Listening to understand

To test out how difficult it is to engage in an act of listening, try sitting with someone and letting that individual talk for five minutes, without any interruption on any topic of his or her interest. Chances are, you will not even go beyond the one-minute mark without being tempted to interrupt, ask for clarification, suggest your own opinion, and in some instance, change the topic altogether because of disinterest.

I try demonstrating this to my students taking education and/or psychology to expose the challenges and importance of the art of listening to enhance human relationship. After doing the activity, students often admit that it is a difficult feat. However, they also add that once they start to genuinely listen to the other person, a greater sense of connectedness and appreciation is experienced, by both speaker and listener.

Why is it difficult?

It is easier to speak than to listen because from the time we were infants, we felt the pressure to use a “spoken” language to indicate normal development. Parents become anxious when their infants take too long to utter the first word. In retrospect, you would realize that major portions of your childhood were spent in trying to acquire more words to string them together to make phrases and sentences.

Although listening played a significant role in the development of our spoken language skill(s), it was directly aimed at acquiring the language. We didn’t listen so that we could understand someone else’s message(s). We listened solely because we wanted to imitate and use the words or phrases or sentences in our own speech. Hence, while we got a lot of training in correctly speaking a language, we were not necessarily taught how to listen with the intention to understand a speaker’s message(s).

Importance of listening

Inability to listen effectively causes individuals, groups, and institutions great losses. Subsequently, ineffective listening leads to relationship break down – between parents and their children, teachers and their students, administrators and their teachers. When people don’t listen to each other, their responses seem insensitive to the needs and aspiration of others. This is misunderstood for selfishness, leading to one or both parties feeling offended and becoming defensive. Naturally, a fight or flight response pattern is triggered in this situation and no decent conversation can transpire thereafter.

In the classroom setting, teachers who listen to students not only assure them of their attention, but also allow themselves opportunities to truly understand what students are experiencing. School administrators who listen to their teachers motivate the staff to be initiative, creative, and committed. In both cases, the ones who are listened to feel appreciated, valued, and become willing to perform better.

Listening skills

Teachers and school administrators who seek to forge a positive relationship with their constituencies must learn to listen. They should listen to understand, and not just to respond to what is being told. Listening to understand requires that teachers, first and foremost, do more listening than talking. Secondly, they need to decode the feelings contained in what is said, along with deciphering facts or ideas. Thirdly, a good listener would do his best to view the contents of the messages from a speaker’s frame of reference. For this to happen successfully, one must listen to the whole story without disrupting the speaker. Fourthly, listening to understand entails restating and clarifying what the other has said. This is not the same as asking questions or telling what the listener feels, believes, or wants. Last but not the least, a good listener responds to the speaker with acceptance and empathy, not with indifference, cold objectivity, or fake concern.


Every now and then, we all experience a “delay” in understanding something, usually a new concept. This delay is just a temporary blockage that inhibits a complete grasp of a new idea. The delay is invariably short-lived and we soon find ourselves experiencing a sudden surge of understanding about the same idea that just a few days ago, or a few weeks ago, we had little clue about.

The thinking chimpanzee

Psychologists call this the “aha!” phenomenon. It was experimentally discovered by a German-American psychologist named Wolfgang Kohler during the early 20th century. In his experiment with a chimpanzee called Sultan, Kohler observed and deduced that animals do not learn everything through mere trial-and-error processes, or stimulus-response associations, as suggested by behavioral psychologists. He argued that animals do solve problems by understanding.

When Sultan was placed in a cage outside of which lay a few bananas, he tried to reach out and grab the fruit. Since the experimenter deliberately placed the bananas out of Sultan’s reach, the chimp had a difficult time getting his meal. The experimenter had purposely placed a few tools in and around the cage; things that do not have obvious connection to each other. After trying a variety of failed stunts, Sultan suddenly picks up a little stick, goes to the bars outside of which lay a long stick; scratches the long stick with the little one until the long stick pushes the fruit closer toward the cage. Yes, Sultan was successful in obtaining his bananas because he solved the problem by understanding the complete nature of the situation.

