Tag Archives: mindfulness

Becoming better listeners

listen to me...

I recently read the textbook Communicating Mindfully by Dr. Dan Huston (@huston_dan) who has written a practical  resource for instructors in post-secondary education.  Though I was drawn to many ideas throughout the book, in this post I consider those from Becoming Better Listeners (Chapter 3) because of their relevance to the work I do with the Formative Peer Review of Teaching Program and in my other educational development work.

Why is active listening so rare in our lives?

Huston suggests that one of the main reasons active listening (sometimes called deep listening) is so rare in our lives is because of our wandering minds, which entertain regularly changing thoughts. Given that we typically function at high speed and on a tight schedule, efficiency is our priority. As such, we often allot a set time to conversations; this does not create the spaciousness needed for active listening. I have only to think about my Outlook calendar and typical work week: all my meetings (which are, in effect, discussions and/or conversations of one sort or another) have pre-determined start and end times.

Behaviours that interfere with active listening

In contexts where we do not create spaciousness for conversations, we may behave in ways that interfere with active listening. Such behaviours include:

  • denying how the other person is feeling
  • interrogating (e.g., “didn’t I tell you not to…?”)
  • giving unwanted advice and/or psychological opinions
  • asking questions that pull the speaker away from what they are trying to stay (i.e., steering the conversation in the direction we want)
  • blaming the person (‘x happened because you left things to the last minute’)

Huston notes that the above list has been adapted from Rebecca Shafir’s book The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction (p.123-129.)

Self-awareness improves deep listening

Though Huston recognizes that some of the behaviours above may be appropriate in specific conditions (e.g., asking questions to get someone back on a topic), he points out that it is our impatience which often leads to the interfering behaviours. This resonated with me. Huston suggests that when we feel strong emotions, such as impatience, as we are listening, we can learn to observe the emotions in our brains and body. Though it seems paradoxical, we can become better listeners when we are more self-aware. This sort of mindfulness recognizes that we cannot predict or necessarily choose how we are going to feel in a conversation, yet it can help us be more attentive to the present moment. By making “empathy a higher priority than getting things done quickly” (p.64), we can become better listeners. That empathy needs to be directed towards the conversation partner and towards ourselves when we experience emotions, as listeners, that make us potentially less skillful listeners.

Interested in practicing mindfulness and/or using it in your teaching or educational development practice?

Huston provides many do-able mindfulness exercises throughout his book (and he counters the fear that practicing mindfulness means having to do everything at “a snail’s pace”). These exercises can be applied in teaching and/or in non-teaching contexts.  The web also has countless sites with suggestions, and recordings, etc. See, for example:


Bringing mindfulness into post-secondary teaching



Teacher Candidate practices mindfulness at Nitobe Memorial Gardens, UBC.

Last year, I attended the 2014  Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education Conference  where there were a number of sessions on the use of mindfulness in higher education. This inspired me to think about how I might bring mindfulness into my teaching.

I teach in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of BC and my students are individuals who are preparing to be teachers in elementary and secondary schools. The course I teach looks at the role of knowledge in a teacher’s practice. In our short six weeks together, we explore concepts such as pedagogical content knowledge, core knowledge, embodied knowledge and “other” ways of knowing.

Given the course goals, I have  recently started to incorporate mindfulness into my classroom teaching. Additional reasons that have motivated me to do so are:

  • mindfulness is increasingly being used in the K-12 system (with many proven benefits) and therefore I want my students to become more familiar with it so they can decide whether or not to adopt it in their teaching
  • university students are often stressed and anxious and, by learning about mindfulness and being able to do short exercises, they may start to apply these techniques in their personal lives for their own well-being

I think it is relevant to say that, prior to this, I did not have my own mindfulness practice; that is, I was not able to draw upon my own past experience and have been learning as I go.

What have I done to bring this into the classroom?

  • Have created a “mindfulness” section of my course site where I suggest exercises to the students (i.e., “try this during the week”)
  • Present on evidence-based benefits of mindfulness in class
  • Do short mindfulness exercises in class (breathing, listen to the sounds)
  • Have a classroom discussion where students share their experiences of mindfulness in their schools
  • And, this week, together with Dr. Erin Graham who teaches the same course at the same time, we took the class to the Nitobe Memorial Gardens  where they practiced mindfulness in this lovely setting. Before hand, we sent students “instructions” with various exercises to try out.

In the past offering of this course, I received positive feedback from students on the incorporation of mindfulness. I will continue to invite feedback from students to get a sense of how this is going for them.

Some useful resources I have discovered along the way: