5 listening mistakes we are all guilty of

Active listening is a key part of problem-solving, says Ollie Ward – and getting it right means avoiding these mistakes
27th September 2021, 12:00pm
Ollie Ward


5 listening mistakes we are all guilty of

Problem Solving: How Teachers Can Avoid Common Listening Mistakes

During the past few years, teachers have had to do a lot of problem-solving. But what is the best way to solve a problem? 

In order to understand how to proceed, the first step is to accurately assess the root causes of the situation. After all, if we don't know what is causing the problem, how can we hope to solve it? And the key here is in developing the art of listening. 

Listening should not be a passive process, with parties simply going through the motions of dialogue. Brockbank and McGill (2012) highlight the importance of active listening; this is not just about hearing what the other person is saying, but is a two-way, reciprocal process.


Listening mistakes

They go on to describe how many people do not take the necessary steps to ensure that their listening habits are as effective as they could be. They suggest that people develop the following bad habits, all of which I know I have been guilty of:

  • Evaluating what they think they are going to hear even before it is said, decoding the information and reconstructing the message to "fit their cognitive map".
  • Filtering the information that they want to hear or are interested in, putting the other information to the side and thus out of the cognitive space.
  • Becoming distracted from listening; this is especially true in a busy environment with ever-increasing demands placed on education staff.
  • Interrupting the speaker, interjecting and trying to push the narrative in a specific, personal direction, rather than allowing it to play out naturally.
  • Instead of focusing solely on listening, they lose full awareness of what is being said, through trying to work out what they want to offer as an answer or solution.

Egan (1990) explains that we need to pick up on what is being distorted, or non-verbally leaked, via the speaker's actions and the way in which they say things. 

While it is acknowledged that cultural variation does exist (see Hook et al, 2011), Egan describes that we need to be aware of posture (if the speaker is leaning and/or facing forward), facial expressions and movement (if the speaker is unsettled), alongside messages that "travel" in the vocal channel, such as pitch, tone, volume and what is considered paralanguage: the ums, ahhs and grunts.

Egan goes on to describe the importance of listening to the "whole person", to empathise and be able to "put aside" personal responses and suspend judgements in order to achieve the most accurate portrayal of the issue at hand, from the speaker's perspective.

And perhaps the most challenging strategy of all, and one that I certainly find most difficult, is learning to embrace silence. Too often, many of us are uncomfortable with a gap in the conversation, but we need to persevere when this happens - whether in the classroom or head of year's office; whether we are speaking to a pupil or staff member - if we act to prematurely fill the void, then we are removing the opportunity for people to reflect and open up.

It is not surprising that we teachers struggle to listen well at the moment - many of us are currently so overwhelmed with responsibility that it is increasingly difficult to provide the time and headspace with which to most effectively listen, to the pupils, to each other. 

Even with this in mind, now is perhaps a useful time to try and prioritise listening, because it will be the best way for us to begin to solve some of the many problems that we face. In words attributed to the Dalai Lama: "When you talk, you are only repeating what you know. But if you listen, you may learn something new."

Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire. He tweets @oliverward82

This article was originally published on 22 December 2020. 

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