Mindful Listening

Mindful Listening

I have been thinking a lot about listening, recently. Partly this is because I still have a lot of problems understanding the Portuguese around me – particularly the rapid fire of everyday conversation. I still spend much of my interactions with a face like a constipated horse, furiously trying to make out the content of the animated speech being sprayed liberally in my direction, knowing in the back of my mind that I should be back-channelling some minimal response, if only to sound polite, or even alive. I quickly learned that the token ‘mesmo’ is quite useful if you say it in a neutral way. It’s a little like English ‘quite’, which similarly can signal absolute agreement or sarcastic scorn, and if you say it without much stress or intonation, your conversational partners can read into the word whatever they like. But I’ve been revisiting the topic of listening partly because, with Peggy Lu, I’ve just been co-writing an article on medical English for the Brazilian teachers’ magazine ‘New Routes’ – it’ll be coming out in September.

When exploring English in medical education, one of the things that struck me most forcibly was how complicated listening is, much more than our textbooks usually admit. Yes, the textbooks give practice in the subskills involved: e.g. how to recognize words from the real-time stream of syllables that people produce; how to use stress, intonation and discourse markers to negotiate the structure of someone’s talk, and to engage with your interlocutor’s stance (‘…and the funny thing was…’); and how to use your inferencing skills in situations where what is said is not actually what is meant, as in the stock example:

A: What do you think of the dress?
B: I love the shoes.

We know all this. And we know from the textbooks that there are different reasons for listening. Michael Rost in his concise guide to the subject provides a handy checklist: transactional listening (mainly for information you need); interactional listening (mainly to maintain relationships); critical listening (to separate facts from opinions, and to probe the basis of persuasive speech); and recreational listening (for enjoyment and relaxation). But many of these apparently discrete types of listening are necessarily combined in certain high-stakes situations where listening becomes crucial. In doctor-patient interactions, for example, the listening doctor needs to obtain information while maintaining a delicate personal relationship in which he or she must also separate the patient’s facts from opinions – or infer useful content from what might at first seem like irrelevant information. Another stock example, but a telling one, is given by Rita Charon, a doctor who uses literature to raise the cultural awareness of medical students. She recounts an interview between a doctor and a patient whose liver disease is partly due to alcohol abuse:

Doctor: And how long have you been drinking heavily?
Patient: Oh, since my wife passed away.
Doctor: Ah, and how long ago was that?

It is interactions like this that might account for the common criticism that health professionals ‘just don’t listen’, and, in such contexts, teaching effective listening clearly acquires a new urgency. However, high-stakes listening also extends beyond the medical professions to occasions of intercultural conflict, and even to everyday conversations when our emotions or deeper feelings are called into play. One of the best pieces of advice given to me when I became head of a university department, in a former post, was that when colleagues called on me to complain about this or that, they did not necessarily require me to solve the problem in a flash. Sometimes, they simply wanted a sympathetic ear. It is often better, then, to shut up and listen. But how?

There are several possible approaches to high-stakes listening, that is, listening when emotions are aroused or there is the possibility of conflict and distress. Rita Charon advocates ‘close listening’, that is, using techniques appropriated from literary studies, to reflect not so much on what your interlocutor is saying but how they are saying it. In the doctor-patient example, given above, the patient expresses a time frame using his wife’s death as a point of reference. This should be a clue to the doctor of the significance of the event, and its possible relationship to the patient’s alcohol abuse. Charon also advises listeners to give speakers the time and space to tell a story in their own way, and to pay attention to the sequencing of events, and to the metaphors and any other figures of speech used.

A related approach is ‘mindful listening’, a concept taken from Buddhism and applied by the language educationalist Stella Ting-Toomey, to situations of intercultural conflict. She informs us that in the Chinese alphabet, the character used for ‘listening’ (as opposed to ‘hearing’) embodies ‘attending to the other person with your eyes, ears and heart’. The act of patient and deliberate listening is a sign of generosity, and an acknowledgement that you are taking the speaker’s needs seriously.

But how can we train second language learners to demonstrate that they are listening to other people with ‘eyes, ears and heart’ when they find themselves as listeners in high-stakes situations? Some possibilities can be drawn from interpersonal counselling. Ursula Stickler recounts some basic techniques used by teachers who adopt the role of counsellor in sessions in which learning plans are being negotiated with students:

• Allow the speaker to express what he or she needs to express. Keep an open mind.
• While the speaker is talking, backchannel by mirroring the speaker’s words and attitude, echoing key words that seem important to the speaker. (This is a little more challenging than saying ‘mesmo’ or ‘quite’ but it is not too different.) Do not be judgemental.
• When the speaker has finished, paraphrase and summarise the speaker’s words, first to check that you have understood what he or she has said, and also to give the speaker a chance to review and perhaps modify his or her position.

Once the position has been agreed, you can begin negotiating with the speaker – but the speaker will be confident that you have listened to and understood his or her concerns.

Ultimately, of course, there is no formula for mindful listening – a sincere predisposition to listen to other speakers and acknowledge their concerns is a personal quality that needs to be cultivated over time and modified through the richness of experience. But we can begin the process by giving our learners opportunities to practice listening in (perhaps simulated) high-stakes situations as well as in lower-stakes transactional, interactional, critical and recreational ones.

Charon, R. (2006). Narrative medicine: Honoring the stories of illness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rost, M. (1994). Introducing listening. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Stickler, U. (2001) ‘Transcultural Counselling and Inter-cultural Awareness Raising.’ In D. Killick, M. Parry and A. Phipps (eds) Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication, Vol II. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University, pp. 187-195,

Ting-Toomey, S., (1994). ‘Managing intercultural conflict effectively’. In L. Samovar and R. Porter (eds) Intercultural Communication, 7th edn. Belmont, CA: Wadswarth, pp. 360-371




On the ‘Intercultural Language Education SIG’ group on Facebook, recently, Shaun Dowling posted a set of maps that show Europe and the Americas from different stereotypical perspectives. You can guess the kind of things that are shown: Argentinians are drama queens, and, at least from the perspective of the French, England is where they slay virgins. The comments on Shaun’s posting were generally positive; members commented that raising and challenging stereotypes are good ways of addressing intercultural topics in the language classroom.

Well, yes – I agree that stereotypes are a rich source of materials for intercultural language learning, but like many such materials, they have to be handled with care. This is evident from the comments to the original website, which range from uncritical amusement to borderline racism.

In my early days of wandering around Eastern Europe and South America, participating in workshops on intercultural language education, I often came across the idea that one of the functions of ILE was to abolish stereotypes. That always seemed to be an unrealistic goal: as has often been pointed out, stereotypes simplify complex social categories, but while they consequently distort reality (not all English people slay virgins), they also make the world more manageable. We navigate by stereotypes. We also share them. I once observed a video-linked session between Glasgow and Curitiba whereby students in each city were invited to share aspects of their culture. It was interesting to see how quickly each group indulged in self-stereotyping: the students in Scotland’s industrial heartland introduced the topics of whisky, mountains, and the Loch Ness monster, while the students in southern Brazil cavorted around to samba music, like true cariocas. In a debriefing amongst the teachers afterwards, we worried about this, perhaps unnecessarily. Maybe stereotypes are where we start our intercultural conversations from … we have to acknowledge (and perhaps even celebrate) the shared perceptions before we begin the slow process of unfolding the less stereotypical reality.

The problems arise when stereotypes are the product (as they often are) of prejudice and social friction. The Scots, for example, were historically a relatively poor people, and after the Treaty of Union of the early 18th century opened up employment opportunities in England and the Empire, the stereotype of the ‘Scotsman on the make’ developed, accompanied by the image of the canny, thrifty or downright mean Scotsman. This stereotype has persisted, particularly in North America, where ‘The Thrifty Scot’ became a popular brand of bargain foodstores and cut-price motels. Even in Europe the image survives in popular culture, popping up, for example, in an early ‘Headway’ English textbook that reprinted a Scandinavian advertisement for two-for-the-price-of-one train fares, that showed a kilted Scotsman hiding in an overhead luggage rack. I was teaching in Scotland when that edition of ‘Headway’ was published, and I remember the inclusion of the advert provoking both resigned amusement and deep indignation amongst my colleagues. And of course, the ‘mean Scotsman’ stereotype is alive and well on the Web, where many jokes are based on this image. My favourite is:

— How many Scotsmen does it take to change a light bulb?
— Och! It’s not that dark!

