Wholehearted Listening: How we listen affects how we are heard
As teachers and parents we often find ourselves rushing about with our minds focused on getting things done: getting the kids dressed and out the door, getting through that important math lesson so our students will do well on the standardized test, etc. This goal orientation keeps our attention focused on the future rather than the present.
As a result, when a child needs our attention, we often perceive this need as an interruption. “Not now, honey. I need to finish this first” “I can’t get through this lesson when people are talking.” Depending upon the level of pressure, we may feel frustrated, even angry. We may loose our cool, especially if we feel our job is on the line. However, we rarely consider how our reaction is experienced from the child’s perspective.
Children live in the present moment more than adults. Especially young children are much more process-oriented than goal-oriented. They have a very different perception of time so it may be very difficult for them to understand our goal orientation. From their perspective, it may feel that we don’t care about their needs when we brush them off.
When our students or children express the need to communicate, they are expressing a need to be heard, a need to connect. It’s not necessarily the content but the process that’s important. It only takes a moment to communicate that you are truly listening but it involves bringing our wholehearted attention to the child. Being fully present, in the moment, with an open heart and an open mind communicates the message, “I am here for you.”
In our CARE for Teachers program, a mindfulness-based professional development program for teachers developed at the Garrison Institute, we hear stories of how this practice of mindful listening can dramatically improve teacher-student relationships. We teach a simple practice that we learned from Dr. Tobin Hart, psychology professor at the University of West Georgia. Teachers choose a student in their class whose behavior confuses them in some way. They tell this student that they are taking a class, they have an assignment and they need their help. The assignment is to sit down with the child at a relaxed time and ask a series of fairly mundane questions such as, “What’s your favorite TV show?” and “Do you have any pets?” As the teacher asks the questions, she listens mindfully with wholehearted attention and carefully writes down the answer to each question. After she’s finished, she thanks the child for his or her help.
This exercise has produced dramatic changes in students and teacher-student relationships. For example, one kindergarten teacher chose a child who had not said a word in her class. Not only did the child not talk, she had not spoken a word for the whole previous school while in Head Start pre-K. Thinking that this child wouldn’t respond to questions, at first the teacher thought she shouldn't choose her for this exercise. But, she decided to give it a try anyway. Astonishingly, the little girl started to talk. She became animated and even gregarious.
The teacher was taken aback by this sudden change in the child. After this simple exercise, the little girl began to speak to classmates and parent volunteers during class. “What did you do to make her talk?” asked one surprised parent. “I just gave her my full attention,” answered the teacher.
Imagine how long it might have taken for this child to speak had this teacher not taken the time to give her the gift of wholehearted attention!