Listening and silence

18 August 2018. Published by Benoît Labourdette.

How to get listening and silence in a group? Surprisingly, by going through a work on oneself the results can be spectacular.

Silence is a prerequisite to listening: a false idea

When we address a group of people, we need silence to be able to be heard. It seems almost obvious that without silence listening is not possible. Thus in the school setting the teacher will first seek silence, and then have the space to teach.

We know how difficult it is to obtain this necessary silence. In my opinion, this is because we see things in the opposite way to what they really are.

Very often, to make silence reign in a group which is not spontaneously calm, what do we do? Silence is imposed, often by threat, a balance of power is established. One can object that there is no other solution, that without silence nothing is possible and that it is not so bad to impose oneself against the group. But there again it is a theoretical vision, all teachers know it well: they wish for silence, but only get it in rare moments. This preliminary silence has more to do with a utopia, an idealized teaching situation. The reality is quite different: silence is rare, and the teacher finds himself, against his will, forced to ask for it, to impose it, to implore it, to explain it, to moralize it, to sanction in his name. This induces a situation of distrust on the part of the audience, which is absolutely not conducive to attentive listening, which can only take place in a climate of trust.

The other way: listen to the other so the other listens to us

If someone is listening to you, if someone is really listening to you, what does it feel like? You have confidence and you want, since this person is interested in you, to hear what he has to say to you. What they say will seem important and useful to you, because they care about you.

Thus the link between a speaker and his audience begins with the fact that the speaker must first listen to his audience, in order to build the trust that will make the audience find meaning in receiving what the speaker has to convey. It’s a link, real, to build. And this link can only be established by the speaker, since it is he who has the “power” in the group.

So the principle is very simple: if you need the other person to listen to you, start by listening to him or her yourself. Everything then becomes possible without difficulty. Thank you for this paradisiacal vision, but how to do in the real world, concretely, in front of a group of thirty noisy people for example? And by the way it is scary: would I have time to say what I have to say, if I started by spending time listening to those to whom I have to speak?
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Tools to implement a listening situation

Imagine a concrete situation: you are a high school teacher. Students come into your classroom, they are “wild”, speak loudly together, move around, obviously don’t want to be there. Your voice, unless you were screaming, can’t even be heard at the other end of the class. And you have a class, say history, to do with them.

The work on oneself
The first thing I suggest you do in this situation is work on yourself: don’t take for yourself the noise your students make. It’s not against you. It is a particularly difficult task, because you may have the impression of being subjected to this noise, of being prevented by it.

Show empathy, put yourself in the shoes of these students, imagine all the personal problems they may have, their teenage emotions, their chaotic school careers, etc. So, if you sincerely observe them speaking, expressing themselves with each other, you will see something rather positive: they build their social life with each other. Despite everything they undergo, they are alive, they want to express themselves, to exist. They have their conflicts too, of course. But this volume is the sign of a magnificent vitality on their part. It’s not negative. This worries you about your history class, of course, but fundamentally, what is happening there is constructive. Smell it. Enjoy it. Take a moment to distance yourself from your own issues and experience the human quality at work right now in this group.

Listen to the other
What are you doing when you are so attentive to the people in front of you? You are listening to them, in the deepest sense of the word. That is to say that you are interested in them, in all sincerity. You like them, in the general sense of the word. These people matter to you. You get a lot of information from them. You learn things about human nature. You discover these people. Your interest in them makes them important and rewarding to you.

If you do not build love for your interlocutor, he will not receive anything from you, and will therefore protect himself by not listening to you. Loving others is a difficult job, because it requires overcoming his fear of the other, seeking the pearl that is in each other, which is sometimes well hidden, and overcoming his own fear of not succeeding in what you are asked to do: a history lesson!

Let the history class fall for a moment and take the time to listen, caring, enriching for you. As if you were a sociologist passionate about these people, these “strangers” from whom we can be so enriched. After all, that is what tourists do when they go on holiday to foreign countries. Every person is foreign to us. Sightseeing in your daily life!

Social interaction
You will realize, taken in your sweet reverie, that at a moment (different according to each situation), the people in front of you, who are just as aware of the social issues of the situation as you are, will suddenly be in demand that you give them things, that you teach them. Why? Why? Because your silence was not a passive silence, your silence was a listening, an attention to them, to which they were sensitive.

Your listening is the social interaction proposal you make to the group: you listened to them, and you could have listened to them for an hour without tiring, in all sincerity. You therefore propose a situation of mutual listening, of mutual interest. It is you who are in place of “master”, it is you who have the power and instead of abusing this power you have been a human interested in other humans. Because of your institutional position of power, you are their model, their example.

You didn’t wait, you didn’t wait, you didn’t want them to be silent. You did not, through demagoguery, listen distractedly to what they were saying to make a good face. No, you have learned from them through your deep listening. You fed off them. They felt it. You have thus founded a principle of social interaction, listening and mutual enrichment, through the concrete practice you have just made with them.

The installation of silence
You will then realize that a quality silence begins to settle. A silence where we continue to listen to each other. It is not necessary for someone to speak for there to be sincere listening between human beings.
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Your speaking
Then, when you perceive that desire is born in some of your interlocutors, speak up, simply, and give a goal to that shared moment. If this is a history class, tell them what you want them to learn during this hour together. So you share your objective with them. It is a common goal, which we hope to have achieved together at the end of the session. Thus, this hour in common has a purpose, therefore a meaning, for you and for them.

And, of course, then, to you to have prepared a course interesting enough for yourself, lively and interactive enough for you to listen. If you just read your textbook, the silence won’t last long!

Trust your interlocutors
Perhaps some of your interlocutors do not share an interest in the learning goal of the session. It is their full and complete freedom. But they have participated in the collective implementation of this interest, and they will respect the group.

Listening was set up because you managed, by working on yourself, to trust the people in front of you, even if they did not show the clear signs.

A witness outside the situation would not understand why this group has been listening to his teacher without the need for discipline, because the only thing he could have observed was a silent teacher for a few minutes in the noise, and then suddenly like a “miracle” that takes place, the class that becomes attentive when the teacher opens his mouth.

The in-depth listening work produced by the teacher is not visible from the outside. It is really difficult to conduct, absolutely discreet, and yet produces considerable effects.

What I have just described requires a very important work on oneself to be implemented, but it is particularly powerful, and it is effective in many life situations, not only to give a history lesson!

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Here you will find educational tools, practical and conceptual. These tools are based on the experiences and thinking that I have developed in a large number of contexts over the past 30 years.

Pedagogy is an experimental practice that has its theories, its history and its thinkers. It is a central construction tool in the field of education but also beyond, within the framework of professional interactions, group management for example. Thus the usefulness of the methods and reflections that you will find here go beyond the context of teaching.