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


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