It Is An Art: Listen Up!

By Adela Penagos, PhD

During the summer, I tour universities in the US and abroad in an effort to find various academic options for the students I advise. Because I believe that fit is as important as intellectual, social, and personal support for success, I spend significant time attending admissions information sessions and participating in campus tours. These events provide me with a general sense of the university, usually enabling me to learn the general information they provide to students and their families. 

In addition, I take it upon myself to meet students who are not part of the admissions office team. Recently, I attended an information session at an Ivy League university and could not help but wonder why parents, students, and counselors alike did not put away their smart phones, even when asked by the event organizers. Three weeks later, I was touring El Prado, with a group of guidance counselors, and many failed to follow the clear instructions about not taking pictures.  Are the blind leading the blind in college admissions? Or has our ability to listen greatly diminished because we are completely enthralled by Siri? I am hoping that it is more of the latter. Nonetheless, there is one thing I know for sure: those with a keen ability to listen manage to complete their college and graduate schools applications in a timely fashion; are more likely to incorporate feedback; and seem to be able to have more meaningful relationships. 

These are some key assets of great listeners:

1. Listening attentively allows to us follow instructions.

When others are hosting us at an event or are giving us a form to complete, they want us to be as comfortable as possible or to complete our task with success. Therefore, they offer a set of directions. In my experience, those listening attentively are the most likely to succeed. For example, when students do assignments in my course, the subset of careful listeners complete the entire assignment correctly while the others seldom do. As a result, the second group tends to earn a lower grade, which will have an impact in the overall course grade. Attentive listening will help you not only to excel academically, but also impact the way you follow your employer’s instructions, the feedback you get on your performance review, and perhaps even the raises you receive.

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2. Listening to others enables closer connections.

When we show others that we have heard what they shared with us we create stronger bonds. This ability is particularly helpful when we want to be empathetic to someone in distress or to show an elder person that we care. Your interpersonal skills will be an asset wherever life takes you as we are in an inter-connected world. Initially this ability will enable you to get along with your roommate, your peers, and professors, and eventually with your boss, co-workers, spouse, or partner.

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3. Listening with care keeps us from forcing others into uncomfortable situations.

It is important to show respect to those addressing us by following their messages. When I was touring the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, the tour guide asked us to join a tour in English or Spanish. Those were our two options and this message was conveyed in different languages.  At the outset, we were asked not to wonder beyond a certain point to avoid disturbing the cloister nuns who opened up their home for a limited number of hours a day to visitors. It had not been more than two minutes since our guide explained why we needed to respect the nuns’ quarters when a couple in the group, whose native language wasn’t English or Spanish, began to “explore” aimlessly the Convent’s architectural richness on their own. The guide, showing some frustration, called them to rejoin the group. They were angry with her. Hence, she offered a refund if they opted to leave the tour, which they did. The episode was uncomfortable for all of us. Did the couple not listen that the tour was only offered in English or Spanish? Did they not understand what the tour guide said? Did they not enjoy boundaries? I am unlikely to know the answer to these questions, but I know that they disrupted a very nice tour and did not listen with care at the very beginning.

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Being a good listener is an art. Like any other skill-set we can decide how much effort to put forth in developing it fully. If you opt to become great at it, you will find success in your classes, your job, and all of your relationships. No matter where you end up, it will be well worth being able to listen up!