Ever since, humans have discovered tons of other things that chimpanzees do that require understanding instead of mere random trial-and-error moves.

Decoding the “aha!” effect

Perhaps knowing the true nature of learning as the brain does it will help us gain a better picture of why the “aha!” experience is common in humans and great apes. First and foremost, we all know that the brain is a complex organ. It contains millions of neurons that extend themselves through dendrites and axon terminals that are constantly connecting or disconnecting from each other; growing or shrinking; and at all times, transmitting electrical signals in the form of neurotransmitters, making up the most fascinating signals-relay system in the entire universe.

However, the quality of memory, the speed of sensory and perceptual input-output processing, and the understanding that comes as a result of a host of super-fast-highly sophisticated-neural operations do not necessarily end in the production of an insight about a particular experience, recollection, or idea. Sometimes, the outcome of the whole process is but a partial, very insignificant understanding of something really huge and complex. When such an experiences is encountered, we naturally put it aside and go about our daily activities.

The coming together of the bits and pieces occur at a time and place, and under circumstances that we can never plan or pre-decide. It happens when it happens and we have no control whatsoever as to how it happens. The brain does it all by itself. The neurons, instead of putting aside the bits and pieces of information that we previously couldn’t make sense of, actually work steadily, linking them to the parts of the brain cells that logically connect (though earlier seem impossible to connect), and eventually build a foundation for understanding the idea. This is the “aha!” experience in concrete terms.

Implication for education

At school, students who do not understand a concept or idea the first time they learn it always stand a chance to completely get it in the near future. However, our education system rushes the brain to work unnaturally and causes it to break down, if not under-perform. True education is when students are allowed the privilege of harnessing the natural tendency of the brain to find connections and make sense of things around them.

A matter of feeling

It is relatively easy to get an answer to the question, “How are you today?” Teachers often start their classes with this question expecting the most obvious answer, all the time – “Fine, thank you! And you?” However, being a psychology graduate, I tend to view humans beyond their obvious utterance of words and bodily-facial expressions. Hence, I always accompany the question, “How are you today?” with another, in my opinion, more important question, “How do you feel?” For me, this question yields the kind of information that I need as an instructional designer, who deliberately creates positive environments that facilitate effective learning experiences.

It’s not easy

My observation of how students respond to the question, “How do you feel?” have led me to discovering two things about them:
1.  Most of the time, they find it very difficult to answer the question
2.  Even if they did, the answer does not reveal their feelings. Some of the common answers students give while attempting to respond to this question are like, “Fine!” “Okay,” “Tired,” “Not bad,” etc. (somehow they are not aware of and/or are unable to appropriately use adjectives that describe their feelings).
All of these responses do not really answer the question. Over and over again, I find that students face difficulty responding to this simple question. Why is this so?

Exploring the phenomenon

Although the sense of belonging (to love and be loved by others) is one of our fundamental needs, society have often discouraged the free expression of feelings. This phenomenon is seen across cultures and gender – in both western and eastern societies, and in both men and women (although there may be slight difference in the level of expression encouraged and allowed in different groups).

The industrial-knowledge (transition) society expects individuals to be emotionally sturdy. The new world order requires that we conceal deep-seated feelings. There is no reward in revealing emotions. It is important to do so as a competitive edge over others who are constantly competing for the same resources. Children learn early in life to be “emotionless” and are rewarded for the same. Parents and teachers do not spend time exploring children’s feelings. They simply don’t talk about them enough.

Hence, when suddenly asked, “How do you feel?” students find it very difficult to explore their own subjective-inner experiences and express them freely.

Does it matter?

Is there a valid reason to be pre-occupied with getting an answer for the question, “How do you feel?” from students in the classroom? Yes there is! In fact, it is imperative that we teach students how to answer the question. An example would help us to understand the reason more clearly.

