Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mindful Listening: Only If You Listen Can You Hear

The following is a guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking, explaining the ways that mindful listening can be integrated into academic courses.

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing.

I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality. So today, when he brought up the topic again, I just listened, sometimes asking questions to check if I understood, and empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions.

I've seen this dynamic many times in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it, but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, because they fear a life without love or they have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their own lives are meaningless.

Instead of dictating answers of your own, which will often be resisted, ask questions to help students better notice and understand their own experience and improve their ability to reason. For example, if a student says love is impossible or an illusion, ask them one or more of the following:

  • What do you think love is?
  • How would you describe what a loving relationship would look like?
  • Make a list of fictional characters who spoke deeply to you about what love was, or wasn’t.
  • What might it feel like to love someone?

And then listen. 

Listen not only to what students say, but to hear what is too painful for them to acknowledge.

Teach Students How to Engage in A Discussion

Critical thinking is a process, not an immediate taking of a position. It requires that you question and test your understanding and ideas, as well as feelings, and recognize that discussing with others is a crucial component of this process. 

Talking about what happens in class discussions can be an effective way to help students develop critical thinking skills while they practice listening and speaking with mindfulness and compassion. 

Try asking your students questions like:
  • How can the way you speak to others influence how well you learn?

  • Did anyone ever cut you off or shut you up by the way they spoke?

  • If someone doesn’t hear you, will they learn from you? 
  • If you don’t listen, will you hear?

  • When some people speak, they speak to the crowd in their mind, not the breathing people in the classroom with them. They don't see others or try to learn from them, and thus feel isolated. What does being isolated feel like?

A good class discussion can arise only when you recognize and respect both what you and others share as well as how you differ. When you consider a diversity of viewpoints and listen to those who disagree with your original position, this is not a threat to who you are but an expansion—if it is done respectfully. As Lisbeth Lipari explains in her book Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement, you can listen not only for how you and others are alike, and what you understand about them, but for how you’re different or what you might misunderstand. Only if you listen can you hear.

The Three Aspects of a Learning Dialogue 

1. The quality of your listening

What exactly did you hear? Be ready to check if what you heard was what was said.
2. The quality of your understanding.
What is your evidence? Is the evidence factual, reliable, and well supported? Make sure students recognize the need for accuracy and truthfulness in their speech. Talk about what a fact is, and how it is different from a theory or opinion. How do you verify or support a fact versus an opinion?
3. The quality of metacognition and reasoning. 

In order to think clearly and discover bias and points of confusion, you need to be mindful of your thinking process. Why do you want to say that? What is your intent? And: How did you figure that out? Did you jump to a conclusion too quickly? Did your conclusion clearly follow from the evidence?

How to Handle Tension in Class Discussions

Students come to school partly to test reality and ask themselves: Does what I hear at home reflect what happens outside my home? Intellectually opposing a teacher or other students might be the only way some children can rebel or learn to assert themselves. This can be painful for teachers to deal with. It is so easy to feel you have failed if your students treat you or each other badly. 

If the level of tension is rising, you may need to stop the discussion and lead the students in a brief breathing exercise.
  • Ask students to close their eyes, partially or fully, and take two calm breaths.

  • With the third breath, ask them to notice how they feel.

  • Or with the third breath, ask them to bring to mind a person with whom they were having a disagreement. 
    •  Have them picture the person and imagine: "They have feelings, just like I do. They hurt, just like I do. They want to be accepted, just like I do." 

Develop Understanding Through 'Mirroring'

Help students be more observant of others by playing theater improvisation games.

For example, you could pair up students to mirror each other.

  • The pairs stand, facing each other, hands up with palms facing their partner as if there was a glass surface between them that they can never break.

  • As the leader moves her right hand back, away from the mirror, the follower moves his left hand away.

  • They continue moving spontaneously together until you call out switch—and they change roles without stopping their movements.

(For more improvisational activities, I recommend the book Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher's Handbook by Viola Spolin.)


When meaningful moments arise in a class, don't put them off because they're not in the curriculum or lesson plan. They are the heart of education, the real reason you teach. They go beyond a “teachable moment.” By engaging with difficult and real questions and concerns, you tell students that what’s difficult can be faced, that meaningful learning is possible, and that the classroom is one place this can occur. 

The renowned meditation teacher and social, environmental activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, says all this profoundly in The Art of Communicating: “If you don’t communicate well with yourself, you cannot communicate well with others.” “When you can truly… listen to yourself, you can profit from every moment given you to live.”

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

About the Author

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner.  While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching


related posts:

Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching (recommended book) 

Eight Principles of Teaching Mindfulness Meditation to Adolescents

T.H.I.N.K. Before You Speak: Case Studies in Mindful Speech

T.H.I.N.K. Before You Speak 2: More Case Studies in Mindful Speech

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning (interview)

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