Thursday, 18 April 2013

Listening Skills

Yesterday after the PhD research seminar, my colleague told me that I was a great person to have in the audience when you're presenting your work, because I listen & smile & nod. When he lost his train of thought or thought people weren't following his ideas, he said he'd look at me and I'd be listening. It's a lovely compliment, and one that I've heard before actually. My 10th grade world history teacher picked up on it once, saying that he liked having me in the front row because my smiling & nodding encouraged him. He said it was "motherly"--very embarrassing to have a teacher call you that in front of the whole class, but he meant well. My Spanish teacher put it in a much nicer way, telling my mom at graduation that he appreciated my enthusiasm and engagement in class, and that he wished he could have "a whole class full of Molly Sissons."

Listening in class or a seminar presentation has always just come naturally for me--I've always seen it as a matter of being polite and treating others how you'd like to be treated. I know that I'd feel demoralised if I were giving a talk and the audience was sleeping or texting or passing notes, etc. Public speaking is daunting enough without a disengaged peanut gallery for an audience. During these talks, I'm usually too busy looking at the speaker to notice what others around me are doing, but since my colleague brought it to my attention with his compliment, I had a look around the seminar later that afternoon. To be fair, most people were active listeners--looking at the speaker, taking notes, no looking at phones, etc. But there were some who glazed over, especially near the end of the talk. I'm not saying I was a perfect audience member--I took 1 page of notes about the talk but also jotted down about a page of ideas for the chapter I'm working on at the moment--but I think listening skills in general are undervalued. Maybe it's because they don't think it's rude to do those things, to be a multitasking audience member.     

How do you teach listening skills? Is there something lecturers can do to encourage active listening (apart from just being fascinating speakers), or is it too late by the time these kids get to uni? Is it all down to our multitasking, multiscreen lifestyle that discourages giving your full attention to any single thing? Or can we relearn how to listen, despite the gadgets?

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