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The Power of Listening

Paul Madaule

Listening plays a fundamental role in the development of communication, language and learning. The child’s well being, social adjustment and academic achievement are greatly determined by the quality of his listening. Such a bold statement is dictated by a lifetime of experience. 

A Professional Experience

I have dedicated 35 years so far of my professional life on improving the listening skills of thousand of people, mostly kids, using a listening training technique. This work brought me to a dozen countries in 3 continents before I started The Listening Centre in Toronto 28 years ago. I then helped to develop this work in North and Latin America. Observing time and time again children performing better at school, becoming happier, more open, calmer, more focused, more motivated, more flexible, more accommodating, getting along better with their peers - and the list could go on,  keeps reinforcing my firm conviction on the fantastic power of listening.

And a Personal One

But this conviction comes from a deeper, more personal place. My childhood and adolescence consisted of a long series of setbacks at school. Dyslexia affected my reading, writing, math – and I couldn’t even express myself properly. Years of remedial help and therapies only contributed in making me feel more inadequate. When I reached puberty, life became hell on earth with no way out.

It all changed when, at 18 years old I met Dr Alfred Tomatis who helped me with a listening training method using electronically modified sounds that he had invented. I was then able to resume high school, went to university and my life started to turn around. This is when I decided to become a psychologist and to specialize in listening.         

Misconceptions about Listening

The word ‘listening’ means different things to different people. As a result, it is prone to all sorts of pre-conceived and erroneous ideas. A review of some of these misconceptions will help to more clearly define what listening is and what it does.

Misconception: Hearing and Listening are Similar.   We are constantly bombarded with myriads of sounds coming from both the environment and our own body. This constant exposure is hearing. Thanks god that hearing is not ‘on’ all the time, it would drive us crazy! But, at the difference of the eyes, the ears do not have eyelids. They are equipped with a mechanism which permits us to ‘scoop’ the sound information we want and leave out those we do not want. While hearing is passive, non discriminative and involuntary, listening is active and it involves the intent to reach out. This implies that hearing too much is an indicator of poor listening. Children who are over stimulated or easily overloaded and those who cover their ears with their hands because of their hypersensitivity to sounds are poor listeners. Another weak listener is the distractible child who is unable to bring the voice of the teacher to the foreground while leaving the other noises of the classroom far in the background.

Misconception: Listening Only Applies to Sound.   The ear is responsible for sound perception and for the sense of balance, but balance in only the tip of the iceberg. The vestibular system of the inner ear makes us aware of our body in space, of the space around us, of our relative movements and of our posture. It influences motor skills and coordination when moving the eyes for tracking in reading and when moving the arms and fingers in writing. Skills as diverse as playing ball games, skating, dancing or playing a musical instrument all depend of this ‘ear of the body’. It also influences the way our body ‘speaks’, that is the non-verbal aspect of communication which is an essential component of social interaction.  Spatial awareness, which is so important in the understanding of math concepts, can also be tracked down to the ear of the body.

The interplay between the auditory and vestibular ear acts as a conductor for all the senses.

Misconception: Listening is Only a Receptive Skill.   Judging by their giggles and laughers, toddles seem to have great fun gargling, babbling and making all sorts of noises. They play with their voice as if it was a ball – throwing it in the air and watching how and where it falls. This game is their attempt in replicating the sounds they hear around them. Then, when they produce something sounding more or less like Ma or Da, their mom or dad respond with a big smile and cheers, and the sound ‘juice’ brings this sweet liquid which tastes so good. While playing this voice game, they discover the fun – and the power - of verbal communication.

They can play this game which gives them so much control because they are able to perceive their voice making sounds they have heard before. We know that without hearing, speech does not develop naturally. But hearing is not sufficient. The acquisition of speech and language requires a fine tuning of the auditory system to pick up the very specific sounds of the mother’s tongue. The ‘sound play’ is the child’s way of fine tuning his ear, body and nervous system, and turning them into an active player in the process of communication. In other words, the child is training his listening. We are the first listeners of what we have to say and the clarity and intelligibility of our speech depends of the quality of our ‘expressive listening’. The same is true for our singing voice: singing out of tune is listening ourselves out of tune.  

Misconception: Listening Takes an Effort.   Listening is often understood as the effect of concentrated attention as in “pay attention and listen!” implying that listening necessitates an effort. In reality, it the other way around: good attention span is the result of proper listening and listening is effortless. If listening necessitates an effort, it indicates that it is not good enough to be sustained for long, leading to a short attention span. As soon as I hear about a child with ADHD, my first though is: what about her listening? My experience is that improved listening can often replace Ritalin or any other psycho-stimulant medication – and the effect is permanent.

Misconception: ‘Listen’ means ‘obey’.   The word listening is often associated with ‘obeying’ such as in “listen to me!” and, as a consequence, poor listening may be viewed as a behavioral issue such a lack of discipline. As far as I am concerned, the one who is able to choose what to listen and what not to listen is a good listener. The wisdom of his choice is another matter. Poor listening is the inability to make this choice, meaning that a listening problem should not be confused with a behavioral problem.

David was 12 years old when he started a listening training because of his underachievement at school. I remember explaining to his father that Frank listening problem was not to be confused with a disciplinary one when he interrupted me to say: “when we talk about hockey, he is all listening, but when I help him with his homework, there is nobody there, and his school reports are filled with comments like “doesn’t listen” or “doesn’t pay attention”; for me, it is clear, he only listens what he likes”. I explained that in hockey, David knows the names of the players, the jargon of the game and he can easily visualize what they are talking about – and yes, his love of hockey helps. With school work, things are not as straight forward; the concepts are abstract, the vocabulary is new, and, true, it is not as exciting as hockey. Frank had not willingly ‘cut off’ school as his dad implied, but school was a much greater challenge for his listening.

A few weeks later, Frank’s father reported that, at his great surprise, “there is no pulling teeth around homework anymore!” Most days, he starts and goes through it with no need for a reminder and minimum support. In the next report card, comments like “applies better” or “participates more” started cropping up here and there. One can argue that improved listening made Frank more obedient and more disciplined, but this obedience and discipline came from within; it was his choice. By being more focused and more structured, Frank could now be engaged in schoolwork (almost) the way he was in hockey. Listening fosters engagement and motivation.

What Is Listening?

Listening is the active skill of picking up the sound information we chose and, by protecting us from unwelcome and unnecessary ‘noise’, it acts as the eyelids of the ear. Listening involves sound perception as well as the ‘ear of the body’ which plays a key role in body posture, movements, spatial awareness, motor skills and non-verbal communication. Listening provides the control mechanism of speech and singing. Automatic and effortless, listening is at the root of our focus and attention span as it is an essential component in the child’s spontaneous engagement and motivation. These are some of the reasons why listening has the power to turn a child’s life around one way or another.

Our work on listening dovetails with Maria Montessori’s vision on education and the child. It is no coincidence that listening training was first introduced in Toronto by a Montessori School. Montessori educators are best prepared to understand and make use of the power of listening.  

 © Paul Madaule 2007