The Art — and Act — of Listening

For twenty years, I’ve been teaching library staff best practices in reference and information and referral interviewing. It’s been way longer that I’ve been practicing reference work, and “practice” here comprises both repetition for the sake of skill building and working with comers who want and need the service (think medical or legal “practice”, just two other professions which require constant improvement while consistently providing skills in the aid of others needs). It’s been an era of huge changes in available tools, the requirement to learn new methods, and landscapes of information.

All these changes have also increased the attention reference workers need in what some might identify as a personality trait: listening, rather than simply hearing.  The kernel of reference work remains authentic, useful response to another’s stated need for information. The statements vary widely in degree of articulation (thus the demand on the practitioner to be a skillful interviewer), but  remain the true focus of the interaction. The capacity to listen is the germ within that kernel; without its presence, our work is sterile and our efforts to reach the needs bound up in the query don’t reach fruition.

To provide quality reference assistance, we do need to have appropriate tools as well as familiarity with their practical and meaningful uses. But to turn to those tools with the expectation that the best response lies within them or through our use of them bypasses the art of understanding what and when and how to connect this seeker with the most useful resource of assistance.  What must come first, and what must remain as we engage with that seeker, is our own capacity to listen.

To listen, we need to suspend our suppositions of what the seeker needs. We need to be able to hear what the key words are for the seeker, not concentrate our hearing for clues that hit on resources we know. The artful listener can interview the seeker in a conversational manner rather than in imitation of a punch list. Listening is about the speaker (in reference work, the one seeking assistance), rather than about connecting the dots between what we know of our resources with generalities ascribable to the “real” question. Remember, another truism of library work, and reference work, is specificity over generalities.

Listening isn’t an ears only activity. We listen with our eyes to body language, when the seeker is physically present.  The telephone introduced a layer of complication to understanding through listening; video chatting has helped assuage listening across space. Email listening may be the most difficult of all as it occurs in a milieu devoid of shared, visible space  and also of shared time. For practitioner purposes, email is more hazard than convenience (Imagine trying to diagnose via email). Texting improves upon the chances of written back and forth leaving room to listen in real time.

Are you comfortable with listening? Are you aware of when you aren’t listening but simply hearing (noise) while cruising your own inner dialog for tools to suggest?  Do you know a model listener, someone who seems to be able to suspend that inner dialog to attend to what you are saying or trying to say? That art of listening isn’t silent–the best listeners determine which questions need to be asked for mutual understanding. Are you a model of artful listening yourself?  How do you build others capacity to practice the art?