How to listen; A guide for TEFL Teachers

The human brain is an incredible organic machine, capable of processing more data in any given day than we can actually comprehend. As we grow, we quickly learn to filter what information is important and what is not. With the rise of the internet age of business, we are exposed to more marketing materials than ever before. This creates a near-constant state of bombardment and information overload, often causing us to disengage as our attention spans are lower than ever before. In turn, this often results in engaging with our inner dialogue, creating internal distractions that switch the dial from listening to hearing. When reflecting on how this affects our teaching dynamic, this can result in miscommunication and unnecessary stress applied in the classroom and beyond. This week’s article serves to explore how to switch back to listening and the effects that can be expected in dialogue and relationships by doing so. 


The Oxford dictionary defines hearing as “perceiving with the ear the sound made by someone or something.” In contrast to this, the definition for listening is to “give one's attention to a sound”. What a monumental difference this makes. As a professional freelancing coach, a large percentage of my time is spent listening to people; so, one would assume that I am quite good at it. I do believe, however, that the path to improvement is never ending. And since my introduction to David Clutterbuck’s Five Levels of Listening, I am constantly evaluating my own progress. As such I have to admit; there were a lot of internal blocks and resistance that made this piece difficult to write. Writing another fluff piece on “how to listen effectively” that might not work in the TEFL classroom wouldn’t be very effective. So, I’ve worked through my own limiting beliefs to serve you this fresh perspective into active listening for teachers. 


In terms of listening, there are two very distinct categories that most TEFL communications fall into. I have been lucky to have a variety of teaching opportunities in China and Thailand. From these, I have gathered the many experiences that give me a unique insight into the lives of teachers – and their students – in the classroom, the school administrative office, the learning centre and the home.  


There are days when that quiet kid who never talks decides to join in the activity and gets the answer right and then glows. There are those light bulb moments when a partner teacher understands your ideas and says something supportive that adds to it. And those goofy times when you riff off your TA and crack jokes that the whole class understands and laughs at. These memories are the ones that you might have expected to have when you told your friends and family that you were moving to China to teach English.  


Obviously, not every experience goes that way. I understand and can relate to the frustration of being talked at rather than talked to, being given additional work without the explanation of what is actually required, and told to just figure it out because that’s the way it’s always been. Or worse, that it doesn’t even matter what I do because I’m just another foreign face. I can empathise with just how quickly this results in internal resistance to listening rather than hearing, because I’ve been right there in that boat too. 


There is an unfortunate truth about all of these scenarios that many of us struggle with as foreigners. We always have a choice, even when it seems that we have no control over many of the situations thrust upon us. This is harsh because it generally causes one of two responses – aggressive resistance or powerless submission. The instant feedback that comes next is called a reaction and it triggers an internal block to listening. Through my observations and work with clients who are involved in the TEFL or education industry, this is the leading cause of the high rates of turnover of foreign staff. There are also external blocks to listening, like the environmental situation, but these are covered in the countless other active listening articles and videos. 


What is not often advertised is the alternative, third option; the option that I personally call Switzerland. The teacher who responds in this manner is calm, neutral and rational. They keep their ego in check and are careful to consider the possibilities before deciding on the best course of action. The feedback that this listener provides is called a response. Contrary to popular belief, I have observed that this has nothing to do with maturity and everything to do with self-awareness. The reason this isn’t regularly displayed as the best possible choice is because we are usually raised in a society where freedom of speech is valued more than listening.  


I describe this as a choice because as we grow in awareness, we get to choose how we react or respond. We get to choose whether we engage with impatience, judgement and Being present, observing our thoughts and acknowledging our internal distractions are skills that can be honed to become better at active listening. That doesn’t always work within the cultural and language barriers, but consider for a moment that you might be speaking with a human and that you control 50% of the conversation. If someone speaks and you don’t listen, you are choosing to neglect your side of the dialogue and your responsibility as a listener. This also results in a loss of face or respect for the speaker on a cultural level. And if damaging that relationship is the outcome you seek; you probably aren’t reading this post. 


Regardless of who the speaker is, check yourself. Take a full inhale and exhale before you open your mouth. That’s pretty much it for my advice on active listening. Because, by removing the internal distractions you open up conversational possibilities that may never have existed before. And that would certainly make me more inclined to listen to you. 

Pam