How to Listen

(Part of the Art of Learning series.)

Video from October 26. (Sorry about the poor audio.)

Given the amount of time we spend in lectures and seminars at university, it should come as no surprise that the ability to listen plays a crucial role in determining our learning outcomes. But how do we get the most out of a 9 minute feedback session, a 45 minute lecture, or informal conversation among peers? In this talk, I cover some basic tools to help you retain what you hear, in and out of class.

A good listener is one who prepares their mind to hear what is said. In the talk, I suggest three heuristic: consider the questions you bring to the session as a listener to make your curiosity explicit, form some expectations to make your knowledge explicit, and muster your patience by planning you attendance in advance. What do you want to learn, what do you already believe, and when will you arrive and depart? If you want to listen attentively, you should be in the right frame of mind.

Conversation, which I only touched on briefly at the end (I say more about in the video below), is one of the most familiar metaphors for scholarship. We are asked to imagine a research community as a group of peers engaged in an ongoing, virtual conversation occasioned by the common of project of figuring out how some corner of the universe works. But this metaphor also has a literal counterpart, namely, the actual conversations that scholars have. I have tried to imagine a very formal way of doing this here but conversations are of course often very informal, very local affairs, sometimes involving only two people. In order to be a good conversationalist, you have to be not just a good talker, but also a good listener, and the difficulty here is that you are, by the very nature of conversation, always also trying to think of something to say yourself. This difficulty is also an affordance: the presence of your own ideas gives you a frame within which to listen. It focuses your mind.

The more iconic listening situation is that of the seminar and the lecture. Here you don’t have any responsibility for keeping things going, you can sit back and tune in and out as you choose. You can also pay close attention and take notes. I recommend that you develop a system that lets you distinguish easily between quotations and paraphrases of what the speaker says, on the one hand, and your own reflections and questions on the other. Also, I recommend that you attend lectures and seminars on purpose. That is, make sure you have your own reason for attending, your own questions to answer, which may be inspired by the syllabus or the program. Have some expectations. Even disappointment is a form of listening. A mind that is prepared to learn something specific is more attentive than one that is ready for “whatever”.

Like receiving feedback, listening is an experience, not a judgment. Try not to judge the speaker (either as a speaker or as a thinker) and instead really listen to what they’re saying. Later, when the experience is over, reflect on what you heard and how you thought it went. Then make whatever judgments you must. But remember that you really judging your own future performance as a speaker. By listening carefully, you are learning how to speak better. (But that’s the subject of a whole other talk.)

See also: “The Art of Listening”, “A Parlor”, “The Gradual Perfection of Thought while Speaking”, “The Gradual Formation of Knowledge in Discourse” and “Unfiltered Feedback”.

Here’s the video from the 2021 talk.