How Are You Listening?

Anne Cass (January 2021)

The best listener I have ever known was David Mallery, who hosted the memorable Westtown Seminar for many years. My enduring (and endearing) memory of David is coming upon him standing in the middle of one of those huge NAIS conference hotel lobbies surrounded by probably two dozen people, all waiting for his attention. He listened only to the person in front of him, directly and with his head slightly tilted, clearly giving that speaker undivided attention. Others just waited. No one interrupted, no one walked away, because David’s listening ear was so prized.

Everyone knows it’s important to listen – we get daily practice in person, by phone, over Zoom, in our homes. Administrators are stopped in hallways (or were, before COVID) and asked the dreaded “Got a minute?” It is dreaded because if we say yes, where we were headed or to whom we were headed gets short shrift. If we say no, we are seen as unavailable. Teachers are peppered with questions by students all day long – it takes nearly a herculean effort to listen intently and purposefully to every one of them and give undivided attention to the questioner.

All of us have been in conversations during which we are actually marshalling our arguments, holding our breath impatiently waiting for the other person to take a breath, looking out the window, doing something on the computer, or even thinking about dinner. I believe each of us is capable of listening well and carefully as long as we know the purpose of the conversation. And sometimes discerning that takes a bit of careful listening, especially if you’re talking with an upset parent, an angry colleague, or a confused student. The more even the level of emotion we bring to a conversation, the more productive the conversation is likely to be.

One of my best friends has mastered the skill of listening without judgment. Her openness allows me to trust, share, and reflect on my own thoughts. How many of us truly listen without judgment in the myriad conversations we have all day? So often we are elsewhere – when by rights we ought to be focused on the speaker to understand the speaker’s current need.

When you think about your best friend, what is it that makes this one the best? Chances are good your response included listens to me, really gets me, doesn’t judge me, or something similar. Do we take into each conversation our knowledge of what works best for us and what might work for our speaking partner? In this pandemic, discomfort, impatience, challenge, and sometimes tragedy abound. COVID offers us an opportunity to hone our listening skills and deepen our empathy.

As educators, it’s likely we’ve all experienced some kind of professional development dealing with some kind of listening: reflective? empathic? active? A quick google provides plenty of options, and books on the topic abound. Mostly, we can include three broad categories of listening in our personal communication toolbox:

  • Informational listening with the purpose of learning
  • Critical listening with the purpose of evaluating and analyzing
  • Therapeutic or empathetic listening with the purpose of understanding feeling and emotion

I am neither an expert nor aiming to define various approaches to listening – and I think one conversation can include all the above. I am asking you to stop for a moment, remember a conversation whose outcome mattered to you, and ask yourself how well you listened, and for what purpose you listened.

The following poem, written by my non-judgmental friend, strikes me as helpful advice in many situations we face these days, but particularly during the pandemic that is, effectively, generating trauma in our daily lives. We know that practice doesn’t make perfect – usually. Yet practicing listening, intentionally, will almost certainly improve the quality of our conversations and ultimately strengthen our relationships.

A Handy Guide to Comfort

 Just show up.

Don’t try to fix it.

It’s not your job.

Or say it will all work out, or


-you went through

something just like it,

-others have it worse,

-just breathe,


-it’s a learning experience,

-it will be better when they’re older,

-they look tired/sad/depressed,

-change the subject.


Instead, just hug, hold,

and don’t say anything at all.

Gift your allied silence

and thought, your deep


secure confidence in them

to navigate whatever’s next.

Show you see it really bites.

Make tea and confection.


Hold with. Share the carry.

Give place, space, and

welcome to talk,

or not.


Listen well, so when they

really need another’s help,

they will know they can trust you,

and that you really can and will.

 jjs 07/20