Effective communication is essential for building positive relationships. Many teachers (and school leaders) are adept at communicating effectively with pupils but struggle when dealing with other adults. Poor communication is the cause of many relationship problems.


Listening is one of the most powerful ways to break down these barriers. Our five senses are constantly monitoring our environment and our emotional and behavioural responses will be informed by the data analysis that we perform. Much of these functions are automatic and we pay little attention to most of them in the course of our daily lives.

It is important to note that although our senses are in passive mode they are also monitoring the environment, undertaking “constant risk assessment” and at any time this unfocussed state can be switched to focus in an instant. If your name is called out in a crowded shop you instantly look around even though the chance of someone you know being there is remote. This facility is linked to the alarm response that is part of the “fight or flight” process.

Listening and hearing, are two linked but distinct experiences. Hearing is, for most people, a largely automatic, unconscious; physiological process by which our neurological mechanisms translate sound waves into recognisable patterns whereas listening is the self-conscious process of sifting out that which we wish to pay attention to.

Listening is an active process that involves the evaluation and interpretation of the information received through hearing. Listening skills allow one to learn, make informed decisions, and establish meaningful relationships with others. Developing an understanding requires a number of activities such as processing, comprehending, analysing and drawing conclusions.

Listening operates at different levels depending on the circumstances; the model below indicates that these different levels have an appropriate place in human interaction.

Cosmetic listening

Action = I’m hearing the words. It looks like I’m listening, but I’m not.

Situation = Passing the time of day, chatting in the queue, waiting at the bus stop.

Conversational listening

Action = I’m engaged in the conversation, more focused on me than on you, listening, talking, thinking, talking

Situation = Personal or work relationship, more or less equal “air” time, no specific direction, exchanging information.

Active listening

Action = I’m more focused on you than on me (Some internal dialogue)

Situation = Professional mentoring, counselling or coaching relationship, more effort on listening than speaking, focused on what the other person is saying to fully understand, listener is mentally registering and recording facts, continually confirms that they are listening using appropriate sounds, gestures or expressions, actively seeking to understand the other person by using clarifying questions, repeating information back and offering observations.

Deep listening

Action = Active listening ++, I’m focused on what you’re saying, recording facts, paying attention (Minimum internal dialogue)

Situation = Mentoring, coaching or counselling, the mind of the listener is quiet and calm, the awareness of the listener is entirely focused on the other person, using silence as a positive process, the listener has little or no sense of themselves, minimum of self talk.

Non verbal listening

Action = How the person says something may be as important as what they say! It involves noticing nonverbal communication, body language, facial expressions, gestures, subjects of particular importance may be accompanied by generous hand gestures and greater emphasis on words.

Listening is a key part of the communication process and is significant in that it requires us to use both our hearing and sight senses. In themselves hearing and sight can be fairly passive activities but when engaged in the process of communication we need to consciously focus these senses.

The human mind can generally process information at a faster rate than it can be converted into a spoken response. The risk is that, with different processing speeds, the mind tends to wander. Active listening is a process of consciously focusing for a specific purpose and is an essential part of the coaching process. Active listening requires full attention, listening, comprehension, and then testing the integrity of the message. I am clarifying the other person’s spoken thoughts, as well as taking in the other person’s non-verbal message.

Did you know?

According to a UCLA study communication is made up of three parts:

Words: 7% Tone of voice: 38% Non-verbal: 55%

Poor listeners

Poor listeners have a number of characteristics in common. A poor listener is likely to: - interrupt or finish the other person’s sentences - think about what they are going to say next - hurry the other person - daydream - argue with the other person - give unsolicited advice - tend not to respond or to jump conclusions

Good listeners

Good listeners will respond by: - encouraging the other person - asking questions when they don't understand something - looking at things from the other person perspective - restating the important points to show that they understand - maintaining emotional control - staying mentally present - being patient, - helping people to draw their own conclusions - offering all the same level of courtesy and respect

Active listening

Active listening, in the context of communication, begins with:

understanding what the person wants. This enables the listener to respond appropriately. Most people like to be heard. To communicate more effectively use active listening strategies, remembering to listen with ones eyes as well as ears.

Active listening strategies include: rephrasing, paraphrasing or repeating what the speaker has just said. This can limit preconceptions and assumptions and sends a message that, “I am listening” and “I consider what you are saying is important”.

clarifying the message. To clarify, ask questions like, "Who?" "What?" "Where?" "When?" "How?" and "Why?" These are open-ended questions designed to elicit more than just a simple "Yes" or "No" response. For example, ask, "Who was involved?" not "Were several people involved?"

Confirming understanding. This can be used at any point during the conversation; it's especially useful before concluding a conversation. For example, "Before we wrap up the meeting, let me just recap the pertinent points: If I rephrase, clarify, and confirm what someone has said, that person will be less defensive, more open to communication, less difficult.

Active listening involves listening at three levels: 1. listening to pay attention to the speaker and to the message. Rather than listening half-heartedly or forming a reply in one’s head while the person is still speaking, concentrate on what the person is saying. 2. listening involves building trust and rapport. Being sensitive to the communication style of the other person will help bridge the communication gap, matching to his or her cultural style to demonstrate respect and to build trust and rapport. 3. listening involves sharing meaning. Sharing my understanding of what I think the person has said. Picking up on non-verbal cues and reflecting them back to the person, encouraging the person with feedback to let him or her know I have understood the message correctly. Paraphrasing the message and asking questions to clarify

© Teacher Support Network & Robert Latham

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