Skillful Listening: Needed Now More Than Ever

(Conceptual Paper)

Ron Roman
Non GLC Member

Associate Professor, English/Humanities at the University of Maryland University College (Ret) .Currently Adjunct Associate Professor, English/Humanities, University of Maryland University College (UMUC)

This essay will explore the importance of applying practical listening skills in today’s classroom, as gleaned from my decades of experience both in the classroom and out. Emphasis will be given to insights gathered from both personal and historical anecdotes, rather than from a purely research-based perspective. The focus will be on practice-based pedagogy, instead of theory-based. Over the course of the paper we will examine multiple episodes, both old and new, funny or not so funny, illustrating what can go wrong, at times with dire consequences, if the listening process goes awry. We will conclude with some practical tips on how to enhance listening in today’s college setting. That said, consider the following biblical quotation: “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear…. And unto you that hear shall more be given” (Matthew 13: 23-24).

This ancient aphorism exemplifies our need for active listening skills since time immemorial. If the above quotation was so highly valued centuries ago, imagine how much more significant it is today! This need is more relevant than ever with the ubiquity of our endless modern-day technological distractions: smart phones, not-so-smart phones, TV/radio infomercials, Internet—all competing with one another 24/7 for our attention, so that attention limits are shrinking all the more so with every passing year. Even in the hallowed halls of academe, education has increasingly devolved into greater and more sophisticated edutainment in order to amuse and keep classrooms full. Let’s first take a closer look, however, at the pre-cell phone and Internet era….

I remember observing a Korean university professor’s freshmen class in Seoul one beautiful October day in 1979. He was lecturing in English about something poeticin front of a large number of students, at least 50-60. Roughly half the class dutifully took notes; the other half, mostly the boys, were just as dutifully distracted in the back of the hall: smoking, playing cards, looking out the window and studying the baseball game being played by other students, and most likely wishing they themselves were outdoors instead of in. This example is used to show that there have always been different cultural currents influencing the listening process that long predate the advent of contemporary technological developments. Among the big three northeast Asian countries (China, Japan, and Korea), historically Korea has been the most Confucian. This explains why half the students could remain oblivious of their professor. That they were not attentive—not listening—presented no problem for their teacher. At that time (almost 40 years ago) this behavior was not considered particularly outlandish. Students were given the opportunity to learn; that was paramount. Their choice. As the professor would later put it, he fulfilled his duty by being physically present and lecturing, Confucian-style. (Students did not debate anything; hence, there was no need to listen to one another, reflective of Confucian pedagogy).Certainly, Westernization has been a double-edged sword; this is one instance for the better where such behavior would not be tolerated today. How times have changed!

Also at this time I witnessed one of the funniest, albeit also the saddest, episodes of listening gone awry. It occurred inside the recreation center of U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. A young G.I. started talking in English about the Korean landscape paintings for sale behind an elderly Korean woman working at the counter. Their exchange went like this:

G.I., motioning toward the landscapes: I think that Koreans like the scenes—

Korean woman, interrupting: What you mean “Koreans like disease”? What kind of talk is dat? “Koreans like disease”? And you people say you come here for freedom for Korean people?

(She had evidently confused “the” with “di-“ as there is no “th-“ sound in Korean, besides harboring a negative cultural predisposition against American soldiers, perhaps encountering the worst at her workplace. Did she hear what she expected to hear? I’ll let you decide). Not knowing what to make out of this explosive outburst, the hapless G.I. made a beeline for the nearest exit.

Fast-forward to more recent times….As an American, I have taught in foreign and American colleges and universities for almost four decades, including those on U.S. military installations all over the Pacific Command. Obviously, listening per se is a universal phenomenon; not always so obvious is the degree to which one’s individual culture impacts upon it, as witnessed by the two examples above. Another example of differing cultural expectations can be found in Japan. While teaching on the American Navy base in Sasebo, at the start of a new term a Japanese coed (a few Japanese students were admitted upon qualifying) came up to me and indignantly proclaimed, “Why are American students always fighting with each other!Always interrupt. So disrespectful!” She was new to the American college experience. I was at loss for words, and couldnot come up with a reasonable explanation, being somewhat new to Japanese culture myself. I just told her to hang in there, and she did just that. Upon completion of the term, she exclaimed, “Now I understand difference in talk, in listening. Not disrespectful, only difference of opinion. I like it! I’m never going back to Japanese colleges.”

