Bonnie Brown: Listening is an Essential Skill Vital to Learning

Sshhh . . . listen! These words evoke a response of attentive quiet. There’s anticipation and expectations that there’s an announcement forthcoming that is sure to be of interest to you. But how many of us really listen? I mean REALLY listen.

I used to try to get my boys to listen. But honestly I went about it in my own way without the desired outcome. You see, I would shush them and say listen but with all the subtlety of someone announcing a fire drill. My children were used to this level of engagement and would largely ignore me. I remember when they started day care that the sound level of their world hit a pitch as if every child there had a microphone. Never mind the poor teachers who had to ramp it up just to be heard.

My sweet daughter-in-law Francie is a wonderful communicator and knows how to engage her children and get them to listen. She speaks very softly, almost a caress. Her kiddos tune in and listen. It’s amazing to me. Now they may not always comply with her request but she definitely is able to get their attention in a very quiet manner.

Why is listening so important? Well, we all want to be heard whether we are a parent trying to impart warnings or encouragement to our child, or perhaps a lover wanting to convey deep emotions to their beloved. Listening is an essential skill vital to learning. Ask any teacher. If her words are not being received or listened to, she may feel more like their parent rather than their teacher!

I often say to my husband, “Did you hear me?” I say this because often I think he has tuned me out. Sometimes I’ve come to realize that he’s heard me, he is just taking his time to formulate his response. He discovered early in our marriage that he might need to choose his words carefully. Often he hears me, but he’s not listening—BIG difference.
You all may know that one of Judge Judy’s expression is “Two ears, one mouth – listen twice as much as you speak.” I’m a talker. I sincerely doubt that I listen more than I talk. I believe myself to be an “active” listener; you know fully concentrating on what’s being said. But honestly, if something crosses my mind, I have a hard time staying focused on the speaker for fear of losing the thought. I had a hysterectomy when I was 40 and I suspect the doctor also did a lobotomy because I haven’t been the same since. I used to be able to write a letter, talk on the phone, and watch TV all at the same time, but now concentration is much more difficult for me. I truly believe that my gray hair interferes with brain transmissions.

Listening is very important. As early as 325 BC, Aristotle classified listeners into 3 categories: 1) those who would be using the speech to make decisions about past events; 2) those who would make decisions affecting the future; and 3) those who would evaluate the speaker’s skills. Wouldn’t it be useful if politicians recognized that those hearing their speeches and commentary fell into these 3 categories? According to “The Importance of Listening”, chapter 4 from the book Public Speaking: Practice and Ethics there are several listening styles: People oriented listeners, Action-oriented listeners, Content-oriented listeners, and Time-oriented listeners.

As the name suggests, the people-oriented listener is interested in the speaker. They listen to the message in order to learn how the speaker thinks and how they feel about their message.

Action-oriented listeners are primarily interested in finding out what the speaker wants. Does the speaker want votes, donations, volunteers, or something else.

Content-oriented listeners are interested in the message itself, whether it makes sense, what it means, and whether it’s accurate.

Time-oriented listeners prefer a message that gets to the point quickly. They become impatient with slow delivery or lengthy explanations.

Communication is the centerpiece of our world today. We have so many devices and so many ways to be in touch. There’s world news, fake news, social media, spam, and lots of ways that we “listen” to gather information that is relevant to us.

How do you listen? And to whom? And for the guys out there, when your lady speaks, you should be listening. Just sayin’.


Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

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