Updated: Jul 7, 2022
The ways we show we’re actively listening can differ from person-to-person, group-to-group, culture-to-culture.
A few months ago I came across a post by the author Priya Parker who wrote the book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She introduced me to a term in communication and listening called ‘cooperative overlapping’.
It started with her reposting NPR journalist Sam Sander’s content on December 8, 2021. Sam shared an email he got from a listener, along with his reply.
The listener criticized his “constant grunts and murmurs… when a guest is speaking”. The message from the unnamed listener continued: “I don’t know if these sounds are involuntary or if he wants to show he’s paying attention, but it’s rude to guests and distracting to listeners.”
Sam’s response contained insightful info about cultural differences in listening. He said this: “What you’re hearing is a linguistic tradition very prominent in Black culture and the Black church. Public speaking, oration, and conversation in the Black community is consistently peppered with call and response. The congregation tells the preacher “Amen” so he or she will keep going, the grunt or uhhmm and ahhh to show support and encourage the speaker to continue. In everyday conversation, Black people push conversation forward with interjections as well. There’s a linguistic term for this. It’s called Cooperative Overlapping.”
In a fascinating chase down the Internet rabbit hole, Priya explored where this term came from and how it became popularized today, which surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) is through TikTok. She shared an opinion essay from The New York Times by Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.
In the piece, Deborah shares information about her research transcribing a conversation between New Yorkers and Californians. At first look at the transcript, it appeared as though the New Yorkers were rudely talking over one another, which (to the Californians at the table) they were. Upon closer inspection of the entire conversation, there were differing assumptions about overlap in the communication, the New Yorkers at this table were engaging in their regular style of dialogue.
“Participatory listenership” is the umbrella term Deborah uses for listening and cooperative overlapping is an active listening technique that sits under this umbrella. There are many other forms of active listening, many of which we’ve explored in other episodes, but this type of cooperative overlapping – amping up the conversation and encouraging the speaker to continue sharing – is particularly culturally-specific. Anthropologists and linguists have described this type of overlapping conversation in a variety of cultures around the world throughout history.
In other words, while silence is golden in conversation, it’s not the only way to demonstrate engagement. That said, when listening styles differ greatly, a well intentioned overlap can feel like rude interruption. Domination of the conversation can result and the speaker may feel like they’re not listened to or even attacked. Deborah ends the article by offering this interesting piece of advice: “If you’ve been waiting in vain for a pause, you might push yourself to jump in. And if you feel interrupted, try continuing to talk, instead of stopping.”
Today’s guest is Dr. Jennifer Hunter. She is a Clinical Psychologist who listens for a living, as well as conducting important research in the field and teaching Master of Social Work students about her area of expertise. She and I get into the nitty-gritty about different types of listening exchanges (some similar to cooperative overlapping), as well as how to tap into our emotional states as a way to listen on another level. We also dive into the imbalance we feel in how communication is taught (speaking vs. listening) in classrooms of all levels, as determined by metrics like participation grades. Jenn identifies listening’s transformational power, listening’s role as a precursor to creative thinking, the role self-esteem plays in listening and she positions the act of listening as a gift we can offer others.
Phew, it’s a good one!
In thinking more about this conversation after it was over, I began really trying to figure out how to incorporate the evaluation of listening into future courses. Active listening can be demonstrated in a whole range of ways, including overtly apparent techniques (eye contact, nodding, leaning forward, open body language, paraphrasing someone’s words back to them for clarification, asking questions, explaining the concept to someone else, etc.), as well as covert techniques (thinking deeply, sense-making, expanding on and connecting ideas, etc.).
I’m going to continue to iron out the details, however I’m excited to include a participation mark that includes a combination of overt and covert active listening techniques into my courses. This might look like asking students to put away their devices for a portion of the class to really focus on listening and/or encourage asking clarification questions throughout the class and/or paraphrasing key ideas on a piece of paper they submit at the end of class. Furthermore, there will likely be a self-evaluation component to help provide an assessment of their active listening that I can’t see. Continuous evaluation throughout the semester will be more helpful to course-correct and learn from rather than a single grade at the end.
I also think it will be important to introduce listening as a topic in a 10-20 minute discussion of what, when, why, where, who and how of listening to gain student buy-in and clarify exactly what active listening is all about. Part of this assessment item’s purpose is to get back to basics with the critical skill of listening. Part of the purpose is to provide space for practice and to experience quiet contemplation in a noisy world. And part of the purpose is to level the playing field with naturally inquisitive but quiet, shy or introverted students who don’t enjoy engaging in traditional class discussions where participation marks are often held. However I choose to move forward with this assessment of listening, I must keep each of these goals in mind to create a fair and equitable assessment item. It won’t be completely ironed out until I try it a few times, but I’m excited to continue exploring the effects this could have on positively changing the dynamics of the classroom so that everyone feels heard and (hopefully) engagement naturally increases with the focus shifted from talking to listening.
For this episode’s listening invitation, I’m going to wear my teacher hat and ask you to evaluate yourself. In the book You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy, she provides the following 3-question self-assessment prompt when leaving a conversation. I encourage you to ask yourself the following:
What did I just learn about that person?
What was most concerning to that person today?
How did that person feel about what we were talking about?
This type of awareness in others and in yourself can change future interactions for the better, inciting greater empathy, changing your world and then changing the world, one conversation at a time.
About Our Guest:
Dr. Jennifer Hunter is a Clinical Psychologist. She has a private practice providing psychotherapy and psychological assessment to adults and couples, provides research support to North York General Hospital's Adult Eating Disorders program, and is a sessional lecturer in the University of Toronto's Master of Social Work program. Jennifer is honoured to support clients in re-imagining their lives and healing old wounds, and feels lucky that she has the privilege of working with such amazing clients, colleagues and students.
Music (public domain via Free Music Archive): Ketsa - Wallow
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