For SMU students, four years in this school would have taught you that the first part of the above quote can be easily checked. SMU’s interactive pedagogy has been and continues to be a definite boost to many a student’s presentation skills and confidence. Now, it is the second part that proves to be tricky. After all, who would be willing to listen to people speaking up in class when nobody is giving marks for that? It appears that though the unique pedagogy attempts to boost 2-way interaction, what it seems to have churned out are merely 1-way dialogues.
So, how did we turn off listening in SMU?
Most would be in agreement with me when I say that all SMU students have been drilled on the importance of speaking up. But have we ever stopped to wonder if our institution has failed to emphasise the importance of listening?
When grading class participation, most professors grade based on the number of contributions we have made but no one tells us to actively listen before we speak. That could be the reason classes have fallen victims to overly enthusiastic students who are notorious for hogging airtime. These are the ones who regurgitate comments till they feel safe that they have hit the requisite numerical amount of contributions.
Consequently, many students fail to listen with the intent to understand; they listen just as much as they need to come up with a reply. Some listen only long enough to figure out whether the speaker's views conform to their own. Others set filters and listen in a critical way, brushing off information from people they think have little to offer. As a result, we encounter many instances in classes where speakers, be they professors or students, are interrupted for audience to spout solutions - often before the problem has even been fully identified.
Now, it is not SMU’s fault alone.
There was once an era before Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat where you actively listened and spoke to people instead of mindlessly double tapping posts on the lives of people you have not met in three years. But now, we live in a noisy world – a world that is becoming louder day by day due to the incessant social media chatter. And this noise has caused people to lose their ability to truly listen.
What happens when you fail to listen?
Listening may not seem particularly important to us until we realise what we stand to lose by failing to listen. In class, we stand to gain the most by engaging in meaningful, intellectual discourse from diverse points of view instead of only having two one-way dialogues. While attending interviews or even during internships, not listening carefully might lead us to answer the wrong questions or miss career opportunities. When it comes to relationships in life, it signals an outright disrespect for the other party. It is high time we paid more attention to the conversations right in front of us instead of trying to participate in conversations happening behind our screens.
So how do we become better listeners?
1. Change your purpose of listening: Don’t listen to merely reply, listen with the intent of understanding
When listening to a presenter in class, aspire to learn something useful from their entire presentation instead of merely waiting for your turn to speak the minute you have found something to comment on. Since you’re stuck in there anyway, it would be beneficial as well as respectful to make use of that time. We can all relate to the collective groans raised in classes when a student fails to listen to the presentation in entirety and ask questions that had already been answered during the presentation. Don’t be that student.
2. Change the purpose of speaking: Endeavour to contribute meaningfully
When you speak - regardless of whether you are the presenter or the enthusiastic class participator - put yourself in the shoes of the listener(s). Seek to create value for the class instead of repeating points that others have already raised. If there is a point that you need further clarification on, it is far more effective to approach the person privately instead of going into a long-winded discussion which disrupts your classmates’ efforts to listen attentively.
3. Keep track of what is being said: Take notes before talking
If you find that you would have been better off being a goldfish due to your constantly forgetful memory but are left with no choice but to be a human, then it’s time you start taking notes during presentations. Not only will this serve as a useful takeaway from the presentation, it will also help to keep you constantly engaged and boost the quality of relevancy in your questions.
4. Have an open mind: Stay free from bias, assumptions and pre-judgments about people even before listening to them
For example, though a presenter may have a social sciences background, it does not discredit his/her thoughts on financial and investment-related knowledge.In fact, having an open mind to embrace such diversity may even help you learn a unique perspective of problem-solving which you may fail to recognise if you put on a lens of judgment even before listening.
5. Remove distractions: Be in the moment instead of trying to attend to every conversation instantly
By dividing your attention to answer instantaneously to everything around you, you might be efficient. But are you truly listening to anything effectively? It is far more important to be in the now and give your attention to the people you are having face-to-face conversations with rather than the conversations on your mobile devices. So, the next time you are in a classroom or at a lunch table with someone else, put your distractions away from your line of sight and start listening.
Perhaps the most important thing you can give another person is your attention, be it in school, at work, or in life. When you truly listen, that is when you will end up hearing what is not being said. You will then realise that you are not just rekindling the lost art of listening but also the basics of mutual respect, which we all duly deserve.