While stereotypes, then, can certainly be used in the classroom, teachers need to take care that (a) we do not inadvertently give offence and (b) we do not simply use stereotypes to encourage uncritical mockery of others. This is easier said than done – we cannot always predict how our learners will respond to stereotypical images – so we need to have strategies ready to encourage critical cultural awareness of what stereotypes are and how they can be used and abused. Lies Sercu, in a paper suggesting ideas for in-service training for intercultural language educators, suggests ‘humorous irony and pleasant exaggeration’ can be employed to acknowledge, refashion and undermine stereotypes. She advocates, as a starting point, looking line by line at the following poem, ‘Himmel and Hölle’ (‘Heaven and Hell’), revealing it line by line and encouraging learners to predict what comes next:

In Himmel sind:
die Engländer Polizisten
die Franzosen Köche
die Deutschen Mechaniker
die Italianer Liebhaber
und die Schweizer oranisieren das Ganze.

In der Hölle sind:
die Polizisten Deutsche
die Köche Engländer
die Mechaniker Franzosen
die Liebhaber Schweizer
und die Italianer organisieren das Ganze.

‘In heaven:
the English are the policemen
the French cooks
the Germans mechanics
the Italians lovers
and the Swiss organise everything.

In hell:
the policemen are German
the cooks English
the mechanics French
the lovers Swiss
and the Italians organise everything.’

Lies suggests inviting learners to replace the nationalities with others, including their own – and perhaps changing the attributions. The poem clearly works best in Europe, though I have heard South American jokes that are also founded on stereotypes. A provocative one is the Brazilian definition of an Argentinian: ‘Someone who is Italian, speaks Spanish and thinks he’s English.’

The use of stereotypes in intercultural language education works best, I think, in the following situations:

• when a negative perspective (eg ‘Scots are mean’) can be balanced against a more positive one (eg ‘Scots are economical’);

• when complexity can be added to the mix by giving counter-examples (the Scots-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie is a good example of someone who embodied a mixed set of values; e.g. he encouraged people to devote the first third of their life to getting an education; the second third to accumulating wealth; and the final third to giving their money to charity);

• and when the development of stereotypes can be put into some social or historical context. For example, we can ask why popular images of certain groups have emerged as they have. Who is in control of the popular stereotypes of certain groups – the group itself, or other (perhaps rival) groups? What role does generalised personal experience play in maintaining or challenging stereotypes? What role does the media – including the internet – play?

There are widely differing opinions of stereotypes. As Shaun said in his post – the maps will either make you laugh or get angry. Some of us find them attractive and we are reluctant to let them go: my earliest experience of Brazil was watching old Carmen Miranda films on television, and marvelling at her banana-filled headdress. I’m still fond of that image, despite never having met any Brazilians who have made a hat out of fruit. But some find them intensely irritating, refusing to inhabit any space determined by someone else’s distorted simplification. If we are going to use them, we need to find strategies in the intercultural classroom for negotiating both views.


Sercu, Lies (1998). In-service teacher training and the acquisition of intercultural competence. In Michael Byram and Michael Fleming (eds). ‘Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective: Approaches through drama and ethnography.’ Cambridge: CUP, pp. 255-289




One of the things I presented to the volunteer teachers on the Cidadão pro Mundo project that I mentioned in my last blog was a listening and reading activity that I’ve been using on and off for over 20 years, ever since I saw Ray Mackay presenting it at one of the first TESOL Scotland conferences I ever attended. It is based on a poem by the Liverpudlian poet, Roger McGough, ‘My busconductor’. Like many short poems, it is good for learning vocabulary, building confidence, exploring cultural comparisons (and now, cultural change) – but most of all it is a poem that invites an emotional response. I stopped using it for a while for that very reason, as I’ll explain – but first I’ll set out how Ray taught his audience to use the poem.

The learners are probably around intermediate level. The teacher tells them that they are going to hear a poem about a bus conductor, and gives them a simple vocabulary list:

busconductor kidney
strike bus ticket
texture single
rose child
gas meter quips
factory drunk
stop bedroom
pubs glasses
sky deep
deserted bus shelter
clock on clock off

The learners are invited to copy these words into two columns, one predicting which expressions will appear in the poem, and one predicting which will not. The teacher can check at this stage if the learners do not understand any of the items. The teacher then reads the poem aloud to the learners, and they cross out the words in their two columns, if they hear them. They then check with their neighbour to see who has achieved the more accurate prediction.

