Why hearing isn’t the same as listening
In the doctor’s surgery
I took my five year old son to hospital yesterday. He sat on my knee. In the room were a doctor, two medical students, two parents, a little brother and the patient himself. We talked about him, over his head. After a while the doctor said to him;
‘I’m going to ask you something, because I think you know about this better than we do. I know you’re a very clever boy and I think you could tell me about …….’
And he did, in the special tiny voice that children reserve for speaking to very important adults. He gave us the inside story, the one that only he knew and the rest of us could only guess at. It was a good meeting and he’s OK now so we’ll leave that place behind and go somewhere else.
I’ve just finished reading Alan Alda’s autobiography, ‘Never have your dog stuffed’, the story of a man who had lived a life on stage trying to be someone else without pretending. He realised that acting is not pretending, it is about being someone you are not with another person who is also being someone who they are not in an authentic, real way. How is that possible? He could laugh when the other actor spoke a line, but it didn’t come from a real place, he wasn’t emotionally connected. That’s what he felt inside, maybe to the audience it looked genuine but he knew he wasn’t acting, he was pretending. He puzzled over it and he puts it like this;
‘On M*A*S*H I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is what lets it happen. It’s always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don’t have to figure out how you’ll say it. You have to listen so simply, so innocently that the other person brings about a change in you that makes you say it and informs the way you say it.’
Of course, he is talking about acting where there is a script to follow but he was also very interested in improvisation where both what you say and how you say it are unscripted, like most teaching. He goes on;
‘The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of duelling monologues.’
Alan Alda found what he was looking for, so let’s leave him under a palm tree and go somewhere else.
Talking in class
One role we play as a teacher is of someone who talks in a way that is intended to make other people change and we expect the students to be doing real listening, to be willing to change. We teachers are experts and we know an awful lot of stuff. A danger is that sometimes we only pretend to listen and get stuck in the ‘I’ve got something in my head and you’ve got to guess what it is’ role. It goes something like this;
‘Give me the name of a marine mammal.’
‘A sea otter.’
‘No that’s not what I call a marine mammal, it’s a mammal that happens to live by the sea. Try again.’
‘A what? I’ve never heard of it. Try again.’
‘But a dugong is a marine mammal.’
‘Forget your dugong, try again.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I’ll give you a clue, it’s got a nose on top of its head.’
‘There’s no need to be rude. Try again.’
You might be able to avoid this pitfall effortlessly and we’re all trained to know the difference between open and closed questions aren’t we? First we have to prepare the student with enough factual knowledge to be able to answer the question and secondly we have to be standing on the firm ground of our knowledge to ensure our question is unambiguous. After a great session on the rise and fall of whaling we might ask;
‘Give me an example of an endangered cetacean.’
‘No. It’s not endangered.’
There are externally checkable correct answers to any number of questions we might ask and situations where we are looking for the student to change and for us to stand still, with directly instructed maths and synthetic phonics for example. But there are situations where the student knows something that the teacher doesn’t and the only way to move forward is to swap roles.
Who is the expert here?
So why did a consultant paediatrician, presumably full of knowledge, ask a five kyear old boy an open question to help her make a diagnosis? Why did an actor come up with the idea that real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you?
Because other people know things that we don’t. People are experts in and about themselves in ways that another person can never be and we have to pay close attention when they are telling us things that exist in their world, where they are the expert, because we don’t have a clue until they speak.
Medical students these days cover ‘the expert patient’ as a study topic. Teacher training doesn’t include ‘the expert student’ yet, but it should. Why? Because the concept of student mastery isn’t about you it’s about them. It’s time we caught up. And now to go to another place, the final stop today.
Talking out of turn
When a student does something we don’t want them to do, let’s call it bad behaviour for now, we fit it into a category because that’s how our brains work. He keeps shouting, screaming at and hitting other children in the playground. He goes red in the face and you can’t talk to him. We’ve seen it happen, we don’t need to ask him to explain it.
Response? Take him through all the steps listed in the school’s behaviour policy. Sanctions should do the trick. Still no change? Exclude him for a few days and then for a few more days. Other children’s parents and carers are kicking up a fuss. Have him assessed for SEBD* and hope he gets anger management training. And if that doesn’t work, which it probably won’t, he’ll have to be permanently excluded. We’ve done everything humanly possible and there’s nothing else we can do.
But. We haven’t remembered to treat him as an expert student and that real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.
Forget about being a behaviour expert, don’t try to fit his behaviour into a neat category. Don’t make your mind up about what’s gone wrong before you listen and start closing down the options. Work at not knowing because sometimes it is the best knowing.
Ask him where he’s hoping to get to in his life in school, what he’s already doing to get there and what he might do a bit more of to make it even more likely he’ll succeed. Be prepared to change.
No don’t talk, listen. Remember, you can’t know your next question until you’ve heard the answer to the one still hanging in the air.
Taking a stand
It’s what I do this in a situation like this and the amazing thing is the child will tell me, they answer me as if they were the expert in themself and the solution appears as if by magic. So maybe it wasn’t bad behaviour in the first place. Maybe it was just about change, as is all learning.
It’s not the guru’s glance or the shaman’s dance, it’s just a kind way of forging change through inquiry. It’s teaching and it’s what I call solution-support, the solution-focused approach to a better future.
(Please note; in case you think I’m over impressed by Alan Alda and his nice way of writing (I confess I love M*A*S*H) I talked about this ten years ago in my thesis and I’m talking about it again here because a decade is a reasonable time to wait, the idea is important and its time has come.)
*SEBD: Social, emotional and behaviour disability