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Why Can Listening Be So Hard?

Brain Research Monday, 06 Sept 2021

Susan Cain, author of the best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012) and contributor to publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York TImes, and The Atlantic, suggests that when it comes to learning from one another, our biggest challenge has nothing to do with communication problems but everything to do with our listening to reply rather than to understand.

Noting that there is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas, and citing the old aphorism that “we have two ears and one mouth for a reason,” Cain suggests that understanding the known blocks to listening can strengthen communities and advance learning and understanding for everyone. For self-identified introverts or those with children who tend toward introversion, the listening skills of those around them can determine whether their ideas or questions get the space they deserve, when, in fact, everyone in the room stands to benefit from hearing them (a former colleague liked the phrase “long thinkers” for more introverted students, noticing that they tend to process deep and long, capturing lots of complexity faster processors are prone to overlook; in the end, you need all types of thinkers!).

This is why it is essential as a parent, caregiver, or educator to model and teach children to pass the mic in their homes and schools, that is to scan the room for those who have not yet had the opportunity to contribute, and to pass them the metaphorical microphone so all can learn more–and then listen for understanding, not reply.

There are twelve known blocks–setting aside a brain in trauma (emotional or physical), which is largely incapable of processing information–to our listening for understanding. If interested in reviewing the twelve blocks with you or your child in mind, click here. I will confess that for me, I struggle sometimes with numbers two, six, and seven, and in my younger days, I used to struggle with twelve. And, of course, there are equity and inclusion considerations to take into account in terms of who, without self-awareness, assumes control of the mic more often (the data shows this is mostly, though not exclusively, related to gender, with males of all ages in our society speaking more frequently and for longer periods of time than other genders). I find knowing these blocks useful, personally, and helpful to my envisioning what a rich learning space looks like for all children. I hope you do, too.