The ability to listen

“If we were supposed to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear”  Mark Twain

A friend of mine said to her toddler son, “Don’t interrupt your grandmother, wait till there is a space in the conversation, then you can talk”

Eventually he turned to her in frustration and said, “… but there are no spaces in the conversation!”

The reality is … most of us like to talk rather than listen, and for most people, talking is easier than listening. Yet, in the words of a song from the band Coldplay,

“just want someone listening to what you say, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

It is easy to see how urgent the need to communicate is when you watch toddlers struggling to put together words and sentences and make sense of the world. For young children, learning to communicate through talking and listening is usually a wonderful experience.

However, in our busy, noisy and interactive world listening soon becomes more complicated. 

When our eldest child was a baby we lived under the flight path in Sydney. Jets screamed over our house daily, and I worried about her hearing. 

The local clinic sister said that in her experience babies living under the flight path learnt to be selective in their hearing at a very early age. 

She said they did not respond to noise as quickly as other children. As a survival mechanism they learnt to blot out the noise. In the last few decades our world has become incredibly noisy, and children learn very quickly to be selective in their hearing.

Parents will often comment on their teenagers having extremely selective hearing, perhaps they see this as a survival mechanism too!

Despite environmental concerns and habits that form in teenagers, listening is a powerful way to learn and succeed in the world. 

Where a parent or teacher may be incredibly impressed by a child’s ability to do a Maths equation or understand a complex science formula or read a complex text, another child may be equally successful through the social skill of listening. Does this child get the same accolades?  Probably not, but she will have the power to succeed in many aspects of life.

Some psychologists believe that the ability to listen to another person, to empathise with and to understand another’s point of view, is one of the highest forms of intelligent behaviour. Jean Piaget called this capability, “overcoming egocentrism.” 

Daniel Goleman, in his book “Emotional Intelligence” suggests that listening is one of the keys to emotional intelligence. Children who can understand and empathise with other people are usually:

• Better learners
• Have fewer behavioural problems
• Empathetic, therefore less violent
• Skilled at resolving conflict
• Effective at problem solving
• Capable of making friends
• Capable of being happy in social situations.

Parents are the most significant influence on their children. Children spend more time with parents and their family than anyone else, and this is where they learn to be sociable and interact with other people to listen and to talk.

Teachers are also a powerful influence on children, and communication skills will be learnt from what they see and hear and learn in the classroom. Teachers also teach children to listen to other children, to work in groups, to problem solve together, and to consider other students points of view.

Recently a group of boys at our school made a model of a fort on the playground during lunchtime. While they were busy constructing mud walls and rooms everything went well.  Once the building finished, they began to play in it. At this stage they began to argue with each other and the problem was that no one wanted to really listen to anyone else. Everyone wanted to be the king, and nobody wanted to be the cook!  

It was interesting that they did not have a problem when they were doing individual tasks, but once they had to come together and co-operate, they had difficulty listening and understanding each other’s point of view. A microcosm of society really!

Teachers and parents can help children along the road to listening by;

• Giving your full attention to a child. Maintain eye contact with him. Don’t ask a question if you are too busy to be able to listen to the answer!

• Make sure children understand that they have to listen to other people as well as talk themselves.

• Encourage children to talk, ask them about their experiences and ideas. 

• Listen patiently. Young children often take time to express their ideas with a limited vocabulary, give them time to finish the sentence.

• Avoid cutting a child off half way through a conversation. If you do not have time to listen, explain the reason, and make another time when you will be able to listen.

• Try not to reject her ideas and opinions, don’t dismiss her idea out of hand. “No that is not the way a car works”.

• Extend the conversation by asking questions and encouraging him, so that he knows that his ideas and opinions are important and have value.

• During the time you spend together, share your thoughts with her. Include her in your plans and conversation.

• Look out for non-verbal messages. Children will give you an idea of how they are feeling through their facial expression, their posture, their behaviour patterns. Make a quiet time for them to feel free to express these feelings.

As parents and teachers it is also important to know, that sometimes we would have to super-human to do all of the above!

“The most basic of all needs is the need to understand and to be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them” Ralph Nichols

• A handbook for happy families: Dr John Irvine, Finch Publication
• The Secret of Happy Children: Steve Biddulph, Bay Books
• In Praise of Slow Carl Honore
• Parenting

by Geraldine Mackey