The poem goes like this:

‘My Busconductor’ by Roger McGough

My busconductor tells me
he only has one kidney
and that may soon go on strike
through overwork.
Each busticket
takes on now a different shape and texture.
He holds a ninepenny single
as if it were a rose
and puts the shilling in his bag
as a child into a gasmeter.
His thin lips have no quips for fat factorygirls
and he ignores
the drunk who snores
and the oldman who talks to himself
and gets off at the wrong stop.

He goes gently to the bedroom of the bus
to collect
and what familiar shops and pubs pass by
(perhaps for the last time?).
The same old streets look different now
more distinct as through new glasses.
And the sky
was it ever so blue?

And all the time
deepdown in the deserted busshelter of his mind
he thinks about his journey nearly done.
One day he’ll clock on and never clock off
or clock off and never clock on.

The learners quickly realise that the activity is a gentle fraud: all the words in the original list appear in the poem. At a very superficial level, this tells the learners something about the register of poetry: it is unpredictable, in ways that a weather forecast, say, or a business news bulletin are not.

The teacher then shows the poem in full for the learners to read and make sense of. They should know most of the vocabulary by now. The poem is about the transformation of the ordinary: a bus conductor is suffering from a kidney disease and knows he may soon die. His everyday journeys, therefore, become magical – a ticket becomes a rose, and he recovers a childish delight in putting money into his bag. (The poem incidentally teaches us grammatical elision: a Russian learner once asked me why anyone would want to put a child into a gas meter.) The usual irritations – drunks, old people – do not bother him any more as he performs his duties. One day soon, he will go to work, and never go home, or go home, and never go back to work.

There are obvious cultural references – now quite dated – and comparisons that can be made. The double-decker London bus is still a cultural icon, but bus conductors have largely disappeared, along with shillings. In the UK, the driver takes the money as you enter the bus. In Sao Paulo there are bus conductors, but they are behind a kind of metal barrier, and they are seldom in uniform, and not always, well … friendly. They are not always awake. (This perhaps makes sense of the strangest line in the poem, about ‘the bedroom of the bus’ which most learners interpret as upstairs in a double-decker.) But learners can talk about the kinds of behaviour expected on buses around the world – who you pay, how your ticket gets validated (if you get one), and what happens if an inspector gets on.

But that is not really the main reason for using this poem, I think. The main reason is – it’s sad. As the learners puzzle out the implications of the final lines, usually you hear ‘Aaaawwwwhhhh.’ We don’t expect to be sad in an English class – in the UK we are actually trained to act like jazzed up game-show hosts, always smiling through gritted teeth. But a little sadness varies the mood in an English class, as does an intimation of our mortality.

Or does it? I stopped using this poem for a number of years after a summer school in Stirling, in which there was a slightly more mature Spanish student. He obediently worked through the tasks with the group, then after the class was over, asked where he could buy a volume of Roger McGough’s poetry. I was pleased, and told him about the Mersey Poets anthology, and asked him why he liked the poem so much. Well, of course, it turned out that he himself suffered from a kidney disease – actually, he’d had a number of transplants that had not worked too well, and one of the reasons he was on the summer school was that he wanted to get as much travel experience as he could before he … clocked off. I was shocked by this revelation, and immediately started apologising for raising the morbid topic, but no – he stopped me, and insisted that he loved the poem. He wanted more.

But I didn’t dare use it for a while after that. Then I started again, cautiously, with more of a wary eye open for anyone who might be unduly affected by the content. I started using it because I realised that the idea that you can be emotionally affected by a text in a foreign language is often forgotten. We often think of texts as packages of information, clean and sanitized, that we pass from teacher to learner, and learner to learner. But releasing the emotional force of a text can be a powerful learning tool – in many more ways than just linguistically.


Roger McGough, ‘My busconductor’ from D. Goodwin, ed. (2002). ‘101 Poems That Could Save Your Life: An Anthology of Emotional First Aid’, Harper.
See also http://podist.blogspot.com.br/2012/12/my-busconductor-roger-mcgough.html
For more information on Cidadão pro Mundo, see: http://www.cidadaopromundo.org.br/

And with thanks to Ray Mackay.