Posts tagged “listening

Listening to Understand


We may not have ears as big as Abby's, but we still concentrate on really listening to the person talking to us.

We may not have ears as big as Abby’s, but we still concentrate on really listening to the person talking to us.

One of the things I like on Facebook are the concise, insightful quotes and statements that friends share. The quotes often pack a lot of wisdom into a small amount of space. An example of such a quote was recently posted by Maureen Craig McIntosh, a Glasser faculty member from New Brunswick. It read –

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.

Most of us quickly recognize truth in this statement, but don’t let quick agreement cause you to miss some of the deeper truths it contains. An experienced Glasser trainer thought enough of the statement to pass it on to us. What are the choice theory implications of listening to understand? Let’s identify a few –

1. One of the reasons we are quick to reply, rather than listen, is that we think we know what’s best for others. As soon as we hear the problem, we want to let others know about our solution.

2. More than simply wanting to share a solution, another reason we are quick to reply is that we may want to control the person who is talking to us. This can be especially true if the person is one of our children, or a spouse, or one of our students.

3. One of the most need-satisfying things we can do for another person is to truly listen to what he/she is trying to say. Active listening can assist another person in problem-solving for himself, which honors the choice theory axiom that the only person I can control is me.

Billy Joel sang about a New York state of mind; it would seem the idea of listening to understand or listening to reply involves a state of mind, too. Fortunately, a state of mind is something we can influence, a lot. We can choose to concentrate on listening more and talking less. One of Covey’s famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”


Classroom Application

Listening to reply –

Student: I don’t want to go out to recess today.

Teacher: What? What are you talking about?

Student: I don’t want to go out to recess. I just want to stay inside the classroom.

Teacher: That’s ridiculous! You’re coming outside. I can’t have kids all over the place.

Listening to understand –

Student: I don’t want to go out to recess today.

Teacher: I think that might be a first for you. You really don’t want to go outside?

Student: No, I just want to stay in the classroom.

Teacher: Can you tell me what it’s about? Are you not feeling well?

Student: I guess I feel ok; I just want to hang out in here.

Teacher: You know, it felt a little bit like something was troubling you when you came in the classroom at the start of school this morning.

Student: (shrugs)

Teacher: Would you be willing to come outside and hang out with me as I supervise the playground? If you’re ok with talking about it, I would like to hear what you’re thinking this morning. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s ok, too. And if you don’t want to hang out with me at all, you can sit on the bench outside of the classroom. I’m ok with that. Would either of those options work for you?

Student: (smaller shrug) Yeh, I guess I could hang out with you. That’d be ok.

Home Application

Listening to reply –

Wife: I got offered a promotion today at work.

Husband: Wow! Way to go!

Wife: Yeh, I probably should be excited, but I just . . . I don’t know.

Husband: What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve earned it. Ya gotta go for it! I assume there would be a raise and we definitely could use the money.

Listening to understand –

Wife: I got offered a promotion today at work.

Husband: Wow! Way to go!

Wife: Yeh, I probably should be excited, but I just . . . I don’t know.

Husband: It looks like you have mixed feelings about it.

Wife: Yeh, I do. I really do. A part of me realizes it is a great opportunity, while another part of me likes what I have going right now. (pauses)

Husband: (gives a little smile, but doesn’t break the silence)

Wife: The promotion offers more pay.

Husband: Besides more money, how would your life change if you took the job?

Wife: I’ve thought about that a lot. (pauses) I see what supervisors have to do, the way they spend their days, and the problems they are expected to solve, and there is just nothing in me that wants that. I really like what I do now. I look forward to going to work on most days. (pause) And I like that my schedule is so good for our home. I can pick the kids up after school, which is a huge advantage compared to what I see other parents juggling. The extra pay is tempting, but I don’t think it outweighs all that.


We’ll close today with another quote that captures something important with very few words. I was alerted to it by Bette Blance, a choice theory leader in New Zealand. The quote reads –

Listen and silent are spelled with the same letters. Think about it.

As the wife was talking to her husband in the last scenario about her possible promotion there were several times when she paused and silence filled the moment. Yet her husband did not jump in and fill the silence with his ideas. He simply remained silent, too, and let his wife work through her thoughts. Like the quote says, Think about it.


Ears, Mouth, and Choice Theory

A young principal described how his dad was a great guy, but that he didn’t know how to listen. With the challenges that come with being a school administrator, Dave (we’ll call him) would occasionally share what he was up against with his dad. He confided that –

I would call him, just needing to talk with someone, someone not close to the situation. My dad was a sharp guy and had a lot of life experience and as soon as I explained the problem, sometimes even before I was done explaining, he would quickly start telling me what I needed to do. He was trying to help. I have no question about that. But I didn’t call for advice. I just needed to talk. The sad thing is that when he started giving me advice during the phone call, I would feel myself withdraw or pull away. I kinda wanted the phone call to be over at that point.

It is easy to fall into the same habit as Dave’s dad. We are quick to tell what the answer is or where the solution lies, rather than simply listening and then accepting or affirming. Husbands are quick to do this with wives, parents are quick to do this with children, and teachers are quick to do it with students. We mean well. The answer seems obvious to us. We just want to save time and get to the solution.

Teachers who learn about choice theory begin to understand the pitfalls of telling, rather than listening, and begin to see that one of the best things we can do for another person is to help them develop their own solutions. In other words, the goal is to help a person effectively self-evaluate. Whether we are a listening to a friend explain why she wants to quit her job and go back to school, a husband listening to his wife wonder aloud about problems with the upcoming Home & School potluck, or a teacher working with a student who keeps forgetting one of the classroom procedures, the answer may have more to do with asking the right question, instead of giving the person your solution.


Conferencing is about

helping another person effectively self-evaluate

in a way that maintains or strengthens the relationship.


Becoming a listener who knows how to ask questions that can lead to self-evaluation is one of the most important steps we can take toward being a choice theory teacher or parent.

One of my mentors, Kendall Butler, once shared with me that “it is better to get something out of someone’s mouth than it is to put it into their ear.” Rather than being smart enough to emphasize the right point, the skill and wisdom lie in asking the right question.


A new Facebook page has been created called The Better Plan. I invite you to Like the page and become a part of The Better Plan community. Joel Steffen will be helping me manage it and our goal is to locate helpful teaching resources, many of them from within our own community, and to provide a place for teachers and parents to ask questions or comment on other’s questions.

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