Listening: A Skill We’re Forgetting to Teach

Listening: A Skill We're Forgetting to Teach
Listening is important—everyone agrees. Would there be any point talking if no one listened? And for most people, it's a skill with potential for improvement. Increasingly, it's been seen as an essential professional skill. Sandra Spartaro and Janel Bloch's excellent article on listening references a job search website where “active listening” appears as a qualification or required skill in 17,000 postings for business positions in management, accounting, and sales. Shortly after that, they cite a reference that learning goals related to listening were listed by less than 15 percent of AACSB-accredited business schools compared with 76 percent of the schools that had goals related to presenting.

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Listening is important—everyone agrees. Would there be any point talking if no one listened? And for most people, it's a skill with potential for improvement. Increasingly, it's been seen as an essential professional skill. Sandra Spartaro and Janel Bloch's excellent article on listening references a job search website where “active listening” appears as a qualification or required skill in 17,000 postings for business positions in management, accounting, and sales. Shortly after that, they cite a reference that learning goals related to listening were listed by less than 15 percent of AACSB-accredited business schools compared with 76 percent of the schools that had goals related to presenting. And there seems to be ever more talking. Spartaro and Bloch write, “The increasing use of social media had made it easier to have one's opinions heard—so much so that it is difficult for students to stop texting and tweeting long enough to listen or learn.” (p. 169) Their solution? Teach listening skills. They are writing to management educators, but listening is a skill relevant across professions and can be taught at least to some degree in every course. The authors make distinctions between listening, hearing, and what they (and others) call active listening. Active listening starts with a reorientation to silence and its role in education. In classrooms, there's a general sense that silence should be avoided. When it occurs, it's an indication that nothing is happening, or it infers a breakdown in communication—that awkward silence when it's not clear what should be said. The reoriented view sees silence as a positive part of active listening everywhere but especially in classrooms. It provides the quiet space reflection and answer formation require. And if it's not clear what should be said, perhaps nothing should be said. Definitions for active listening vary but the one most reflective of the authors' understanding of it has three elements: 1) active listening entails nonverbal involvement, including eye contact and those physical behaviors associated with paying close attention; 2) active listeners reflect the message back to the speakers, paraphrasing what they have heard and their understanding of it; and 3) active listeners question the speaker in ways that encourage elaboration and the addition of further details. Active listeners are empathetic, they show respect and refrain from passing judgment. “Because active listening requires deliberate involvement from the listener to be actively engaged in the speaker's experience—while staying relatively silent—it can be a difficult skill to learn.” (p. 171) How then can it be taught? The article proposes a method, equally adaptable in face-to-face and online courses, and relevant in a wide range of different content areas. The assignment begins with a self-assessment component guided by two listening inventories (which appear in appendices). They are not listening comprehension assessments but scored inventories that provide students with feedback as to the level of their listening skills. After taking the inventories, students prepare a written assessment that explores what they learned from the inventories and identifies a listening skill they would like to improve. The second component involves an interesting collection of materials through which students come to understand what active listening is and how they can go about developing it. These materials are also identified in the article. After making their way through the listening materials, students prepare a report that describes an incident where they applied some aspect of active learning to the specific listening skill they are working to improve. The assignment ends with students retaking one of the inventories and writing about their efforts to improve listening in the course and elsewhere. The article includes data collected on the effectiveness of this approach. Pre- and post-test inventory scores are compared. They improved significantly and analysis of the written reports prepared by students also showed signs of skill development. Listening is a skill too often taken for granted. However, when there's an encounter with good listening, someone who practices active listening, the difference is hard to miss. It's affirming in ways that end up significantly enhancing the communication of both the sender and receiver. —MEW Reference: Spataro, S. and Bloch, J. (2018). “Can you repeat that?” Teaching active listening in management education. Journal of Management Education, 42 (2), 168-198.