Are You Listening?

When I was a kid, I became fascinated with the story of Momo by Michael Ende. Have you read it? Momo is a little girl of mysterious origin with an extraordinary ability to listen – really listen. I remember reading the book and wondering, how does she do it? Can I really listen that way too?

She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of inspiration. It wasn’t that she actually said anything or asked questions that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with the upmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never suspected. Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or down-hearted people felt happy and hopeful.

You may know someone who can listen this way, or you might even BE someone who can listen with this level of radical attention. We know that listening skills are important for effective communication and also to establish positive relationships with others. Unfortunately, listening is not a top priority in today’s world. In his 2013 book Focus, Daniel Goleman observes that poor listening has become endemic. The increased pace of work and life in general, and the never ending lists of texts and emails that demand our attention, impoverish our ability to pay attention and fully listen.

We tend to think of attention as a switch that’s on or off — we’re focused or we’re distracted. According to Goleman, that’s a misperception. Attention comes in many varieties. Its extreme forms tend to be the most limiting. When we’re too attentive, we fall victim to tunnel vision. The mind narrows. When attention is absent, we lose control of our thoughts. We turn into scatterbrains. Goleman explains that open awareness lies in a particularly fertile area between those two poles. Have you observed these two extreme forms of attention in yourself and your students? What about this open awareness that Goleman describes? When are you and your students better able to pay attention?

I am listening!

Back to our story, we can say that Momo listened in a radical way, with an open awareness. That is to say, she focused her full attention on the speaker’s words and had an acute sense of the environment and the context. When I first read the book, I didn’t know that listening was an acquired skill. Now I know that I can be more like Momo, and you can too! We can all become better listeners.

The Center for Teaching Excellence defines Radical Listening as:

“Listening with the intention to be a vessel for your speaker, to be a sympathetic witness so that unspoken meaning may have room to find words. Radical listening encourages both speaker and listener to reside in the moment, non-judgmentally.”

During your next conversation with a student, a colleague or a relative, try to follow these listening instructions:

  • Quiet your mind and heart
  • Hold space for the speaker
  • Express your attentiveness non-verbally (facial expression, body language)
  • Note the speaker’s non-verbal communication
  • Use (and appreciate!) silence
  • Refrain from making comments, interpretations or suggestions
  • If appropriate, reflect back the words of the speaker

Poor listening is becoming the norm rather than the exception, but it doesn’t need to stay that way. Listening is an acquired skill, something you can develop over time with practice. In order to become a better listener or help your student develop their listening skills, follow these tips for radical listening in your daily conversations. What do you notice? What do you hear? I’d love to know how it goes!


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