” for all of us to truly listen to what’s being said. I see this especially difficult for students who don’t perceive listening as an active and choice-centered part of learning. Instead, many students wait to hear something that captures their attention and miss out on valuable information conveyed by professors who aren’t enthusiastic lecturers.

The burden, in other words, is on professors to communicate interesting information, rather than on the students to choose to listen and create meaning from what they hear.

Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business, believes that in our society, “we are losing our listening.” In a fascinating TED Talk on “Five Ways to Listen Better,” he suggests the following to improve our ability to listen:

  • Spend 3 minutes a day total silence (or at least quiet) to hone our ears’ abilities to perceive sound
  • Practice identifying all the channels of sound you hear (for example, the hum of the air conditioner, a nearby conversation, the tapping of a pencil, etc.)
  • Learn to enjoy mundane sounds
  • Change your listening position: the physical or mental relationship to what you’re hearing
  • Practice “receiving, appreciating, summarizing, and asking” about what you hear. This will not only make what you hear more meaningful, but will also improve your interactions with your peers!

These strategies are easily applicable to students. I also offer my own suggestions on how students can improve their listening:

  • Choose to find value in everything you hear. This shift in mindset makes everything your professor says suddenly important.
  • Separate your feelings or beliefs about what you’re hearing from what your professors are ultimately trying to teach you. Sometimes we remain closed off to what people are communicating to us because we have made judgments and miss the big picture.
  • Take yourself out of the equation. Everyone has an opinion, but do you have to share yours? Instead, write down the questions the lecture generates and use those as an opportunity to go to your professor’s office hours and learn more.

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking,” wrote Bernard Baruch, the famed financier. This week, try listening more than talking or simply hearing. I think you’ll be surprised by what you learn.

To watch Julian Treasure’s TED Talk on listening, click here: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/283464243/how-can-we-all-listen-better

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