The Art of Listening

My series of informal talks about learning at university continues this week on the topic of listening. This will nicely set up next week’s talk about talking. The better talker is often also the better listener, both in quick exchanges and in longer presentations. In my talk on Thursday, I intend to cover three kinds of listening:

  1. Listening in conversation.
  2. Listening to brief interventions in seminars and panel discussions.
  3. Listening to lectures.

There are two important features of conversation that distinguish it from the other two kinds of listening. First, you will not be taking notes. Second, you are preparing to say something in response. This means you’re listening, not so much for content, but for cues to keep the conversation moving. You are especially sensitive to the difficulties implicit in what your interlocutor is saying: do you find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with. And you’re ready to engage with these difficulties, demanding of the person your talking to that they support, elaborate or defend what they’re saying.

If you’re familiar with my views on writing, you’ll recognize these difficulties as the determinants of the rhetorical posture of individual paragraphs. Like a good paragraph, a good conversation is one that helps you believe, understand, or agree with claims you might not otherwise have. It offers you talk that is easier to believe, understand, or agree with than the core claims that are being talked about. And, importantly, if offers you countless pressure points at which to push back on and prompt your interlocutor to elicit more information. You are often listening for something that will answer your questions. So part of listening, here, is framing good questions, either in your mind, or in speech. They give you, precisely, a frame within which to receive the information.

Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of helping as of making; some people can be very persuasive when they talk to you. So it’s important that, as a listener, you try to remember what difficulty you were able to overcome in conversation that was more of a challenge when you were thinking or reading about these things, or even experiencing them first hand. When reflecting on the conversation later, remember to reassert your skepticism, your intelligence, and your convictions. Maybe the conversation just caught you a little off guard; there is no shame in that. The main thing was to participate in the conversation, not to stand firm on your own views. You grant things for the sake of argument in order to keep things moving. Later on, you can sort out the threads.

More formal situations give you less opportunity to engage, but also more resources to retain what is said. When you are listening to someone say something to a group of people, and there is no immediate responsibility on your shoulders to acknowledge the contribution or respond to it, you have a bit more freedom to listen in your own way, on your own terms. And you can now take notes. For short contributions in seminars or on panels, I normally just use the same notebook I carry with me to jot down my own thoughts. I usually put a note at the top of the page about who is talking (along with the date) and mark direct quotation with quotation marks and my own thoughts and comments within square brackets. (You can use any system that works for you.)

The art of listening to a lecture is, of course, even more closely related to the art of taking notes. But listening is not merely producing a transcription of what is being said. (If it were, you’d just be giving yourself a subsequent reading task.) Listening should be more active than that.

One way to be more active is simply to divide a sheet of paper down the middle.

In the left column, you write down what the speaker says, either as quotes (in quotation marks) or as paraphrases (not in quotes). Mark things you are uncertain about clearly (e.g., “???”) and, if possible, politely have the speaker/teacher clarify their meaning (then of course replace the question marks with the correct statement). It can also be a good idea to use a system of icons (emojis, if you will) to mark any non-linguistic inflections, like laughter or irony or sarcasm or anything else that might help you understand your notes later.

In the right column, you write down thoughts and questions that occur to you as you listen to the speaker. Depending on the speaker, this column may be much more or much less filled out than the left hand column. And the difference between the two columns will give an immediate visual impression of how the lecture affected you when you revisit it later. An empty right hand column meant that you were mainly internalizing the speaker’s contents, while one that is stuffed with ideas means that the speaker constantly made you think.

However you do it, this act of making room for your own thoughts in your notes is important — the two-column system lets you easily distinguish what the speaker says from what you were thinking at the time. And thinking is an incredibly important part of listening. You want to make sure that the words you are hearing are actually passing through your mind. You want to make sure that the speaker’s ideas are running into the ones you already have.

A good way to prepare for this is to show up for a lecture with some expectations about what will happen. You’ll probably have a good sense of how some of your teachers run their classes, so you can come prepared with an already structured outline of the notes you’ll take. Also, you can use the assigned reading to generate questions that you expect to hear answers to (or, failing that, that you can ask about). Show up curious, puzzled, hopeful, expectant, perhaps even a little worried, just don’t show up passive, completely open to whatever will happen. Allow yourself to be disappointed with a lecture. Even expectations that are disappointed give you a frame for listening.

These are just some lose thoughts for my talk tomorrow, which will be likewise informal. You have to find your own way of listening to conversations, interventions, and presentations, lasting from a few minutes to several hours. In developing your academic “ear”, please remember, as in all the activities of learning, to find a way to enjoy it. You’ll be doing a lot of it, remember, so you want to be able to do it not just well but pleasantly.

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