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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Actually, I Wasn’t Listening to Anything You Said

By Lisa Westman — October 04, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why--sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek

I didn’t do my homework last night.

I think our house is haunted; has anyone ever died here?

I cannot find my keys.”

These were three comments made by my children just this morning (ok, one was from my husband). And, these were three bids for attention from my family that I did not acknowledge appropriately. I reprimanded my son, diminished my daughter’s annual autumn fear of ghosts, and I ignored my husband. Until recently, I wouldn’t have given my responses a second thought. My family spoke, I responded appropriately. Therefore I was listening to them. However, this wouldn’t be accurate or fair to them. I heard the words they said, but I wasn’t listening.


See Also: Ask, Listen, Do: How to Find Out What Kids Need From School


I could make an excuse and say, “family is different. I don’t need to use the same listening skills with them that I try to use with colleagues,” but, the truth is, good listening is a full-time job. We can’t turn it off and on again. I made this realization last spring after attending Jim Knight’s Better Conversations workshop and reading his book by the same title. Knight suggests that we aren’t always objective self-evaluators. He writes:

One way to improve conversations is to identify what we really want to believe about how we interact with others. We are not slaves to our beliefs. We get to choose them, but to do so, we must surface our current beliefs and then consider what alternative beliefs might better describe who we are and who we want to be."

My belief was that I was a good listener. I actively listened to what others were saying, let them drive the conversation, and responded accordingly. In an effort to confirm my beliefs, I filmed myself facilitating a roundtable discussion with other instructional coaches, and I was shocked when I watched the footage. I saw myself falling prey to some of the biggest listening predators: interrupting, asking questions from my point-of-view, and offering solutions disguised as questions. (For transparency’s sake and to model vulnerability, you can view a clip here).

Why did I do this?

Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says that highly effective listeners:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Covey explains, however, that the majority of people do just the opposite. They seek first to be understood, to get their point across. Most people prepare answers without actually listening to their conversation partner because they listen autobiographically. When people listen in this way, they typically respond in one of four ways: by judging (speaker is right or wrong), by probing (asking questions from their point-of-view), by offering solutions, or by analyzing based on their personal experiences.

I realized I had spent years listening autobiographically. I had also spent years thinking that this was an effective way of listening. I also realized, that sadly, I had also probably spent years listening autobiographically to my students. To me, this was the biggest shame.

Educators have the unique opportunity to shape the next generation of adult listeners by modeling effective listening with their current students. Teachers and administrators (including me) often claim we encourage students to advocate for themselves. But, the question is:

When students advocate for themselves are we actually listening?

I would venture to say that surely some educators are listening, but, on the whole, we have room for improvement. Simply put, listening with the intent to understand can be even harder to do with children than with adults because of inherent differences in life experience and status. Therefore, adults may unproductively listen to children in one of the following ways:


  • With superiority: The teacher is in charge. The teacher needs to be understood before the students can express their thoughts.

  • By being defensive: Students comments and questions (why do we have to learn this?) may feel like an attack. Therefore, we stop listening to what students are saying to prepare our rebuttal.

  • By presuming: We assume we know what or why a student is saying something without asking clarifying questions to truly understand why. (I didn’t do my homework/student forgot).

  • By not being present: The timing of questions/comments from students may not be ideal only increasing our urge to prepare answers without fully listening.

Due to such listening blocks, many students’ attempts to advocate for themselves fall on deaf ears. Even though educators may not intend to listen inattentively, the results are the same. Students will eventually stop trying to engage us in conversation, and we are perpetuating the use of ineffective listening.

What can we do to become better listeners?

We can make a concerted effort to be better listeners to anyone with whom we engage in conversation: adult or child. We will likely find that our students learn more, we will learn more, and our students will more productive conversations with each other. If we can suspend judgment, let go of status, and really listen, we undoubtedly will be better able to meet the needs of all students. The biggest success, however, will likely be that our students will grow up to be more effective adult listeners.

Try this in your classroom or school this week. As you respond to students:


  • Keep an open mind and assume positive intent.

  • Be present, (as hard as it may be) and don’t multi-task when talking to students. If a student approaches you at an inopportune time, offer another time to talk and follow-through on that meeting.

  • Ask unbiased questions (Can you tell me more? What makes you think that? Why did that happen?) rather than leading questions (Did you hear what I said? Did you forget again?)

  • Respond to student responses with additional questions rather than statements (What would happen if you did that? What does that look like to you?)

  • Try not to take student comments about expectations or assignments personally, (when will we ever need to know this?) and refuse to become defensive. Instead, ask questions to try to understand the impetus for why students make such comments. Look at the comments as suggestive feedback. Maybe something can be done.

  • Don’t be quick to offer a solution. Instead, collaborate with students to problem-solve.

  • Seek to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What else can you suggest? I encourage you to share your questions, successes, and struggles; I’m listening.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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