I blame book reports. I can remember doing them as early as 4th grade in Mrs. Sisney’s class. The one I remember standing in front of the class and describing was a Dr. Doolittle book.
Presumably, standing in front of the class was intended to help us build confidence in public speaking. Mrs. Sisney was a stickler for presenting with confidence and not just reading our report to the class.
The most memorable part of giving those book reports was the look on everyone else’s faces. Utter boredom. Sitting in the audience, listening to 20 book reports was deadly dull.
I’m convinced that this was how I learned to stop listening. As my mind naturally wandered, I learned to keep a neutral expression. Later, I learned to nod on occasion and to tilt my head and furrow my brow just a little bit as if I were deeply pondering the speaker’s words. In time, I began to mirror the speaker’s posture, expression and tone… even though I was completely checked out, not listening at all.
But back to 4th grade. There were no expectations of listeners, only of the speaker. The same was true in the 8th grade class I took called Speech & Communication. We learned the mechanics of constructing and delivering a good speech. But no one ever taught us how to listen. I understand that’s the way it was and still is for middle school and high school classes with similar names and objectives. We’re only getting the “Speech” part of the Speech & Communication classes.
Then there was high school debate. We had to listen, but only selectively. We listened for key phrases while multi-tasking to construct our own arguments and pull evidence cards for our own presentation time. In those classes and on those judges’ evaluations, I never heard instruction or critique regarding how well we’d listened.
It took me a long time to recover and reclaim my ability to genuinely listen to others. Sometimes, I find myself lapsing back into pseudo-listening mode. I know I can slide through most business meetings by saying something useful and then retreating into my own head, semi-listening while others discuss the issues. I’m guilty of pretending to listen in conversations with my family and friends, too, masking what I am doing by occasionally adding a relevant comment or affirming gesture.
Because I know this about myself, I try very hard to genuinely focus. When my mind wanders, I use my drill sergeant voice (inside my head) to deliver a stern and swift rebuke. I think I would do even better at this if I didn’t have the easy out of being able to recover with strong speaking skills – the same ones that were developed at the expense of my listening skills and habits.
What would happen if schools taught classes on effective listening? If good, active listening was taught as a companion skill to speaking and presenting?
Or what if business people were recognized for their ability to focus and genuinely listen to others? What if we applauded the listeners instead of the speakers?
Until the value is placed on listening, I suppose people will never really see a need to actively engage by listening with full concentration. I suspect that most people don’t even realize that their listening is sub-par because the practices of multi-tasking and selectively listening are so widespread. As a result, we are all missing out on making true connections.
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