When we think of listening skills, we usually think of predicting, making inferences, understanding the speaker’s attitude, and the like. But what about giving feedback? That is, the verbal and non-verbal responses a listener gives to a speaker in everyday conversation. This includes the nods of agreement and the expressions of surprise such as Oh really? and Is that so? In a real face-to-face situation, students may be so focused on the task of comprehending, they may be unaware that a response to the content is expected even as the other person is speaking.
As an illustration of the importance of this feedback, you can ask three students to volunteer and tell you briefly about how they spent the past evening. Warn them in advance that you are going to listen to each student a different way. The rest of the class will observe. During the first talk, let your eyes wander and give no verbal or non-verbal response. During the second talk, keep constant eye-contact and give only non-verbal responses. During the third talk, maintain eye contact and provide both verbal and non-verbal responses. After all three students have finished, discuss students’ observations. Encourage the three volunteers to share their reactions to your different styles of listening. Discuss cultural differences. You can elicit ideas and form a list of recommendations. For example:
- Maintain eye-contact. Remember your eyes can express emotions: surprise, concern, doubt, etc.
- Use nods for agreement or just to acknowledge the speaker’s words.
- Mm is a sound that can be used to express surprise (sharp rise-fall), confusion (sharp rise), and disappointment (slow fall).
- Mm-hm is a sound that can be used to express agreement (level intonation).
- Use expressions to indicate surprise: Really? Oh my! Is that a fact? No way! You’re kidding!
- Use expressions to indicate agreement: I hear you. I know what you mean. That’s so true.
- Use questions to encourage the speaker: And then what happened? So what did you do? And what do you think?
To practice being an active listener, you can set up situations in which students must give feedback to one another. For instance, in small groups of three or four, assign one student in the group the role of speaker. He or she must talk for 1-2 minutes on an assigned topic (e.g., your last vacation). The others must provide an assigned form of feedback during the talk: one gives frequent acknowledgement /agreement, another shows surprise, and a third might invite more details.