Teachers can often struggle with listening to what their students have to say when they are juggling so much responsibility. They tend to be more focused on having their students listen to them than the other way around.
And when they are not speaking, they often tend to engage in hearing rather than listening. Hearing involves listening passively without attention. Much like how you can listen to music or sounds of nature while having other thoughts on your mind. Active listening is, however, more engaging. It takes mental effort to focus on what the other party is saying and processing that information for understanding.
Active listening is important for teachers as it helps to build a stronger relationship with students. When a student recognises that a teacher is paying full attention to what they are saying, they feel heard and their opinions valued.
What is active listening?
Active listening involves paying maximum attention to what the other person is saying to fully understand their meaning. It is a focused and responsive engagement that allows the other party to voice their opinions without feeling judged. It requires not just listening to words, but also paying attention to the body language and facial expressions of the person to fully understand what it is they wish to convey.
It also requires the listener to respond, not necessarily verbally, but rather through physical expression that demonstrates that they are open to listening and focused and following what is being said. This physical expression could be in the form of such behaviour as nodding, sharing eye contact, and reacting appropriately to the conversation, like laughing if something funny is said.
These responses are a good sign to the other party that you are deeply interested in what they have to say. It makes them feel that you are seeking to understand their perspective as you also refrain from giving a response till they have finished having their say.
Why active listening matters
Teachers can use active listening to help build stronger bonds with students. This behaviour makes students feel that their teachers are interested in what they have to say. It makes them more willing to open up about their perspective, experiences and opinions, which in turn helps to build an emotional connection with the teacher.
When students have a strong bond with their teacher, they feel more motivated to do better in class. They will in turn pay more attention in class and put more effort into their studies to demonstrate their focus and seriousness. This can ultimately lead to better academic performance and achievement.
Students that feel they are being actively listened to without being interrupted will also be more receptive to feedback that is given and ask questions for clarification. This can lead to more engagement and participation in the classroom as the student does not feel intimidated or reserved when conversing with their teacher.
Tips for active listening
Active listening as a behaviour requires a conscious effort to be more present and give attention to the other party. It is a behaviour that needs to be practised to become a skill. Here are a few things you can do to make this a habit that will enrich your interactions with students and make for better relationships.
Use non-verbal cues
Sometimes people do not feel heard just because you sit quietly before them just staring at them. It is not uncommon for a person that is physically present to allow their mind to wander away. As you endeavour to not interrupt the person speaking, you need to also give them a sign that you are following and understanding what they are saying.
The use of non-verbal cues like nodding, keeping eye contact and smiling can help. However, do not go overboard. Keeping eye contact throughout can create an awkward feeling. Maintaining eye contact for about 60-70% of the time should be fine.
Use the right body language
Aim for open and relaxed body language. This will make the speaker feel that you are willing to listen to them and open to their ideas. When combined with the nodding of the head and sharing eye contact, it will help put the speaker at ease and encourage them to voice their concerns.
As a teacher, you will likely have a limited amount of free time you can devote to speaking directly with students. However, making time for this can be a big help in building a stronger bond and trust with them. Try as much as possible to give your students the time and space they need to articulate their opinions and ideas.
This involves rephrasing what you have heard in your own words and repeating the information back to the speaker so they know you have been paying attention and understood. It can also be a good way to seek clarification if you did not quite grasp what was said.
Asking questions pertinent to what has been said can also help make the speaker feel that you are actively engaged in listening. It also shows your curiosity to find out more. Questions like, “So what do you think we should try next?”, or “Tell me more about that,” are a good way to demonstrate you are paying attention and keep the conversation going.
Wait to talk
It is important to give the speaker enough space to say what they want to say without interruption. Interrupting them while still talking is rude and may discourage them from approaching you again. Let them get out all they want to say before giving a response.
Do not change the subject
Avoid where possible changing the subject. Even if the subject matter may make you uncomfortable, any attempt to change the subject may make the student feel like they made a mistake approaching you and discourage them from further engagement. Also, try to avoid showing any distaste through your body language. You build better trust by letting your students feel that they can come to you with anything that is on their minds.