Early on in my teaching career I recognized that there had to be a better way to talk with my students. I just knew there had to be more ways of working through conflicts and other situations than shouting, remaining silent and remote, or taking control without considering the others needs. I discovered “I” messages and Active Listening, which had been introduced in the 1960’s by Thomas Gordon. It built on how other groups such as the Quakers developed similar skills for communication.
“I” messages and active listening are positive ways of learning how to take responsibility for ones own feelings and reactions. Traditionally there is a pattern to “I” messages, which is used so the speaker can share what they see and feel:
- I feel (the person states how they feel about the situation);
- When (the person states the specific behavior they reacted to);
- Because (the person states the effect on their life);
- And I want (the person states what they need or want to have happen).
Active listening means that the listener is truly paying attention to what is being said and trying to understand. Paraphrasing and/or summarizing what was said helps both parties to be clear on what is being shared.
Being a young mother at that time helped me to learn to use these skills both at home and in the classroom. I found that both my own children and my students responded positively to these approaches. The key for me was that I used these skills myself before introducing them to others. I saw that the whole attitude during confrontations changed. Instead of a situation ending with everyone becoming angry and upset, we were hearing each other and being willing to consider options that would have been drowned out in hurtful words or silent resentment. Wonder of wonders was that we were really trying to listen to each other and to understand what someone else was feeling!
Soon, in both my home and class, I found that using these skills was becoming natural for all of us. We had more sense of being a family and a community in the classroom. We respected each other’s opinions and were not so quick to jump to conclusions about why someone was acting the way they were. We were learning to be true to ourselves and authentic with others. These traits, that NLRI (Natural Learning Research Institute) supports, are positive ways for us to become better at building community whether in the home or classroom.
To begin to learn them you could say, as I did, that you want to learn how to use these skills and that you would like to learn them together. This approach helps you and your students/children be on the same level and learning together can build respect and trust.
With Active Listening I found one of best ways to engage the practice was by using something physical (such as a hat or talking stick). I would have the students in a circle (or circles) and give them a question. The first person that responded would pass the hat to the next who would paraphrase what they heard being said. When the two agreed on what had been said the second person would state his or her answer to the question and pass the hat to the next person and so on.
I have found that if you search the web you will find many other examples of how to apply these two skills. Our own, very powerful approach is called “Ordered Sharing.” You can find it on this website under “Natural Learning in Schools.”