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Learning to Listen with Your Heart

by Sarah Davies, School Psychologist


We’ve all had situations where our children hardly listen to one another or hurry along a friend so they can blurt out what they want to say about themselves. In fact, adults struggle with the same behaviors, often planning what they are going to stay in response while the other person is in the middle of sharing an opinion or idea.

So, it’s not difficult to imagine this scenario…


It was Luisa’s turn to share during morning circle. The previous day, she had lost her first tooth, and she brought it to class in a little white envelope to show it to everyone. She was bursting with excitement. After just a few sentences about where she lost it, how much it hurt, and how much she got from the tooth fairy, the teacher opened the conversation up for questions. The students were very excited to talk - they raised their hands, waved their arms around vigorously, and squirmed and wiggled with enthusiasm. When Luisa called on the students, they talked about their own teeth - one child had three that were loose, another swallowed a tooth once, and yet another lost his while eating a hotdog. The class had a discussion about teeth for a few minutes, and the teacher moved on to the next student for their turn to share during morning circle. But did Luisa get a true conversation about her experience losing her tooth? Not really. The students barely listened. All they heard was the word “tooth” before they were lost in their own thoughts, consumed in thinking about what they wanted to share about their own tooth losing experience.


Listening to one another is one of the most important ways parents and children create close, loving relationships. When kids feel seen, heard, and understood, they learn the meaning of empathy. They acquire the abilities to emotionally connect with others, make friends, and develop lifelong social skills. Active listening is a practice that helps everyone grow in their understanding of others. Especially for children, listening is the great equalizer - a set of behaviors that help kids see themselves more “equal with” rather than “less with” others.


Active listening is a kind of communication in which a person pays attention to a conversational partner so well that, if asked, the person could repeat what the speaker is saying. It means not just listening to the words, but also hearing the meaning and intent behind them. Successful active listening involves social awareness in that students need to take the perspective of and empathize with others. Active listening is a critical ability for developing relationship skills, including clear communication, cooperation, and successful negotiation of conflict.


We hear things all the time, but we don’t always listen. Hearing is simply receiving information to our ears, but listening is paying attention to that information. It is when we pay attention (“listen between the lines”) to the information we hear, that we make sense out of it. It becomes meaningful to us and we get the message and understand the unique experience of the other person.


Take a moment, think about the extent to which the people around you use active listening in conversations you’ve had. Think about those people who listen carefully to what you say and reflect deeply on your words and ideas. They ask you what you mean. They seem to want to understand your life, not just talk about their own. Think about a time you’ve called an old friend and you hear him reflect and build upon what you’ve said. How did that make you feel? Did you feel understood? Cared for? Did you feel like what you said matters?


Let’s contrast this with other conversations you’ve had. For example, during a meeting where people are interrupting each other, rapidly sharing ideas that may seem disconnected from one another and show no sense of coherence. That may be fine if it’s a brainstorming session, but if the purpose is to work together to solve a problem these behaviors show little caring and connection. Coming to a solution using this method of conversation will likely be an arduous task. We see this in politics, for example. Slowing down and listening sets the stage for positive, caring relationships. Actively listening is a critical first step to enable people to see each other’s perspectives and work together with others who are different from themselves to produce solutions to problems.


Within the TOOLBOX curriculum, students are taught that to listen and make meaning, we need to use our eyes, hearts, and minds, as well as our ears. With our ears, we receive not only words but also vocal tone, both of which convey a tremendous amount of information. With our eyes, we connect with the speaker, which helps us “listen” to body language, facial expressions, and gestures. With our hearts, we empathize with the speaker and stand in his or her shoes. With our minds, we connect what we are Listening to with our experiences and perceptions, and we create understanding.


Using the Listening Tool, we begin the process by learning how to listen accurately and non-judgmentally to ourselves and to others. We use clarifying and inquiring questions, paraphrasing, or mirroring (repeating) back what we heard. At first, these techniques may seem awkward and unnatural, but after some practice, they become second nature and make our conversations with others more satisfying and healthy.


Listening can be one of the most gratifying, yet challenging practices in the TOOLBOX. Although it is easy to listen on the surface, it is much more difficult to listen actively, especially when we are angry, upset, or stressed. At those times, our tendency is to take things personally, feel defensive, or even withdraw. Even without conflict, we are often only half-listening, and our thoughts can easily wander somewhere else. But, with practice and a willing heart (that’s where the Empathy Tool comes into play), we can become active, responsive listeners who use our ears, eyes, hearts, and minds to make meaning out of what we hear (from others and ourselves). When we really get the message, we can respond in a caring and meaningful way.


When we listen with our heart, we can understand what another person is going through.

When we listen with our heart, we can feel what we are going through.

When we listen with our heart, we realize how much we care.


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