Cultivating the skill and the orientation to listen

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Joshua Margolis Into PracticeJoshua Margolis, James Dinan and Elizabeth Miller Professor of Business Administration, demands of himself intensive listening while teaching, and asks the same from students: “When I listen really carefully it allows me to push students hard and help them see what they have within themselves.” While students speak, he makes direct eye contact and maintains it even when he moves in the classroom so they’re addressing the rest of the class, not just him. Margolis asks a series of follow-up questions and then summarizes after every three to five interactions.

The benefits: This active engagement is understood by students to be a sign of respect not just for their knowledge and insight, but also for their capacity to teach one another. It reinforces the value of coming prepared, thinking independently, listening carefully, and working as a team—as students pick up where others hit a wall. These skills will be as important to their effectiveness as managers as the content of what they’re learning. 

The challenges: Teaching in this way requires a mix of hyper-preparedness and flexibility, so the instructor can adapt to student comments in a way that guides class discussion toward key lessons. It’s both mentally and physically exhausting for the instructor, and can make some students anxious. “If they’re anxious, I want to stick with them because I want them to see they’ve got the fundamental capability and can build upon it.”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Set ground rules. One such rule that governs classroom conduct at HBS is “no hand-raising while someone is speaking” because it’s distracting for everyone in the class. “If a student’s hand is up while others are speaking, it shows they’re focused more on what they are about to say rather than listening, and our goal is to build a learning conversation.”
  • Reframe rather than correct students. “Students feel much more appreciated when you are close to their words as opposed to when you transfer their words into your own. The closer you can stick to the students’ language, the more you bring them with you.”
  • Always take notes right after teaching. Right after class, Margolis documents what worked and what he might do differently. “It may not be what I want to do after an exhausting class, but it doesn’t take an immense amount of time—it just takes consistent effort to do so.” He found this helped from class to class, and from year to year, to refine the questions he wants to ask students. 

Bottom line: Careful listening builds trust and demonstrates to students that it’s not just the first thought that matters. Students participating in a listening conversation come to realize the goal isn’t to come to class with a “satchel of golden nuggets and try to figure out when to insert one,” but instead, use preparation to follow and jump into class discussion wherever it goes so they can contribute to their classmates’ learning.