Season 2 Episode 19

Welcome to Ethos English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. In roughly ten minutes a week I help you expand your productive vocabulary so that you can become a more confident and fluent English speaker. The full text version of the show is available at You’ll be prompted to sign up for my newsletter, which I send out once a month. It includes a Quizlet flashcard set covering all of the key vocabulary from each episode. At the end of every episode I provide a definition for all of the items of vocabulary as well as examples to illustrate the meaning with additional context.

Today I want to talk about becoming a better listener. Now, I know you may be thinking, come on Sean, I listen to you every week, don’t I? Fair enough. All the same, I’m convinced that we could all do with some help when it comes to communication skills.

I was recently carrying out oral exams with my students. They had to discuss an issue as a group, which is a common feature of many high-stakes speaking exams and job interviews too. There’s a very predictable pattern among my younger students who are in their first year of university which I think we can all learn from. My students tend to speak very quickly and respond to each other without taking a moment to reflect on what their speaking partner has said before answering.

So, while one student is saying “I think X” and the other one disagrees, they’ll blurt out “Yes, but…” and give their point of view without actually addressing what the other person has said. And it’s all kind of chaotic and frustrating for everyone involved. (Well, maybe more for me than for them!) In Spanish it’s what we call a “diálogo de besugos”. A besugo is a kind of fish, what’s called sea bream, but here it’s used to mean a fool or idiot. So a diálogo de besugos is a fish’s or a fool’s dialogue. I imagine two fat fish staring at each other in the water and instead of words coming out of their mouths all you hear are bubbles of air. Blub, blub, blub.

In English we have a similar, though less colourful expression, which is be at cross purposes or talk at cross purposes. In other words, this is when two people in a discussion do not understand each other because they are talking about different things but fail to realise this. Earlier in my teaching career I would deal with this by teaching my students chunks of language, specifically functional language for conversations, that is expressions used to express agreement, disagreement and turn taking.

For instance, I would teach my students chunks like “I see what you mean but…” and “I take your point but…” for expressing disagreement and chunks like “Fair enough.” and “You took the words right out of my mouth.” for expressing agreement. Some teachers say they don’t like it when students memorise chunks of language like this. They say it’s unnatural. I don’t take that view myself. At first, these chunks will sound unnatural, but that’s just part of the learning process. The biggest pitfall with learning these chunks is ignoring intonation when learning chunks. As a learner you need to practise them while paying close attention to where the natural stress falls. An easy way to do this is to go to and type in the chunk and listen to different speakers saying it and then mimicking their intonation.

Let me give you an example. A chunk for expressing your opinion is “to my mind”. It’s another way of saying “I think” or “My opinion is that…” And often students will stress the word “mind” and say something like “To my mind, working too many hours is counterproductive.” Here, the correct stress is not on mind, but my, as in “to MY mind, working too many hours is counterproductive.” So, provided that you pay close attention to intonation when learning new chunks of language, I say go for it.

Now, over the years I noticed that my students, despite learning these chunks of language, were not actually communicating more effectively. Rather than interrupting each other and saying “Yes, but…” they would be saying things like “Fair enough, but what about…?” The thing is, I hadn’t addressed the root problem – which was not about language per se, but listening and communication skills. If you say “fair enough” you are saying that you think something about what the other person is reasonable, even if you don’t agree entirely. But I noticed my students were using this language disingenuously, that is an insincere, dishonest way. Because they weren’t actually engaging with each other’s arguments because they were too busy trying to express their own ideas. If you respond to someone by saying “fair enough” and then don’t provide a single example of something you agree on, well, something’s not quite right.

As I was researching this episode I found an article from Psychology Today called “How to Be an Effective Listener: Letting them know you’ve heard what they said.” by David Ludden Ph.D.

I’m going to quote the opening paragraphs of the article:
“People have a basic need to feel that they’ve been heard. This is true both in formal settings and in our daily interactions with those we’re closest to.

Workers who feel their bosses listen to them show greater commitment and motivation to their jobs. Patients who believe their healthcare providers listen to them are more satisfied with the care they receive and are more likely to adhere to prescribed medical regimens. People who believe their romantic partners listen to them are more satisfied with their relationship and more committed to it. We even like strangers more when they show authentic interest in the casual conversations we have with them.

