by Harmony Button
“We can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them. In the very moment that they have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate. It’s the very moment that they have to dig deeper than the surface to find words, and at the same time, it’s a moment when they want to communicate very badly. They’re digging deep and projecting out at the same time.” — Anna Deavere Smith
This week, I can’t stop quoting Anna Deavere Smith, on the art of listening. Maria Popova’s excellent article “How to Listen Between the Lines” has reminded me that listening is implicit in the nature of language — and that, at its best, communication is a team effort between speaker and listener, or author and reader. Deavere Smith describes the moment when language fails a speaker as a moment of immense opportunity — a breakthrough, rather than a breakdown. It is in feeling as if we are lost for words that we are forced to find new words, new habits of speech, new ways of communicating what we’re trying to say. It is through this intense desire to communicate that language stays alive — without this, we would all fall into flatness, and every exchange would be banal.
In these moments of struggle, the speaker will be most successful in achieving communication and finding ways to express an idea through words if they also feel the supportive silence of their listeners. We know that there are qualities to silence, and that it can be as potent and powerful as speech. The kind of silence that the struggling speaker craves is the kind of silence that author Paul Goodman describes as “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.” In this way, the act of listening pulls at one end of communication, even as the speaker pushes at the other end.
An interesting thing happens inside a classroom when someone cares deeply about what they are saying — and I mean “cares” as in, experiences a kind of emotion that goes beyond a desire to perform for the teacher, and enters into the realm of need: a need not just to express themselves, but to do justice to an idea that currently lives inside them that they need to get out. It feels, to the speaker, like it is not just about them — it’s almost as if the idea itself needs to speak, needs to be expressed. It’s a magical feeling for a speaker, to suddenly feel like host and conduit to something larger and more important than themselves: the idea, a kind of truth, a new version of reality.
So this big Idea-Thing has a student bursting at the seams, and the teacher calls on the student, and they have the floor, and they open their mouth — and then, everybody does this part differently. Some students speak haltingly, slowly, picking each word one at a time. Some speak recursively, repeating their efforts over and over until they feel like they got it right. Some revert to hand gestures and universal signs of empathy — “it’s like, uhh!” they say, or, “at first you’re like (hand on heart) and then — (small flitting gesture).” And if I (the teacher) am doing my job right that day, I get it, because I’m listening very hard, to all the things that student is saying and not saying. And if they’re doing their job right that day, the rest of the students in the room also get it, because listening is also an act of being vulnerable, of being open to the rawness of someone else’s need to speak. And then we all feel as if something valuable has been done that day.
From an objective perspective, the interaction described above is not an example of the most articulate communication. But it is the most important communication, because it is where language has failed the speaker, and where the greatest opportunity for revelation has revealed itself. Now, as teachers, we know that there are elements of classroom chemistry that are outside of our control, and that students can be impatient and, dare I say it, unkind to individuals who make a habit of verbally floundering in class. There are all kinds of social issues in play — some students are too cool to ever let their friends see them reduced to this kind of wordy-wordlessness, and others are too acutely aware of their low coolness-quotient to reveal their vulnerabilities any further. So how does a teacher foster the kind of classroom where it is okay to struggle, verbally, because a student feels the classroom pulling through their listening, even as they push through their speaking?
One of the hardest lessons I am still learning as a teacher is the power of naming the thing that makes you uncomfortable. By identifying and labeling the condition or feeling, you A) acknowledge it as a real thing that can be measured, instead of a personal emotional response and B) allow others to also stand back and study it, alongside you. This is a lesson that my colleague Mary Powers, guru of being human, continues to remind me to practice, every day.
This practice of naming the problem is a facet of meta-communication that allows groups of people to calibrate their dynamic without defensive emotional reactions — by naming the behavior, event, or social habit, you are just noticing it, not judging or even responding to it. This is the tactic you use with the impulsive student: instead of waiting to the point of frustration and then snapping, “STOP interrupting people!” you make a practice of predictably and reliably identifying behavior, saying, “you’re blurting,” or “off topic,” — or even better, you can set up a non verbal signal (a touch on the desk, a hand in the air) to cue the impulsive student to tune back in to their behavior. This puts the power to avoid a negative response back in the hands of the student, who can take the observations and choose to revise behavior accordingly. This way, they are not just silenced: they are invited to understand the role they play inside the classroom community, and alter it for the betterment of the conversation.
The best way I know how to teach listening skills is through modeling my own attempt to listen, and validating courageous attempts to communicate important things. I try to flag the moments in which something important is at stake, recognize the struggle that is taking place, and remind students that communicating is most difficult when it is most important — when there is something significant at stake.
