We have begun our study of interpersonal communication with listening. My strategy is deliberate – which twenty-five percent of what I say/type are you “listening to” (reading, perceiving, registering)? And – what of the 75% you merely hear or visually skim past? (Kay Lindahl provides this statistic in “What is Listening,” a summary of highlights from Practicing The Sacred Art of Listening)? I am well pleased with the overall performance of the class so far in terms of following directions. Yes, there have been glitches, but in general we are proceeding as best as can be expected in this online only learning/teaching environment. (Did you notice that I listed learning first?!)

Of course I am interested in how well you perceive what I seek to convey (how else can I – as teacher – assess your progress?), but the larger point is to start noticing how you listen all the time, everywhere, in all the various situations that compose your life with other people. As I read the assigned articles from our textbook, I notice how I skimmed over the information I (think I) know, instead being drawn more to those theories and concepts which might help me better understand certain current situations in my own life. For instance, in the first batch of articles, I am fairly confident in my knowledge about of “myths about” and “skills of” listening. I selected, as Kenneth Burke explains, a certain slice of reality (“It’s Only Skin Deep: Stereotyping and Totalizing Others,” by Julia T. Wood, p. 192-193, which is cited at this interesting compilation of Problems with Intercultural Communication). This is always the case, all the time, in every interaction, and just because I am “the teacher” does not necessarily make “my” choice more relevant than yours. (“My” slice might be more relevant to me, but not necessarily as important to you as the slice of reality that you selected.) The slice I (and you) pick is necessarily reflective of a reality – interpreting some dimension of it, and also – simultaneously – de-selects other ways of slicing the same reality. (This communicative selectivity works the same way for everyone, always.) 😉

Regarding the material on listening, I found myself particularly interested in the notion of scripts as described by Trenholm and Jenson (“Interpretive Competence: How We Perceive Individuals, Relationships, and Social Events”). I had to do a lot of active listening as class got underway! At one point, I felt as if I was playing detective – I would receive clues that something was wrong (such as an explicit message asking for help or clarification), but I could not match the content of the message with my knowledge of the course structure. Then I would have to ask clarifying questions, paraphrase, and simply try to imagine what/where the breakdown might be: is it a problem with the course software in terms of what students can/can’t see or do, or is it a problem of explanation (I failed to be clear), or is it a problem of assumption (what seems obvious to me is not obvious to them, or vice-versa?)

And/or – were we (me/teacher, you/student) operating from different scripts? How many students experience the classroom as a zone for closed episodes? I am not sure, but my experience informs me that most students behave in the classroom as if the scripts are closed: the “rules for proper behavior are well known in advance and govern the flow of interaction” (p. 179). Then, here I am, working hard to create a framework for experiencing this curriculum/classroom as an open episode, as an opportunity where “there is greater freedom to create new forms of interaction and to change episodes midway through” (p. 179).

In fact, I am trying to draw us – intentionally and on purpose – into a defined episode, a learning situation “defined ‘in progress’ as participants follow their own personal goals and plans…” (p. 179). I am still the authority figure who has to evaluate learning and assign grades, but our subject of study is flexible, malleable: a matter of emergent social interaction rather than immutable, static fact. I can no more dictate to you what you will/will not “listen to”, what you must/must not “select” or “deflect” from your perception of reality than I can force the moon to stand still. Interpersonal communication is a fluid situation, a flowing or unfolding of things said/not said in a sequence that is co-determined by interlocutors as each identifies what kind of an episode is happening and what kind of script is to be used. (What happens next, I wonder, if we mis-identify?)

There are many factors that play into the identification process – learning to listen well (to yourself as well as to others) is the core, bedrock skill necessary to learn how to work with episodes and scripts in a proactive way – not necessarily to change them into something else (a different kind of episode, or another type of script), although sometimes this may be desirable. My goal as a radical andragogue (!) is to enhance your cognitive complexity. Why? “Research has shown cognitively complex persons to be more accurate in processing information about others, better at placing themselves in the role of the other person, and more patient in weighing most of the evidence before formulating a complete impression” (Trenholm & Jensen, p. 183, cite two studies: Jesse Delia, Ruth Ann Clark, and David Switzer, “Cognitive Complexity and Impression Formation in Informal Social Interaction,” and Claudia Hale and Jesse Delia, “Cognitive Complexity and Social Perspective-Taking”).

It seems to me, perhaps now more than ever, that we – us human beings alive today – need to be able to do all those things better.