Listening: a teacher’s most important skill

A chance conversation

Peter Hudson, active listening trainer

Peter Hudson

I had just finished having breakfast at what used to be called a country house party in the UK.  Having listened to several guests for several minutes, asking them about their work and families, I was asked what I did.  ‘I teach teachers how to listen’, I replied. One of the guests, herself a retired teacher, said ‘Oh that’s the top skill in teaching!’ When I asked her what she thought the reason for that was, she said ‘It builds respect with the students and when you have that you can achieve so much more with them’.

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Active, or Motivational  Listening Skills

Listening to someone in a focussed and skilled way is one of the best ways of motivating them, whether they are young or old.  Nobody really likes being told what to do or what the answer is, but if they are helped to find their own answer, or at least their own way forward on a path that could well lead to an answer, the chances of them following their own advice is significantly greater than following someone else’s.  And yet most of us, whether teachers or in some other profession, can rarely resist the temptation to tell people, however politely, what they should do!

So what are Active Listening Skills?  How do they differ from any other kind of listening?

Active or Motivational Listening begins, as you might imagine, with concentrated listening to what the other says regardless of one’s own views about what is being said.  Gradually, by a number of different means the speaker is helped to clarify just what the central question is that arises from the conversation.  The speaker is then helped to find his/her way forward along the way to find an answer to the central question. An action plan is developed – the speaker’s action plan, not the listeners.  And that’s it.  Simple!  Yes, but not easy!

What advantages does an Active Listening School enjoy?

Schools that commit to Active Listening reap many benefits.  In summary:

  1. A much more motivated student population who achieve more than they would otherwise which, in effect, means better results across the school. This arises in two ways:
    • Improved motivation brought about through interaction with staff in a very consistent way
    • Motivational tutoring and coaching using listening skills. This gives focussed attention to the work of the students both as a termly arrangement with all students and as specific set of sessions for individual students
  2. A more involved and motivated staff, better able to support each other in ways unrealised before.
  3. A Senior Leadership Team which is more committed and able to make creative plans for the various areas of school life.
  4. Increased motivation amongst staff, which can be hugely important in terms of staff retention.

Back at the house party

The retired teacher’s second question was:

‘How on earth do you teach teachers how to listen?’ implying that teachers must be difficult students and hard to teach.

This has not been my experience. A short course of two and a half days helps most teachers radically change their approach to their work with students and colleagues, with very significant results.

So get listening!

Peter Hudson

Find out more about the Student Motivation Questionnaire, a powerful instrument that helps build a picture of student well being and is now available on-line. Click the image for more details

Go to the SMQ page of the Motivated Learning Trust.

Go to the SMQ page of the Motivated Learning Trust.

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5 comments

  • Lisa March 1, 2015  

    It’s wonderful to see the impact listening has in the classroom; it empowers students and encourages them to think for themselves rather than go along with what they are told. It develops their critical thinking skills and enables them to gain far more out of their learning than they could by simply being told the answer. It also helps them realise that adults are interested in what they have to say and that they have valid points to make.

    • peter March 10, 2015  

      Hi Lisa,

      Thank you for your comments about Listening. It’s very kind of you to take the time and trouble to write. What you say is fully in accord with my philosophy and work with teachers over many years.

      Helping students to think for themselves, to develop critical thinking and thus gaining more from their learning than they otherwise would – all crucial stuff in today’s world; and in my view you’re absolutely spot on about how teachers listening to students shows they are interested and that the students have valid points to make.

      Where do you teach Lisa, and how old are your students? Do your colleagues share your views? It would be great to hear more about listening in your school and what colleagues think. I’m also interested to know whether your views reflect a policy within the school.

      I’d like to quote your comments in future pieces in the Listening Bench column if that’s all right with you – do you mind?

      If you’re interested I’ll send you a link to my website when it’s updated shortly. If you would like to have a look send me your email address.

      Thanks again and keep up the good work!

  • Douglas Shepherd May 26, 2015  

    Peter,

    I have been reading your words with great interest.
    My own life completely validates the crucial import
    of genuine listening; genuine interest. Of course
    all human lives validate the profound importance
    of having one’s inner world recognised and valued
    on its own terms.

    I recognise that you can teach listening skills to all-
    or perhaps nearly all teachers. But can you teach
    them to listen with genuine interest? ‘Genuineness’
    has to be at the heart of a teacher’s interaction
    with their students. Can this be enabled in a teacher?
    Horses to water and all that…

    Douglas.

    • peter May 27, 2015  

      Hello Douglas,

      Thank you for your comments which I find very interesting. The short and honest answer to your question about genuineness amongst teachers who learn listening skills is – most of the time but not always! Many teachers are swept off their feet by the listening skills courses and often transformed in their reactions to their students. There is a fairly large minority who don’t get it, however, about three out of ten I’d say. Funnily enough Heimler himself said that a similar minority were not susceptible to being helped by his listening methods either. He never really got to the bottom of it. I wonder what the figure is for other kinds of therapy? Back to teachers, there is little doubt that it is of great value to those who do get it and thus their students too. A bigger problem is time within the school day for them to put their new skills into practice. I am still looking for ways around that one but, of course, have even less influence on schools than the teachers themselves!