In a recent blog post on the importance of teaching listening, NPR Education Correspondent Eric Westervelt describes an unusual practice employed by Greek teacher, philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras. Hiding behind a sheet during his lessons, Pythagoras forced his students to concentrate on his words, not the visual display of his teaching. The desired result? Better comprehension and understanding for individuals, and civility and informed dialogue for society as a whole.
Orchestras that rely on blind auditions employ a similar logic, operating on the premise that seeing the performer prejudices musical reception. In the blind audition, judges reflect on the quality of the performance, not the appearance of the candidate. This forced attention to hearing over sight is significant. One study partly attributes a dramatic increase in female musicians in American orchestras over the last two decades of the twentieth century to the widespread adoption of blind auditions.
Removing other senses (or the various devices that enable them) isn’t a strategy for teaching listening, so much as it is an effort to create an environment where competent listening flourishes. So, too, with a seminar setting in which conversation can flow freely. At Books@Work, we routinely hear that part of the appeal of the program for participants is the opportunity to hear from colleagues with whom they may not have had an opportunity or reason to converse. But is hearing the same as listening?
Westervelt points out that not speaking, or even hearing what others say isn’t the same as active and engaged listening. Yet unlike reading, writing and and arithmetic, there are few good measures of mastery of listening as a skill. We often assume that listening is a binary; either you do it or you don’t. As such, there are very few efforts to teach listening in the classroom, even though teachers referenced by Westervelt consistently cite the importance of listening for their students’ and their own growth.
There are even fewer opportunities to develop listening skills outside of formal education. But the art of listening is equally important in the workplace. Consider the doctor who must listen carefully to what her patient says and doesn’t say before making a diagnosis. Or think about the manager who must listen to and process employees’ concerns in order to develop a strategy for boosting morale. In exchanges involving cross-cultural communication, listening is particularly important, as a scholar of rhetoric demonstrates in her book.
Employers can help workers improve listening skills by providing opportunities like Books@Work in which participants are asked to listen to others and reflect. But there are also ways that employers can use listening as a critical tool in determining policy, thereby strengthening listening skills and also signaling the importance of listening to all. If employees’ views are not only solicited, but also acted upon, that shows not only that others’ viewpoints have been heard, but they have been evaluated. This way of using listening is not possible in every scenario, but when it is used, it can create a culture of listening that is quite powerful.
Westervelt is right that it is time to examine what constitutes real, engaged listening, what specific outcomes it can produce for individuals and for society, and how we might teach it. But we’d be remiss if we limited this project to K-12 education. Higher education, workplaces and lifelong learning programs have an important role to play in articulating the value of listening, and in shaping how it is taught.
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print, 1889, oil on canvas, Courtland Institute Galleries (London), [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons