Family Engagement

The Value of Active Listening

A look at a set of communication skills that can help teachers achieve productive outcomes in conferences with students or their parents.

Teacher listening to a student, who is talking and pointing at a notebook
©iStock/Steve Debenport

Looming before me was a conference with parents who were concerned that their child was not being challenged enough in math. I was prepared and full of suggestions—and my preparedness turned out to be a problem. I was a distracted, unfocused listener as they voiced their concerns, jumping in before they could finish their questions and thinking ahead about what I’d say next.

I did eventually realize the conference wasn’t going well and tried to reboot my focus by listening more, saying less, and paying more attention to their tones of voice, postures, and facial expressions. That made a real difference, and the conference had a productive outcome. After that time, as I progressed as a teacher I learned more about the active listening skills I had hit upon on that day.

What Is Active Listening?

Good communication skills go beyond speaking and listening. They include being tuned in to the speaker’s nonverbal behavior and emotions, and the deeper meanings of what they say. By employing active listening skills in conferences with students or their parents, we promote mutual understanding and successful outcomes.

Active listening encompasses being nonjudgmental, with an emphasis on listening and not immediately solving the issue or problem. Active listeners don’t jump ahead to think about solutions while the speaker is still speaking. They also refrain from getting defensive.

Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding such that the speaker knows you’re truly interested in their ideas, concerns, and opinions. It involves giving the speaker your undivided attention, withholding judgment, and being mindful of your facial expressions and body language because nonverbal communications to show your respect for the speaker.

Suspend judgment: We can reduce misunderstandings and our tendency to jump to conclusions, often caused by our biases or expectations based on past experiences. Before and while listening to the speaker, check your frame of reference to avoid letting your preconceptions or predictions about what will be said interfere with your fully attending to the speaker.

Focus on the speaker: As the other person speaks, maintain eye contact but note nonverbal cues—the speaker’s facial expressions, vocal inflection, or posture. Consider how your own tone, posture, position, and expressions might be interpreted by the speaker. Either remain neutral or provide encouraging nonverbal cues such as nodding affirmatively, smiling, or leaning toward the speaker. With reluctant speakers, you can use encouraging phrases like “I hear what you’re saying” or “Please continue.”

No interruptions: Even questions you feel are important may potentially interrupt the speaker’s flow as well as confidence. If you can, try to remember your question. If you need to, write your questions and thoughts down, but explain before the conference that what you write is to help you remember things said and that you want to ask. To reinforce trust and further communication, keep your notes open for the speaker to see.

The Importance of Wait Time

Pausing before you respond—wait time—serves several purposes. It’s natural to jump in with solutions, especially as you’ve likely given thought to the conversation in advance. However, this can block further communication if the speaker has not finished because your interruption can be interpreted as a lack of interest in hearing more. You may also find that as the speaker continues and you actively listen, you achieve greater insight and ultimately provide better suggestions.

Waiting to be sure they are finished shows that you’re focused on the speaker. And not jumping in before giving thought to what you’ve heard helps prevent misunderstandings.

You’ll also find that during any pauses, the speaker may add additional highly important information. Such pauses, which demonstrate your focus, may give the speaker the reassurance to reveal something they were reluctant to share, now that they’re confidant of your empathy and understanding.

Remember that sustaining eye contact and an engaged posture is critical to ensure that wait time is interpreted as showing your interest rather than boredom or distraction.

Responses after the wait time: Verbalizing the feelings you perceive the speaker as having is valuable, but be sure not to sound accusatory: Instead of “You sound very frustrated,” try saying, “I feel that you’re frustrated—is that right?”

Summarize what you’ve heard, using the speaker’s words or your own—this confirms your desire to truly understand, build trust, and provide more opportunities for the speaker to clarify or extend. “It seems to me that you’re saying _____, but please let me know if I’m misunderstanding you or missing something.”

After establishing that you have understood the speaker’s meaning and/or emotions, you can ask for their input regarding next steps or solutions. Don’t reject outright any ideas or suggestions they make while they’re giving you their feedback, and after they’ve had a chance to reply, ask if they’d like your input—don’t jump in too soon.

As you build upon your active listening skills, you’ll find that your conversational partners’ positive emotional states and responses reflect their trust and awareness that they have your full, nonjudgmental attention.