The “romance” in learning to listen

Education comes in three stages:


This is according to A.N. Whitehead’s “rhythm of education,” a framework widely shared last month in The Atlantic’s profile of Teller—of Penn and Teller—as a former teacher. He tells the story of his early days as a high-school Latin teacher:

Romance, argued Teller, precedes all else. “I’m 5’8” and was about 160 pounds those days, so I was not the kind of person who could walk into a room of rowdy kids and [they] would just pay attention to me. What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.

The problem with listening should be obvious.

Most of us can remember learning to read. We can remember learning to write. Sounding out your first words and writing your first story are indeed delightful. And although we can’t remember learning to talk, we can probably remember a high-school speech class or other formative moment working on public speaking. It may not be delightful for those with a fear of public speaking, but speech class can be quite a memorable and formative experience.

What about listening?

There’s no “listening class” in kindergarten or middle school or high school. There actually are listening courses in college, as evidenced by at least two textbooks in the field, but my sense is these classes are somewhat uncommon. (Please write me if you are a legal professional who has taken a college class in listening. I want to talk to you!) Children take listening comprehension tests and the Common Core includes speaking and listening standards, but listening is somehow different. The “romance” of not having a skill you recognize as valuable and important, and wanting to learn it, then actually learning it and knowing that now you have something you didn’t have before—that experience is just not the same.

For the typical professional, then, it’s a reasonable hypothesis they have no recollection of learning to listen, much less being taught to listen and introduced in stages to the romance, precision, and generalization of listening skills.

Even after several years of blogging about listening, I personally hadn’t found the actual “romance” of learning listening in any presentation or training. That gap is actually part of what motivates the blog.

Does that mean it’s too late and/or just impossible to find?


A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend mediation training. In my home state (Georgia), the first step toward becoming a certified mediator is to attend 28 hours of mediation training. That’s a lot of hours. But I’m here to report, that’s where a practicing lawyer can go to find the romance—as well as some of the precision and generalization—of listening skills. Through the 28 hours facilitated by Professor Tim Hedeen of Kennesaw State University’s Center for Conflict Management, we learned and role-played our way through some key mediation lessons:

Set the tone; it’s okay to explicitly direct the people in the room to listen carefully to one another.
Use nonverbal cues to show you’re listening and impartial.
Ask questions.
Tailor your active listening to your preferences and the situation.
Listen to the facts and the emotions; seek to understand not just the “position” but the “interest” behind that position.
Monitor interruptions and tailor interruption-management to the needs of the situation.
Reframe what you’re hearing.
Hold off on offering solutions.
Don’t be so controlling, and don’t think of the mediator (i.e. yourself) as the hero of the mediation story.

Four full days of training seven hours a day was truly a sacrifice, but I’m here to say it was worth it. I signed up for mediation training in large part because I expected special insight into listening skills, and it did not disappoint. Mediation is the spiritual home of listening within the legal profession. And it’s not just a general ethereal affinity with listening. The 28 hours gave us a taste of all the educational stages, from the romance of helping with conflict resolution to the precision of reframing positions into interests to the generalization into conflict coaching at work and personal growth dealing with conflicts.

There are other ways to find the romance of listening in the legal profession. There is such a thing as a listening CLE, including one I’ll tell you about in my next post. But for lawyers and legal professionals everywhere with access to mediation training, I would encourage you to take it.


If you’re interested in more on mediation, check out Listen Like a Lawyer’s interview with mediator Greg Parent. Greg shares his take on “nuanced listening” at the mediation table.

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