image courtesy of tracy out west on Flickr

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m not always the best listener. During conversations with others I have to remind myself to sit back and listen before I jump in. Often, I get so excited about an idea in my head that I can’t wait to get out that I can be impatient. As I’ve gotten older, I have made a conscious effort to close my mouth and really listen before I jump into a conversation. That doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered the art of listening, but I have at least realized the important difference between hearing and listening.

I don’t know about you, but some of the people I most respect for their ideas and opinions are those who do the least talking. I’m always enamored by the way they can absorb, reflect and respond in such a thoughtful way. While I have learned that I am someone who needs to talk through an idea in order to make sense of it, that doesn’t mean that I am truly engaging in listening. What I am really doing is hearing what my idea sounds like out loud. If I were truly listening, I would be incorporating what someone else said, and sharing my own reflections. An even better indication of true listening is when I am able to ask a question or push for clarification. I know that this is something that I must do consciously–truly listen before I jump in. In order to do that, I need to do more than hear what the other person is saying. Otherwise, their voice just becomes a jumping off point for my own and I have not absorbed what they have said.

Which takes me to my own learning network.

We often talk about the ‘echo chamber’ that is created by our online networks. That we can select what kinds of opinions we are exposed to, that, even worse, companies like Facebook and Google purposefully fill our search results and ads with things that, according to their algorithms, should interest us. So are we really listening to those voices? Or are we hearing those voices and simply reiterating or praising their ideas because they sound familiar or coincide with our own beliefs? If we are truly listening to our peers, wouldn’t we be asking questions, probing for clarification or incorporating others’ ideas into our own? While I see a lot of the latter, it is much less common for us to question each other, ask for clarification or probe for deeper understanding. These are signs of true listening. Otherwise, we run the risk of singing with the choir. When we sing with the choir we hear the voices around us and make sure that ours fits in with the rest. We hear when one or more voices is out of tune and when we do, it hurts our ears and we try to block it out. I envision Lisa Simpson in the opening credits to The Simpsons playing her trumpet out of sync with the rest of the band. Rather than either droning out voices that are different from ours or blocking them, we should be listening to them and wondering why they sound so different and how we can incorporate their voice into our choir.

Speaking of choirs, every once in a while, take a look at your network’s stream. Do you see people retweet links faster than anyone could possibly read the linked article? Do you read a lot of ‘great post!’ ‘totally agree!’ ‘couldn’t have said it better myself!’ Don’t get me wrong, I make those kinds of comments from time to time, but what I see in those kinds of comments is that people are hearing what others have to say, or they are hearing what they want to hear, but they aren’t listening because either they aren’t seeking out opinions that require them to listen, or because it’s easier to feel good about what you hear than really listen, inquire and engage.

So the next time you are deep in conversation and have something you want to share, take a minute, look the speaker in the eye and really internalize what they are saying before you respond. Ask them a question, refine your understanding of what they are sharing and then share your thoughts. When interacting with your online network, be aware of the voices you are hearing. Are you really listening, or are you just singing along with the choir?


  1. Pingback: The Twitter Ten: September 5 – Learn. Teach. Engage.

  2. Nancy Blair


    I agree that there is an important distinction between “hearing” and “listening,” but I would argue that this “echo chamber” mentality is not necessarily a byproduct of online communities. In life, people tend to do the same thing. Most people seek out other people that they like to be around to form their circle of friends and colleagues. Typically, there are similarities among those people. Take a look at who interacts with whom in the work setting. Given an option, most people spend as little time as possible with people they disagree with and are often dismissive in the way they talk about those people. Selecting a news channel to watch on television is another example. Whether the preferred primary news source is Fox News, CNBC, CNN or any other channel, people tend to watch the one that most closely aligns with their own views, beliefs, and opinions. I was also struck in your post with the similarity between typical comments that precede retweets with those made on student papers (Good job! Nicely done!). Those kinds of comments don’t provide any meaningful or actionable information to the students. At least with Twitter, the limited characters available may influence length of comments preceding retweets. It is important to seek out divergent viewpoints, but I suspect it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

    • mbteach


      Great points, Nancy. I think I chose online communities because of the kinds of interactions and relationships we build through them that differ from a relationship we may have with a TV show. I will admit that the only time I ever watch the Glenn Beck show is when there are clips of it on the Daily Show or Colbert Report! In addition, in the workplace we choose whom we interact with, but when it comes down to it, we are forced to interact with these people because, well, it’s our job!

      I like the link you make to how we comment on student papers. I wonder if then what I’m really talking about it meaningful feedback. Twitter definitely limits the kind of comments we can make, but I wonder how many of those people who retweet a post actually take the time to add to the conversation. Thanks for pushing my thinking!

  3. Leanna K Johnson


    I admire that your self-deprecation of a common problem that many of us share. One of the negatives I’ve found at Twitter is the din of voices that are re-tweeting links just to be the first or tweeting the same stuff over and over again (and I admit guilt of this, too). Real classroom discussion about blogging involves the analysis of what makes a great comment, and I ask the students, “Does your comment continue the conversation or just make you heard?” Ditto for discussion boards–an ongoing element of my online M.Ed courses was the professor’s admonishments: “Don’t agree; either add to the conversation in some insightful fashion or find another discussion where you can.” Listening is more important than the written task. We all need that reminder.

    • mbteach


      Those are great questions to ask! If you want to see a place where commenting is an art form and is taken very seriously, check out the Co-operative Catalyst ( I agree that taking the time to ask whether we are contributing or just wanting to be heard is very important. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Reply

    I’m a month behind in tweeting this, and I have to admit I didn’t read all the way through before I realized it would be worth a tweet.

    That being said, I am the exact same way when talking to people. It is even worse when the conversation is engaging because I often want my voice to be heard and spend my time crafting my comment while the other person is talking.

    Listening is hard especially when we think we know what the person is going to say.

    I think though if I had to sum up quality teaching It would something like listen well to your students then ask the question that gives them the germ of the idea to go and discover their own answers.

    I’m still working on it, perhaps a blog post in the near future.

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