And, of course, if you want your students to listen to each other, you have to set up conversations that emphasize group listening skills. If you’re not careful, a classroom can revert back to a teacher-centric circus in which students perform in turn, then tune out or energetically disengage. It’s easy for a teacher to feel as if the energy in the classroom is high, and that all students are engaged — because the teacher is basically engaging with students one-on-one, in turn, with each hand that they call on. The students, however, may be having a very different experience inside that classroom.
One step towards building a class of supportive, active listeners is to help students identify different types of discussion roles that they might play. You can describe discussion roles in lots of different ways, and if you ask around, you’ll find that your colleagues have their own favorite roles they name and encourage students to practice. Here is a list of discussion roles that I compiled with a particularly discussion-challenged (and by the end, discussion-savvy, if not skilled) set of English students:
Discussions and Group Work
MANAGER: organizes other people, creates structure, gives tasks to other people. In a discussion, this role tends to signal transitions or define topics.
META-MANAGER: makes comments on how the discussion or group work is going; often suggests tactics or directions that the group should move in, in order to have a more productive group experience.
SUPPORTER: takes on tasks or jobs the manager suggests. Some of those jobs are often SCRIBE (to record thoughts for presentation) or RESEARCHER (looks through book for evidence).
DEBATERS: look for other sides to ideas or problems with arguments.
QUESTIONERS: either start a discussion based on a question, ask for clarification, or use questions to suggest that the discussion needs further depth.
MEDIATORS: help all members of the group get along, stay on task and work together.
WEAVERS: make connections between different people’s comments or ideas; use compare/contrast.
BUILDERS: pick up on a comment someone else has made, credit that person for it, and build upon it.
THE EYE: is always looking at the person speaking, gives good eye-contact, and uses facial cues to help the speaker feel as if s/he is being heard.
THE DETOUR: contributes with non sequiturs or poorly timed comments – the comment might be worthwhile, but it doesn’t further the direction of the conversation at the moment.
THE HEAVY FOOT: the (often well-intentioned) knowledgable comment or heavy-handed contribution that takes over the discussion or ends up discouraging or squashing others’ participation.
THE PERPETUAL EPIPHANY: is constantly on the verge of a breakthrough, but struggles to bring peers along with him/her, either in energy level or in engagement with content. This person may also treat class as if it is a 1-1 conversation with the teacher, and make peers feel excluded.
THE ECHO: repeats an idea or fact that has already been established. Sometimes, this repetition is intentional and for a purpose; sometimes, it is unintentional.
GHOSTS: attempt to stay disengaged from the group, verbally and physically. They avoid eye contact and are mostly silent. They may be tuned in, but are not “pulling” the conversation through their listening.
THE FIDGET : may be paying attention, but is also engaged in physical activities that can be distracting to others: tapping, leg-shaking, paper-folding, or other object-fiddling.
DRIFTERS: contribute when it is their turn, but then drift off by themselves. They may only mentally drift, or they may disrupt other workers or physically leave the group.
CLOWNS: try to make people laugh by making off-topic comments or starting distractions, which might get a positive reaction in the moment, but ultimately kills the energy of the conversation. Clowns can be afraid to take intellectual risks, and will play up their own “failures” as part of the act.
One effective way to make use of these discussion roles is to ask students to identify their own natural roles (they are usually more than one), and then ask them how these roles contribute to the class. Students may find positive impacts in seemingly negative roles, or drawbacks to the more obviously productive roles. They get to talk about things like persona and attitude — you can be an insufferable Meta-Manager, or you can be a Clown with pretty good timing, who actually helps the class feel more comfortable.
Next, try asking students to adopt a role that is really unnatural to them, and play it for a certain period of time — five minutes, ten minutes, a whole class, a week. Ask them to reflect on what they learned through this exercise. Throughout this exercise, coach students in non-verbal skills that are indicative of good listening: eye-contact, body posture, facial expressions. Ask them to identify people in the class that they think are good listeners — people they want to be talking to, when they’re struggling to express themselves. Make sure you talk about the difference between acting like you’re listening, and really listening. Then, practice pairing discussions with writings — trace conversations, report back on ideas, map topic shifts and pace of progress.
Good listening is palpable, and is key to drawing out the best, most meaningful articulation from others. Developing a classroom of good listeners will be a classroom of good writers — the recognition of ambiguity and the acceptance of the struggle implicit in communication will translate directly to the written page. Naming discussion roles and drawing attention to listening skills across all disciplines makes these skills universal: listening is not just important in a discussion-based English class, but in all human interactions, inside school and out.