12 Strategies Good Listeners Use

“No man ever listened himself out of a job.” (Calvin Coolidge)

 

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Everyone’s interested in listening. Business leaders, psychologists, language teachers – we’re all looking for insights into the process. Of course, it used to be considered a ‘passive’ skill. But in the last few decades we’ve learned that listening is highly active and extremely complex, involving ‘bottom-up’ (working from basic sounds) and ‘top down’ (context-based) subskills.

 

What makes a good listener? And are good listeners in L1 (native language) always good listeners in L2 (second language)? Below are a few ideas.

 

Good listeners …

 

  1. OWN THE CONVERSATION

They see themselves as active participants in an interaction rather than passive recipients of messages. As students, they don’t just answer comprehension questions; they create their own agenda according to their goals. They interact personally with the passage, making connections between their lives and the content of the listening.

 

  1. PROVIDE CONSTANT FEEDBACK

In face-to-face conversations, the listener needs to gain some control. It might be through using expressions like “Can you repeat that please?” “I didn’t catch that.” “What do you mean by this?” Good listeners provide feedback to the speaker through words and gestures.

 

  1. ARE WORLDLY LISTENERS

Good listeners link what they hear to other texts, ideas, and stories. They are constantly relating the new input to their worldly knowledge – things they hear, see or read.

 

  1. USE VISUAL CLUES

Good listeners look at the surroundings – the context – and they also watch the speaker’s gestures and body language, eyes, mouth and hands.

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  1. ARE EXPERTS AT SELF-MONITORING

Good listeners are aware of whether or not they are achieving the task. They are alert to inconsistencies in their interpretation of events. Does it make sense, as one student thought he heard, that Russia’s biggest airport is located in Monaco? Or might he have heard Moscow?

 

  1. TOLERATE AMBIGUITY AND PERSEVERE

As we listen, we make hypotheses. Good listeners realize these hypotheses are temporary and may need to be revised later. As we persevere and keep listening, often we resolve problems because things become clearer as we get more information.

 

  1. QUESTION THE COMPLETENESS OF THEIR UNDERSTANDING

A good listener might say, “I understood the words but there’s something missing in my interpretation.” It may be something cultural. While living in Italy, I told a friend in Italian that I was going to give a presentation. She said, “in bocca al lupo”, which literally means “in the mouth of the wolf” – on the surface, a totally bizarre response! I realized there was something missing in my understanding, and found out that “in bocca al lupo” is an idiom meaning good luck.

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  1. IDENTIFY SPECIFIC PROBLEM AREAS

In educational contexts, some students are ‘all or nothing’ learners. They either get it all or they give up. Rather than saying “I don’t understand this. I give up”, good listeners say “I didn’t understand the bit where she said X”. In other words, they are more nuanced in dealing with comprehension problems.

 

  1. LISTEN BETWEEN THE WORDS

Good listeners listen critically. They don’t take every utterance at face value. Understanding words isn’t always enough. We must recognize that people use words to conceal things and lie. The writer David Mamet says, “People speak for one reason and one reason only – to get what they want.” That’s why we need to listen critically.

 

  1. THINK AHEAD

Good listeners anticipate what the speaker will say next. They base their predictions on both linguistic knowledge and worldly knowledge. When we listen, we use everything we know about the world, about who does and says what to whom, about relations of power and dominance, about conventions of turn-taking. We also use what we know about language, e.g. which words collocate with other words. This helps us anticipate what we will hear.

 

  1. FOCUS ON WHAT’S VALUABLE

Good listeners focus on valuable information and ignore everything else. If we’re in an airport listening for our flight announcement, unless our own flight is mentioned, we tune out. It’s just noise. Good listeners have an ability to attend to the most important part of the message.

 

  1. LISTEN TO DIFFERENT THINGS IN DIFFERENT WAYS

Good listeners know when they have to understand every word. When listening to instructions and directions, for example, getting the gist isn’t enough.

 

FINALLY …

The Chinese character for the word ‘listen’ is an ear, an eye and a heart. It means we listen with everything that we are. To understand speech, you have to hear it, see it in its full context, and let it touch your heart – on some level, make an emotional connection with it. This applies to L1 and L2 listeners.

 

In another post I will look at practical ways for language teachers to encourage the development of these strategies.


2 Comments on “12 Strategies Good Listeners Use”

  1. chukaiwa  says:

    Great post. All useful, but one in particular I remember alighting on in my own language learning was and trying to describe to others was #6 “TOLERATE AMBIGUITY AND PERSEVERE
    As we listen, we make hypotheses. Good listeners realize these hypotheses are temporary and may need to be revised later. As we persevere and keep listening, often we resolve problems because things become clearer as we get more information.”

    It’s not only listening, of course. You have to do this when you’re learning to read too. It is not always the best strategy to look up every word you don’t know, so tolerating ambiguity and using the other strategies, e.g. “thinking ahead”, are critical in reading too.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      I agree with that 100%! Reading and listening involve very different processes, but several strategies can be applied to both. Thanks for your comment.


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