Can we really listen to each other?


This morning I was reading an article about communication and why we are all so bad about it. It didn’t really say anything world shatteringly new, but it did talk about how we are all so busy following our own agendas that we often simply don’t hear what others are “saying” to us. There was an example of a girl in the street who reacted very badly and aggressively to a man who had spoken to her. This was probably her fear, or an ingrained message that you don’t speak to srangers in the street, but the fact is that the man had simply asked her the time because his watch had broken. Sometimes it would be nice to stop listening to the screenplay in our heads and simply listen and see what is happening around us.

With this thought in mind, later in the afternoon, I took a plane to Cologne. I was flying from Verona and my fellow passenger was Italian. He had his ipad with him, and as we were about to take off the usual message was broadcast about switching off electronic equipment until the “fasten your seatbelt signs” are switched off. The message came in German and English and I was about to get irritated as the man sitting next to me ignored it. (At least that is what the screenplay in my head told me he was doing.) I was about to tell him to switch it off, terrified that his ipad might mean that our plane would plunge from the skies ( and we hadn’t even taken off), but I decided that this wasn’t my job, and he wasn’t really looking at it anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel a sliver of irritation in any case.

A few minutes later a flight attendant appeared with coffee and snacks, and that was when I discovered that my fellow passenger did not speak English or German, and he later told me that he wasn’t used to flying, so he had not understood any of the pre take off talk. I helped him by interpreting between him and the flight attendant, and we all proceeded happily towards Cologne despite his ipad episode. It just made me realise though, how much of an “inner screenplay” I carry around with me, and how we all make assumptions about other people’s behaviour, without having all the information to do so properly. I know it’s only natural, and none of us are perfect but if we ar really going to understand each other, perhaps we could learn to stop, take a deep breath and observe the situation before jumping in with both left feet!


Well, it is only indirectly connected to language learning, in the strict sense, but if we are interested in helping our learners communicate, then we have to be aware of all kinds of things that go beyond getting the Present Perfect” right (a tall order for many, in any case). Communication is a loaded business for most of us with all sorts of elements to it that go far beyond the transactional. One example of this is a comment that recently appead on one of my Facebook posts. Facebook, as we all know, is where we like to show off, among other things, and I had been showing off about a conference I was attending and a colleague of mine wrote: “what conference is that then? Why don’t I know about it?” This could have been interpreted as a request for information and the answer would have been to tell him about the conference, possibly reminding him at the same time that I had sent an email to everyone telling them about it earlier in the year. I know this person though and I was pretty sure that behind this was a feeling of exclusion, so I commented something along the lines of “Oh, you know, it’s the Aiclu conference I mentioned a while back. Pity you didn’t make it, you’ll have to come to the next one.” in this way I was responding on a transactional level but also reassuring my friend that he wasn’t being excluded and that, in fact, it woupd have been nice if he had been there too.

Facebook comments, of course, are not spoken discourse, so this is not a matter of “listening” in the strict sense, but listening leads to response in the same way as reading comments on social networks can, and we often read these comments and react so quickly that this is, in fact, a new hybrid way of communicating, somewhere between writing and speaking. What is noticeable, however, if youl ook at comments between people on Facebook, who know each other, but who you do not know (or you only know one of them) the exchanges can at times be difficult for an outsider to follow, precisely because so much of the communication involved is linked to the non verbal (intentions, feelings, past history, shared knowledge and assumptions etc.) All these things are part of successful language use and successful communication, and yet we are often not aware of them.


So, there is an awful lot going on in discourse, and thr intention behind what we say is often just as, if not more important than the words themselves. To help our students we need to basically raise their awareness of:
1) the screenplay in their minds;
2) the different intentions people have when they speak (or write).

One exercise is to look at different messages, like the one from my colleague, or even potentially provocative or misleading ones. (I’m still thinking about these and would be really gratefu
For any suggestions 🙂 ), and ask students to consider how to answer them, by looking at these three questions:
1) What is the message asking?
2) What is the intention behind the message?
3) what is an appropriate way to respond?

It can be very interesting to see the suggestions different groups give, and at the same time raise awareness of another element to communication which goes beyond mere accuracy.



4 thoughts on “Can we really listen to each other?

  1. The problem of the screenplay in our minds is a very real one. And it exists in our classrooms first of all in the interaction between the pupils and with us. I see it particularly strongly with the hard of hearing students. A couple of them are always worried that someone is laughing at them!

  2. Oh, yes, Naomi, I can imagine that would really be an issue if you’re hard of hearing, but in fact you’re right to say that it’s a problem generally in class interaction, as teachers are listening for one thing and learners are also not always producing language for communication. I know we need a cèrtain amòunt of language oroduction which is fr display, or for experimentation, but it defintely shouldn’t be at the expense of communication.

  3. Thank you for your effort . most of students have not self confidence to speak with other students in the class and in our society girls are too shy to interact in the class ..

    1. you are right aya girls in our society are very shy …………….. we must find any ways to solve this problem

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