Learn how to listen!

Children at Montessori school, busy absorbing, cataloguing and remembering everything.  Photo: Yvonne Thijsen

By Savka Wisecup

It’s easy to talk. At a very young age, we all learn to talk. But do we know how to listen? Listening has to be learned, practised and recognized as an essential tool in everyday communication.

In her educational curriculum, Dr. Maria Montessori included lessons for children to learn positive communication skills, including listening. These grace and courtesy lessons are practised daily in Montessori classrooms. They include listening games such as her well-loved “Silence Games” in which children are challenged to concentrate on things like hearing falling snowflakes! Children learn to listen, take turns, problem solve, negotiate, follow directions and respond respectfully with empathy and compassion.

Montessori highly valued teaching constructive communication to young children, as she saw this as an essential tool in the preparation of future global citizens. She believed “the child is both the hope and a promise for mankind.”

With difficult conversations, the intention is often to validate one’s own opinion, leaving no space for compromise and understanding. This can result in confusion, anger and mistrust, combined with feelings of being misunderstood, judged or defeated. When utilizing listening skills, one opens the door to a two-way conversation that facilitates positive exchanges.

Bestselling author Harville Hendrix states: “We have a culture of people who have been shaped to talk, and no one rewards those who listen well. Often, we actually don’t know how to listen. They say talking is active and listening is passive.” Hendrix disagrees, maintaining that “talking is active, but listening can be very active, too.”

When applying listening skills in conversations, one needs to engage with an open mind.  Hendrix created an effective three-step process, outlined in his theory of “How to Listen.” These steps are “mirroring, validating and empathizing.”

Mirroring is affirming that the person speaking has your trust and attention. No judgement or opinion is made when mirroring, only requests for clarification and better understanding. “Let me repeat what you’re saying, so I hear you correctly.” Listening is the positive intention of showing the other person respect and acceptance.

The second listening skill is validating. By simply asking “I want to make sure I understand; is this what you are saying?” it validates the other person’s opinion, even if you agree or disagree. To validate is an invitation for more discussion. “Be patient and non-judgemental, and the person who’s being heard will feel understood and safe.”

The third listening skill is empathy. With empathy, one is reflecting the emotional feelings of the other person. By acknowledging the other person’s feelings, you are putting yourself in their shoes.

When using the tools of mirroring, validating and empathizing, we are also enacting the wisdom imparted in Montessori’s quote: “Everything you say to your child is absorbed, catalogued and remembered.” Adults are important role models for children. They observe our body language, listen to our tone of voice, watch our eye contact and notice how we focus our attention. The benefits of learning how to listen, especially at a young age, are significant in building language skills, reading skills, social skills and self- confidence – all valuable qualities for a successful life. Montessori reminds us that “learning to listen and to speak, therefore, with the power it brings of intelligent converse with others, is a vastly impressive further step along the path of independence for the child.”

The late Ralph Nichols studied the art of listening for more than 40 years. “Of all human needs, the most basic is the need to understand and be understood,” he said. “The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

Savka Wisecup is a Montessori educational consultant.

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