8 Listening Strategies Students Can Use for Better Communication

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By Ron Nash, author of The Power of We and And What About You?

When I ask how many participants in one of my workshops have taken a speech class at some point, most of the hands go up. I follow that with, “How many have taken a listening course?” Few, if any, hands go up. This is because speaking is generally accepted as the be-all and end-all of oral communication skills. The whole idea of listening is taken for granted; all that I required as a new teacher who talked incessantly in my role as Minister of Information was that students sit up and “pay attention,” whatever that means. Listening was less an art in my classroom and more posture-related.

When students work together in pairs, trios, or larger teams, they must learn to actively listen as they attempt to understand what their teammates are saying. Active listeners “gently attend to another person,” says Costa (2008), “demonstrating their understanding of and empathy for an idea of feeling by paraphrasing it accurately, building upon it, clarifying it, or giving an example of it” (p. 33). Empathetic listening is an active—not a passive—pursuit. I have seen students work well together in teams, and I have seen well-meaning groups get off to a good start, then stumble and fall apart because they did not do the ground work up front. This groundwork is the responsibility of the teacher.

Teachers who want their students to work in teams would do well to begin by helping them develop speaking and listening norms while working in pairs. Students can hide in groups, but they cannot hide in pairs, and students who learn to work well together in pairs can then translate that success into effective collaboration as members of quartets or even larger groups.

Students can hide in groups, but they cannot hide in pairs, and students who learn to work well together in pairs can then translate that success into effective collaboration as members of quartets or even larger groups. Click To Tweet

Students who work in pairs frequently can hone communication skills under the direction of the classroom teacher, but, according to Zwiers and Crawford (2011), “Conversation is much more than talking and listening. There are many manners, behaviors, and nonverbal signals that play key roles” (p. 41). In every pair of conversationalists there is a listener and a speaker at any given moment. The listener’s role is not one of marking time while deciding what he or she wants to say next. Listeners ought to serve as active and effective supporters of their partners.

Here are 8 foundational norms listeners can display to move the conversation along and support the speaker:

1) Make appropriate eye contact

A partner in the role of listener who simply stares at the speaker is quite likely to drive the latter to distraction. I recommend making eye contact for a few seconds (3 to 5), then looking thoughtfully away before quickly making eye contact again. Listeners want to support speakers, not drive them to seek a restraining order.

2) Attend fully to your partner

My wife and I once sat across from a teenager and her aunt at a sidewalk cafe. After a minute or so of watching her niece attend to her cell phone, she said, “Don’t you want to talk to your Aunt Millie?” My wife and I looked at each other as if to say, “Which one of us wants to grab the cell phone and throw it out into the street?” Students who are used to relating to screens more than to human beings need to be taught to attend fully to a partner, forsaking all electronic instruments during the course of the conversation. Attending fully to one’s partner demonstrates respect, and sends this message: “I care about what you are saying right now.” That is an important message for a speaker who is trying to express or explain something.

3) Paraphrase in order to clarify something

Another sign of listener-to-speaker respect is paraphrasing. Costa (2008) suggests that listeners avoid “I messages” along the lines of, “What I think I hear you saying…” Instead, the listener can send the signal that a paraphrase is coming by saying, “You’re suggesting…” or “So, you are thinking…” or something similar (p. 135). A paraphrase tells the speaker that the listener understands, or is trying to understand, what the speaker is saying.

4) Take care not to monopolize the conversation

As a Boomer growing up in the 1950s, I remember a meal called dinner, where we sat and talked for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes or more, depending on the occasion. This was on-the-job training for learning to take turns and tune in to the perspectives of family members, friends, and neighbors who were our guests for the meal. I grew up with my grandparents, and my grandmother served in the role of teacher as we developed social capital during those meals at home.

5) Use positive and supportive body language

Goleman and Senge (2014) remind us that our brains are set up for face-to-face contact, and one thing texting and tweeting lack is the presence of body language that contributes to continuing understanding, the clearing up of possible misconceptions, and the smooth running of conversations. Arms folded in front of the chest, the absence of eye contact, and facial expressions that say, “Move this along, will you?” all live in the category of unforced errors that can be avoided when teachers take the time to talk about—then practice—paired conversations where body language is the topic.

6) Avoid distractions that might derail the conversation

Unless there is a specific reason for students to have their cell phones in hand while conversing with a partner, those instruments should be out of sight. Sneaking repeated glances at the clock on the wall or at a wristwatch will not go unnoticed to the speaker. I once watched as a student looked down, then tie his shoe while his partner was talking. Active listening requires a level of concentration on the part of the listener that says, “I’m with you.”

7) Don’t be afraid of silence

As a first-year teacher, I taught as I had been taught in high school and college. That is, as a U. S. history teacher, I talked incessantly in an attempt to “cover” topics, decades, wars, and depressions. It must have been depressing for my students to have to listen—or pretend to listen—to my ramblings. I was in a hurry, and I gave them no time for reflection in the form of conversations that might have caused them to actually understand the subject du jour. Let your students know that silence is a powerful thinking tool, and the listener can look away briefly and pause before joining the conversation in order to give both partners time to think a bit and reflect on what was just said.

8) Thank your partner for sharing when you are finished

This, too, honors your partner, and it takes only a moment and a handshake, a fist-bump, or a gentle high five. Students who get used to doing this on a regular basis may well find it carries over into private conversations outside the classroom.

These behaviors are all part of a listening skill set that will keep partners—and teams—working together in a collegial and congenial atmosphere. Collaboration requires participants, not attendees. Effective teamwork begins with students learning to listen and otherwise communicate effectively with a single partner, then evaluating that process before moving on. One sixth-grade teacher has a set of six collaborative norms that her students revisit at the end of every project, and sometimes, out of necessity, during the process.

When kids of any age learn to communicate effectively and collaborate using a set of accepted and practiced norms, teachers can expect a much higher rate of success—along with fewer chaotic classrooms and sleepless nights.

Costa, A. (2008). The school as a home for the mind: Creating mindful curriculum, instruction, and dialogue. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Goleman, D. & Senge, P. (2014). The triple focus: A new approach to education. Florence, MA: More Than Sound.
Zwiers, J. & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.