As I learned later, in her culture the distinct hierarchal divide (mainly along lines of junior versus senior) was inviolate, and to be respected at all times. Impassioned differences of opinion were not to be loudly proclaimed in public.  It bordered on the brutish. Conversely, woe to Westerners trying to articulate and advance their personal points of contention by effusive public displays of loud, energized debate outside foreign military bases. Better to “zip one’s lip” than to be perceived as some foreign oaf. When not wanting to be obligated to do something, better to say, “That may be difficult,” rather than a flat-out “No!” It is amusing to see the number of long-term resident Westerners use these coded terms to turn the tables around on their Japanese hosts, especially in business. All but the tone-deaf listener quickly picks up on the coded terminology.

While recently teaching a small contingent of all-Korean students selected to study on American military bases in Korea, listening again proved to be a problem owing to conflicting cultural expectations. It was a low-intermediate English class, and part of a brand-new program; therefore, much was riding on it. During orientation, the students were asked to introduce themselves and write out their names. Upon being told they would always have to put their family name last in English, they balked.  It was the same with transliterating their given names. Instead of accepting a distinctly more simplified phonetic spelling, they adamantly clung to spelling their names in English as they always had, thinking it an attack of sorts on their national and family heritage. I soon heard about it from the program supervisor, who was none too happy. Nowadays,college students have morphed into customers–everywhere. And the customer is always right–all the time. It thus became my turn to listen to their concerns. (Initially this proved no easy feat, for, after all, it was a U.S. university with accompanying expectations of American-style teaching, at least presumably).I would ask them, forthrightly, how they felt about it. The oldest student in the class (their“senior”) would speak for the rest. I listened. They listened. They appreciated my honesty,I theirs. Eventually things worked out.

When predominantly young American servicemembers fill my classroom, attentive listening may be problematic as well, though in different ways. Cell phones are distraction number one. I have found it best from the get-go to include in the syllabus a warning against cell phone use while class is in session—with specific penalties for repeat violations. And for penalties to be enforced. The Social Media Generation, to include almost all of us today, have become cell phone junkies. There is never a problem with higher-ranking, older service members. They are disciplined. It is the junior-level ones that all too often cannot keep their eyes and ears open in a sustained, attentive listening mode. Practically all college teachers will agree that this has become a major classroom problem in recent years, with cell phones going off constantly, students forever peeking at text messages….And an ever-growing percentage of adults see nothing wrong in it.

As a society, we have gone from talking with each other, to talking to each other, to talking at each other, to, eventually, talking to ourselves. Blame it on Steve Jobs; ultimately, we have to own up to it. Just that simple.

So what else to do in the classroom? In addition to implementing a blanket no cellphone policy in class as mentioned above, when lecturing I try not to be boring: I modulate my vocal volume, speed, and intonation. Vocal projection is important, because good listeners deserve good speakers. I try not to speak at length without pausing to solicit student responses and overall input. Educators, at any level, need to show an authentic willingness to listen to students, their ideas and feelings, especially their suggestions. Listening remains a two-way street. What I have also done over the course of many decades is to elicit specific student suggestions midway through the semester by way of unofficial mid-term evaluations. I was once told by a dean that I was the only teacher he ever knew of to do so. It is my practice, however, since once the term is finished, it is too late to go back and try anything differently. When the course is half-finished, I will go over with all students each written anonymous evaluation; it usually helps to clear up many things. Not always, but usually.

Other practical pointers for better listening:

1) Cut out interruptions, or at least cut down on them.

2) Do not rush other speakers.

3) Avoid being impatient.

4) Curtail that inner monologue/self-talk going on when another is speaking (not easy to do, granted, but it warrants constant effort).

5) Perhaps most importantly: Listen with the eyes as well as ears. Study the speaker’s body language (kinesics). Much is to be learned from behavioral communications.

Lastly, here’s the Golden Rule of Listening: Listen to others as you would have them listen to you.  This is sage advice for any and all.

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Postscript: There, this piece is done. Hope readers gleaned some interesting, useful tidbits from it. After all, when I first mentioned to my wife that I was thinking of composing a paper on listening skills for the Global Listening Centre, she exclaimed, “Who? You?Why, how could you possibly do that given your own listening skills?” I paused, considered her bewilderment, and then shot back: “You got me on that one! But I’ll just give it a go, anyway.”

The author has taught English and the Humanities with the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) throughout the U.S. Pacific Command originally since 1996. He can be reached at

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