In our world of constant communication, it’s easy to be distracted from really listening to someone. Yet good listening skills take us far—in the classroom and beyond. Good listening skills build relationships and resolve conflicts. They help students learn, and help all of us make fewer mistakes and waste less time.

As teachers, we understand that listening is an important soft skill, but we may not teach it. Here’s why you should, along with some guidance on how to improve listening skills for you and your students.


Active vs. Passive Listening

It’s easy to be a passive listener. That’s listening as we multitask. As passive listeners, we divide our attention between listening and doing something else. That does not benefit us as teachers or students. Rather, active listening – focusing all of our attention on receiving and processing information – helps us to fully understand what is being communicated.

Active listening helps students:

    • Follow directions
    • Understand expectations
    • Spend more time on task
    • Connect to content and increase understanding


Active listening helps educators:

    • Better understand student needs
    • Provide meaningful feedback
    • More fully engage students
    • Communicate well with parents, peers, and the administration



How to Teach Active Listening

It feels good when someone is actively listening to you. Demonstrate that to your students by modeling two conversations – one with active listening and one with passive. Discuss the importance of active listening. Then, walk them through the process of how to be an active listener together.

To be an active listener you need to…


1. Focus.

It’s easy to be distracted by the things in our environment, from our phones and devices to other people and happenings around us. To be a really good listener, you have to focus solely on the person talking to you.

Don’t multi-task, look around, or think about things you need to do.

Do give the speaker your undivided attention. Put aside your phone, papers, or any potential distractions. Face the speaker and maintain eye contact. Be present in the moment.


2. Receive.

The best listeners are those who are receptive to new information. You need to be ready to receive a message in order to listen. Importantly, good listeners are not critical. They create a safe environment where others may share their thoughts.

Don’t be judgmental. Don’t engage in a conversation if you’re not ready to listen.

Let go of your opinions during the conversation. Listening does not mean you agree with the message, only that you respect another’s right to express it.


3. Visualize.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s why it’s helpful to visualize what the other person is saying. In addition, knowing the speaker’s emotional state will help you more fully understand what he or she is trying to communicate.

Don’t assume you know what the speaker is saying or feeling.

Do listen to the words and picture what the speaker is saying. Pay attention to the speaker’s nonverbal cues, from body language to the tone of his or her voice. Try to feel what the speaker is feeling.


4. Wait.

It’s tempting to interrupt a speaker and impose your thoughts or solutions right away—especially if he or she says something that relates to your life. It’s easy to get sidetracked but that’s not good listening. We all think and talk at different rates. Let the other person have a chance to speak.

Don’t interrupt or jump in with your own thoughts or questions. Don’t finish the other person’s sentences. Don’t sidetrack the conversation by starting a new, related or unrelated conversation.

Be patient. At first, it might be hard to simply wait. With practice, it will get easier.


5. Understand.

Eventually, you’ll want to ask a question or two. Questions show that you are listening and that you want to understand what the speaker is saying. Your goal is empathy—to feel what the speaker is feeling. Empathy creates a connection like nothing else does.

Don’t spend the time planning what to say next. It will distract you from what’s being said.

Do wait until the speaker pauses to ask questions to clarify the message. You can say something along the lines of “Can we back up for a moment? I have a question about …”

6. Respond.

You do not have to be perfectly silent or still in the listening role. Good listeners consistently provide feedback whether it’s a word of confirmation or a nod of agreement.

Don’t just sit there or zone out, even if you’re bored.

Do nod and show your understanding through appropriate facial expressions. Interject with a well-timed “hmm” or another simple statement that confirms the message the speaker is sharing.


7. Summarize

You will want to ensure that you correctly understood the message. At the end of the conversation, try telling the speaker what you heard.

Don’t make a long summary statement. The purpose is not to capture every detail but merely the essence of the message.

Do let the speaker know that this is what you understood and ask for clarification if it is wrong. If there’s follow-up to the conversation needed, now is the time to mention the next steps.



Practicing Active Listening

Active listening takes practice. Model good listening skills and call attention to them as you are doing them. Involve students in the process regularly with active listening activities. Examples include:

    • Partner conversations
    • Journal entries following a lesson or other presentation
    • Listen and draw a story
    • Outdoor sound scavenger hunt
    • Mindful listening meditations



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