Have you ever taken, or taught, a listening course?
Neither have I.
From the beginnings of education, the 3 R’s (“Reading, Riting, and Arithmetic”) dominate the curriculum in one form or another. Speech gets some attention in later years, but not much. Listening gets almost no place. According to a 2012-2013 survey, out of approximately 7,700 undergraduate institutions in the U. S. (which must surely offer hundreds of thousands of classes), only 181 courses in listening were taught. We might want to rethink this hierarchy, enhancing listening as a field and offering more classes in it—or at least developing modules around listening skills in more of our classes.
For faculty attuned to the idea of vocation, listening has an obvious importance. Since the word “vocation” itself stems from vocare, Latin for “to call,” the whole point will be lost if the “callee” is tone deaf or simply unskilled as a listener. As we try to listen to our callings, we need to develop at least two different capacities. The first is listening to ourselves, sometimes called the internal call.
Called from Within
The internal part of the call process is very hard to describe. As Younus Mirza shared with us here, even Steve Jobs had to assemble a string of inadequate near-synonyms in order to try it. “You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
For those teaching in institutions with a religious or spiritual mission, the language for listening internally might include the idea of listening to God’s voice, and resources such as Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn’s book Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be can be very helpful. The great contemplative writers Thomas Merton, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil, just to name a few, have left us classic texts (many of which can be found in the Leading Lives that Matter book) that can help readers understand both the joys and struggles of listening to an internal call, especially if it goes against the grain of society.
Listening in the External World
If you google “teaching listening to undergrads,” you will find almost nothing helpful. Most of the articles are about foreign language or ESL instruction, and most are geared to K-12 levels.
Employers, however, recognize that if you can’t listen, you can’t be led, and in turn you can’t lead others effectively. In corporate America managers sometimes send employees to remedial listening classes. Corporate trainers have seized the opportunity to promise skill improvement through consulting, webinars, and even on-site classes. Active listening is an important skill that can be learned and carefully honed.
In fact, one of the best resources based on research in listening is the Harvard Business Review. Not only can you find scores of relevant articles in HBR, but they debunk many myths about so-called active listening. Being silent and passive, for example, is less effective than offering questions, showing positive regard for the speaker, and even offering advice—graciously.
One of the best HBR articles, “What Great Listeners Actually Do,” was written by two experts on leadership, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who studied the very best listeners. Here is what they learned summarized visually:
Students who listen contemplatively to their own inner voices and who increase their LQ’s (listening quotients) by moving from basic listening in Level 1 to transformative listening in Level 6, will surely find a calling in listening itself regardless of what else they do and who else they are. And we who walk with such students probably need guidance in listening more than ever in a world filled with distractions and dissension.
Can you offer any stories about listening in the classroom, the advising office, or in any other setting that might help someone else learn what you have learned about listening?
Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay, “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). For more of Shirley’s musings, please visit her website at www.shirleyshowalter.com.