When I was admitted in the hospital to be treated for food poisoning, the doctor on duty kept asking me “How do you feel (physically) now?” Although doctors have concrete ways of finding out how a patient’s body is doing, he or she does not undermine the importance of collecting a richer form of data to augment the existing medical report(s). They look at medical reports in the context of self-reported subjective-experiences of patients. In fact doctors rely on how patients say they feel (physically) to proceed with their final diagnosis and prognosis. This helps them to reduce the possibilities of making erroneous judgment about a particular medical condition.

Teachers who collect additional data about students’ feelings would be in a better position to design effective instructional environments that are highly conducive for learning. However, to make this a possibility, they will first need to encourage their students to engage in free expression of feelings. They could do this by asking, “How do you feel today?”

Opportunity in disguise

In a workshop for a group of Thai teachers in Saraburi last year, I was asked the question, “What do we do to deal with students who are more interested in playing computer/TV games than coming to school, opening their books, and studying?” Do bear in mind that this question was posed by teachers whose educational approaches are still traditional in many ways. Their classes are big, their teaching is textbook-directed, and their instruction is mostly didactic, i.e., telling students things rather than letting them discover things for themselves. Because of the complexity of the context of the question, my answer had to address the question, and at the same time, inspire these teachers to move into adopting a more progressive attitude toward education.

Underlying problem

When faced with a difficult situation involving students, it is a natural tendency for a teacher to ask, “What is wrong with so and so (student)?” As a matter of fact, most educational reforms come about as a result of educators wanting to solve a perceived problem experienced by students. An example of this is the dramatic changes in the publication and use of textbooks; from text-only-black-and-white books a few decades ago, we now have books filled with colorful text and pictures. However, reforms in textbook publication were directed at increasing students’ interest to interact with the material (by luring them to like the books), and not necessarily to address the question, “What would make learning more meaningful and effective.”

In essence, the question posed by teachers at the workshop reflected this same tendency – they asked, “What’s wrong with our students?” rather than “What is it that we need to do or change to help them learn better?”

Additional suggestion

To handle this question more constructively, it is important to realize that playing computer/TV games is not bad. Many people make a decent living out of playing computer/TV games. Additionally, it also enhances one’s eye-motor coordination and improves creativity. Understanding and accepting this allow us to approach the question more optimistically. Instead of viewing playing computer/TV games as a problem, teachers (and parents) could use it to boost students’ learning. Instead of demanding students to stop doing what they love doing, teachers could transform the love for playing games into the love of learning.

Reframing the question

It was obvious that students were deliberately choosing computer/TV game shops over school. And it doesn’t take rocket scientists to reckon that students feel more excited to be in game shops rather than school. But how do we make school as fun and exciting as a game shop?

Creative solution

My suggestion to teachers at the workshop is narrated as follows:

  1. Plan a month long project/problem-based-learning on “solving the mystery of why students love playing computer/TV games more than coming to school.”
  2. Divide students into heterogeneous groups – a mixture of girls and boys; those who play computer/TV games and those who do not.
  3. Assign different investigative tasks to groups. Possible questions to investigate: a) How often do students visit game shops? b) How much money is spent at the game shops? c) What do parents think about their children sneaking out to play games? d) What is the relationship between the time spent in game shops and the time spent in studying? etc.
  4. Teach and encourage students to use the scientific method – define the question (problem), hypothesize, collect and analyze data, and make conclusions and recommendations. This allows for the learning of a variety of knowledge and skills all at one time, on their own.
  5. Spend a period or two every week to update each other about the progress of investigation. Provide help and support to groups.
  6. Bring the project to a closure by pulling together the findings of every group – have them plan and prepare for a presentation of the same (encourage the use of both low- and high-tech presentation aids; e.g. posters, PowerPoint slides, and other exhibit materials).
  7. Showcase the final outcome by inviting members of the school and the community to take part in the presentation of student investigation. The school-wide exhibition/presentation could be effectively used to initiate a collaborative discussion about the issue at hand.