Listening in Collaborative Spaces
Deep listening supports learning. When someone really listens to you, you feel understood, accepted. You can discover things that you didn’t know you knew, gain insights, and raise authentic questions. In our modern western society, speaking is greatly valued, but I wonder about the essential, complimentary act of listening.
Listening is an active part of meaning-making conversation. It involves looking for patterns and seeking understanding. Last week, a colleague of mine reflected on why she wasn’t speaking so much during a group task and said, “I find that I linger in the whole.” She was trying to get the big picture, the connections and patterns of what the group was working towards. By paying attention to the whole conversation, we were better able to discover the meaning among us. We were able to clarify differences, identify areas of agreement, and move forward with our task. In her role as listener she was not a passive observer but rather an active participant and creator of shared meaning in the group.
The practice of deep listening also involves suspending judgment. When we judge, we determine if something is right or wrong, good or bad, like-minded or different. Although judging is a necessary and important cognitive activity, it can inhibit learning by closing inquiry. In my work with Rowland Unified School District, we have used the Ordered Sharing process to develop a collective practice of suspending judgment and to deepen listening skills. The purpose of the Ordered Sharing process is, in fact, to develop a field of listening. In the process, a small group of participants sit in a closed circle and go-around responding to a question of student learning or collective practice. After everyone has had an opportunity to respond, the participants make connections with each others’ statements in a free-form conversation. During the round of initial responses, participants try to listen without judging. In our practice, we refrain from making overt gestures of agreement or disagreement (i.e., nods, smiles, winces). We try to listen as if we are hearing something for the first time. I have noticed our conversations developing in their authenticity. We are not speaking for approval or in defense, but to express our lived experience. In the end, more information is shared and we develop more clarity.
Suspending judgment can develop self-awareness and shared beliefs. As I listen, I like to pay attention to signals in different parts of my body—my gut, my heart, my limbs, my thoughts. Once I notice my reactions to another person’s statement, I am clued in to my deeply held beliefs. This is an important step in developing shared beliefs about student learning in collaborative teams.
Listening is valuable among adults in collaborative settings and between adults and children in the classroom. I have tried deep listening in conferring with fourth-grade students on their reading. I found that as I listened with curiosity my understanding grew. I refrained from judging what the student was doing right or wrong, or thinking about what reading strategy I was going to teach him next. I slowed down, gathered more information, and came to understand who this student was as a reader, and eventually learned how to help him better.
Listening is a skill that can be practiced in almost any setting—in groups, pairs, or individually. Even alone, listening to oneself can elicit clarity. Think about a time when you felt you were really listening, either to someone else, yourself, or the world around you. Maybe you were in a conversation at the dinner table, walking on a path, or talking to a colleague at work. What listening strategies did you use? Was suspending judgment part of your listening? What, if any, new insights did you gain?
In working with communities of practice, we have used the Ordered Sharing process, World Café, and a variety of other conversation protocols. We have found that using a process that honors listening and has an orientation towards inquiry is good way to support group learning. Although some participants are uncomfortable with an unfamiliar process at first, others have expressed feelings of relief when they know that there are established routines for conversation. Over time, these practices can create a learning culture characterized by respectful collaboration and rigorous inquiry.
For more information:
Read Caine and Caine’s booklet Community First! This includes “Establish a Field of Listening” (Chapter 3), in which the authors describe three kinds of listening: surface listening, intentional/active listening, and deep listening.