Deep listening is a contemplative practice that assists us with dropping our habitual story lines so that we can genuinely engage with other people and the world around us. It is a practice of listening with an open mind, suspending our tendency to immediately label, analyze, critique, or organize the information that we are receiving. It is a more experiential approach to hearing in which we don’t just hear what the voice is saying, we hear the quality of the voice itself.
The practice of deep listening helps us to dismantle our own assumptions and to participate in genuine communication and authentic connection with others in our community. It creates a space in which we can break through to a new understanding of a person and their experience. It is a transformative practice for individuals and for the interactions we have with the world around us. It engenders empathy, which is the strongest motivation for participation in social justice causes.
I was first introduced to the practice of deep listening during my graduate studies at Naropa University, and I immediately recognized the potential it held for a course I taught at the time titled “Art and Activism.” In this course, I worked with undergraduate art students to address current social issues and to think about how art could speak to and affect positive change in the world. I found one of the great challenges in working with this course was to bring students to a deeper understanding of the complexities of social issues and to the realization that we are often complicit in the systems of oppression. Using deep listening combined with a series of inquiry-based reading/reflection assignments transformed the nature of class discussion, making it less confrontational and prone to easy judgments and incomplete solutions to social problems. Students learned to think more methodically about social issues and became more willing to consider other perspectives and reflect on their own prejudices.
In my class, I paired deep listening with a specific reading reflection assignment format called a QCCQ, designed by Rusche and Jason (2011) to facilitate inquiry-based learning. I assigned a series of scholarly articles on topics related to economic inequality, discrimination, oppression, and activism. For each reading, students chose a short quotation (Q) that they felt captured a main concept from the reading. Then, they summarized that concept (C) in their own words. They wrote a short example that compared (C) the concept to another reading or an observation from their own life. Finally, they wrote a critical question (Q) meant to dig deeper into the concept and to explore the topic beyond the content of the assigned reading (346). Students followed the QCCQ format, which generated the questions for our class discussion of the reading. This assignment format allowed them to view difficult topics such as discrimination and oppression with a sense of curiosity and helped them to build skills essential to deep listening.
During the class discussion, I would invite a student to share their QCCQ response and as a group we would discuss the question raised. By practicing deep listening, the focus of the discussion was on building understanding rather than sparking debate. This allowed us to explore many different perspectives on a social issue without all of the students trying to “win” the discussion by coming up with the “right” answer. It created a sense of addressing a topic as a community where everyone’s contribution was respected and valued.
With some simple guidelines for deep listening during class discussion, provided below, students had a framework that allowed them to come to each topic with a desire to learn. In the future, these students can approach instances of injustice with thoughtful questions and genuine listening to reach greater understanding of the issue and those involved.
Deep listening is a simple practice to incorporate in social justice courses, yet it holds great power for breaking down misunderstanding and looking closely and introspectively at difficult truths.
Many of us are familiar with active listening as a strategy to engage students in the classroom. While active listening encourages students to be alert through taking notes and to think critically by raising questions, deep listening requires students to be attentively present, but to temporarily disengage from mental commentary. When we are listening deeply, our goal is not to critique or judge, but to understand. We receive what is said with an open heart, seeking a connection to the speaker. This connection and understanding can lead to new insights about ourselves and others and allow us to see new possibilities for resolving the dynamics of oppression.
Here are some ideas that may be helpful as you consider the possibilities of deep listening in the context of your own teaching.
1. Start with yourself. Instead of holding on to your own knowledge and conclusions about a subject, suspend your expertise and open a space for students to explore the topic through their own sense of curiosity. If you are used to teaching primarily through lecture, shifting your focus to open discussion and deep listening can feel uncomfortable at first. There’s a sense of giving up control in the classroom. As Parker Palmer (2007) eloquently states: “We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear. We want those encounters on our own terms, so that we can control their outcomes, so that they will not threaten our view of world and self” (37-38). Overcoming this fear is necessary to create a meaningful connection with our students and is the essence of deep listening. Deep listening can reveal some of your own assumptions and prejudices if you pay attention to the emotions that arise.
2. Set some guidelines. Encourage students to be mentally present throughout the discussion, and to pay attention to the sound of the discussion. Here are some examples of ground rules I asked my students to follow:
● Don’t interrupt someone who is speaking.
● Speak at a rate and volume that everyone can hear and follow.
● If you tend to talk a lot, practice choosing just one or two comments to make during discussion. If you don’t usually talk, exercise bravery and practice speaking up.
● Listen to each word the speaker says without trying to rush ahead to figure out what he or she means.
● Listen with an open mind.
● Listen to yourself with the same care and respect that you give to others.
3. Remember to pause. One thing we often forget to allow time for in the classroom is thinking. Pausing for just a moment gives everyone a chance to process and reflect on something that was just said or a question that was just asked. Wait time is a technique commonly used when asking for responses to questions, but pauses can be helpful at other points in the discussion, too, and can create a balance of sound and silence. Especially when you are dealing with topics that can be very emotional, pauses are a way to show compassion toward ourselves and others by giving some space to those emotions before proceeding with the discussion.
4. Listen twice. I often asked a student to repeat their question or a point that they made to make sure that everyone heard and understood it. This modeled to students that the words spoken in the room were important, and also allowed us to experience again to a statement as it was made.
5. Arrange for conversation. If possible, arrange the seating in the room in a circle. Seeing the person speaking, and not just the back of the head of the person in front of you, changes the tone of the discussion. It helps us to remember that we are talking to another human being with feelings, hopes, and fears just like our own.
6. Require reflection. Assign writing that specifically asks students to reflect on the development of their listening skills, and how that has affected their thinking and learning. Students lead very busy lives, and they sometimes don’t have time to notice subtle changes in their thinking or the way they interact with the world. Realizing that their beliefs or views have changed is an important part of releasing oppressive attitudes and knowing that they can continue to change in the future.
I’d like to conclude with a quote, written by a former student in just such a reflection paper. At the midpoint in the course, I asked students to look back on all of their QCCQ assignments and to see if they noticed any changes in their work. This is part of a response from Antonio, a senior graphic design major:
I often find that, during class, I learn a lot by listening to what everyone else has to say. I also learn a lot during group discussions that reflect on the articles. The discussions have also sparked interests that I have never had before. Up until now, I have grown interested in many different things. For example, I often find myself reflecting about how I am as an artist and where I stand in society as an artist. I also reflect on how other situations around the globe are a form of art and how the society changes if people unite together without any sort of violence.
Deep listening opens the door to greater understanding and empathy. It creates a stronger community through genuine engagement and prepares students to address injustice and oppression from a place of humility and confidence.
Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach. John Wiley and Sons.
Rusche, S. and K. Jason (2011) “You have to absorb yourself in it”: Using inquiry and reflection to promote student learning and self-knowledge. Teaching sociology. 39(4), 338-
Jaime O’Connor has over twelve years of higher ed experience in both faculty and administrative roles. She is passionate about the power of art and contemplative practice for personal and social transformation. She holds an M.A. in Contemplative Education from Naropa University and currently works in institutional effectiveness at Savannah College of Art and Design. Feel free to visit her blog at http://itineranteducator.blogspot.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.