Listening, Really Listening (Part 1)

I did a year of piano lessons with a little girl named Lucy. She was hilarious. I could tell she was smart as a whip because she did something only smart kids can do: she weaseled. She would manipulate, deflect, and find loopholes to get out of doing her work. Her parents had a rule that she had to practise her piano for a set number of minutes per day, and I found out she was spending the whole time playing Alphabet Soup, an exercise so simple a trained parakeet could do it. She was also very chatty and would tell me stories, eating up lesson time. Keeping her on task was like pulling teeth. She was fabulous.

I had a soft spot for Lucy, because she drove me crazy, and reminded me of myself at her age. I’m sure I drove plenty of adults ‘round the bend too, in my time.

Often, when I tried to explain something to Lucy, she would maintain eye contact, nod, and answer everything with “I know.” Sometimes she would even roll her eyes and say “I know!” like I was insulting her intelligence. When I asked her to repeat back what I had said to her, though, she froze, caught in my trap. She had only been pretending to listen.

As exasperating (and comical) as this behaviour is in children, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us are still guilty of it as adults. How often during a conversation do you find yourself champing at the bit, waiting for someone to finish so that you can have your turn to speak? When you’re waiting for your turn to speak, you’re not listening. Like a little girl saying “I know,” we often carry on conversations assuming we know everything already, and listening for confirmation of what we already know.

The best way to teach a positive behaviour is to model it. I’ll make some suggestions of listening exercises for your kids in Part 2, but here, in Part 1, I want to focus on your own listening habits. If what I said about waiting for your turn to speak has resonated with you, you may want to start paying attention to how you interact with people.

Stephen Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has a great chapter on what he calls “empathic listening.” It’s based on the principle that we will achieve better connections with people, including clients, bosses, parents, and children, if we “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.

I’m just putting the bug in your ear, really. I’m not an expert on listening, but I have been working on it, and I think most of us can do better than we’re doing. I’ve started practising in my daily, casual interactions. If I’m chit-chatting in the atrium with my fellow Phoenix staff and find myself anxiously waiting for my turn to speak, I ask myself, is what I have to say really that important? Is it going to be interesting to them, not just to me? Sometimes the answer is yes, and I speak freely when my turn comes. Sometimes, though, I admit to myself that I just like to talk. If I find myself talking just to talk, I stop, and I start listening instead. Then immediately, like magic, the conversation gets more interesting.

RECOMMENDED: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

Vanessa Farkas is a writer, musician, educator, and lifetime learner who worked at the Phoenix Education Foundation as a music teacher from 2010-2018 and has left to retrain and pursue a new career as a legal assistant. Her eight years at Phoenix have left her enriched with experiences and stories, and this series blends those stories and experiences with practical advice and perspectives on helping children develop social skills. Names have been changed.