People show they’re listening to their conversation partner in a wide variety of ways. However, according to Harvard Business School psychologist Hanna Collins, many of these “I’m listening” signals can be faked. So, the challenge becomes: How do we really know the other person is actually listening to us and not just faking it?”

In short, improving our listening skills improves the quality of our relationships and of our lives. This is a much bigger issue than simply passing a speaking exam or doing well in a job interview. So, what’s the author’s conclusion about listening? He points out that using physical gestures like nodding, smiling and making eye contact can all be faked. If we really want to improve our ability to listen to other people and allow them to feel heard, we need to follow up what someone has said with a comment of our own, either by paraphrasing what that person has said, that is saying the same thing using different words, or asking them questions related to what they’ve said.

A good chunk of functional language for paraphrasing someone else’s ideas is:

“What I’m hearing you saying is that (and then fill in the blank)”

As I was reading this article from Psychology Today I was reminded of a book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg. The crux of his argument is very similar to what I just summed up from the article, namely that seemingly simple changes to our communication style can significantly improve our relationships.

Rosenberg’s key idea is that if you are arguing with someone and want to actually resolve the conflict so that everyone involved feels satisfied, the first thing you do after someone speaks is that you paraphrase what they’ve said. Simple as that. What’s more, the rule is, you can’t express your point of view until the other person explicitly agrees with how you’ve paraphrased their words.

So, a way we can incorporate this in our speaking is a slightly modified version of the chunk I just mentioned. Instead of simply saying “What I’m hearing you saying is that…” we can say “Correct me if I’m wrong – what I’m hearing you saying is that…” or “What I’m hearing you saying is that… Is that right? / or in a formal register “Is that a fair assessment?” This is an explicit invitation to your counterpart in a conversation to address any possible misunderstandings. But remember, don’t be disingenuous about this. This approach only works if you’re sincerely open to being corrected. On a more practical level, slow down. After saying “What I’m hearing you saying is that… Is that a fair assessment?” Remain silent and give the other person a moment to reflect and answer you.

And if you’re the person being asked this be honest. If your speaking partner really gets what you’re saying and has paraphrased your ideas accurately then you might say, in response to their question “Is that right?” or “Is that a fair assessment?” something like “Yes” or “I would say so.” or “That sounds about right.” and if you thought you needed to further clarify your ideas you could say something like “Not quite. Let me put it this way…” and then explain your point of view. Or, if there’s been a complete misunderstanding you might say “I’m afraid not. Let me put it this way…”

If you’re interested in learning more about Marshall Rosenberg’s ideas on communication skills, I’ve linked a video in the show notes. Try out his ideas – I dare you. Whenever you’re about to disagree with someone in conversation make a habit of either paraphrasing their idea before setting out your reasons for disagreeing or ask follow up questions. I would say this advice is especially important for my male listeners. No offence guys, but we have more work to do this in department.

Now, let’s go over today’s vocabulary:

do with something: (spoken) need, want or benefit from something

I could have done with some help this morning. (= I needed some help this morning or I could’ve benefited from some help this morning.)

high stakes: if the stakes are high when you are trying to do something, you risk losing a lot or it will be dangerous if you fail

Climbing is a dangerous sport and the stakes are high.

A high-stakes situation is one that is very important for the person involved. We often describe exams as being high-stakes if passing or failing will make a big difference in the test taker’s life.

Many schools are moving away from high-stakes final exams and instead focusing on more frequent assessments that are less stressful for students.

blurt something out: say something suddenly and without thinking, usually because you are nervous or excited

He blurted everything out about the baby, though we’d agreed to keep it a secret for a while.

be/talk at cross purposes: if two people are at cross-purposes or talk at cross-purposes, they do not understand each other because they are talking about different things but fail to realise this

I think we’ve been talking at cross purposes – I meant next year, not this year.

a pitfall: a problem or difficulty that is likely to happen in a particular job, course of action or activity

He gave me advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of the legal process.

address the root problem: start trying to solve the main cause of a problem

If politicians want to deal with social inequality they should address the root problem, namely the lack of well-paid jobs in the current job market.

per se: (formal) used to say that something is being considered alone, not with other connected things

Research shows that it is not divorce per se that harms children, but the continuing conflict between parents.

disingenuous: slightly dishonest or not speaking the complete truth

It was disingenuous of her to claim she had no financial interest in the case.

the crux of an argument/problem/matter/etc.: the most important part of a problem, question, argument, etc.

The crux of the country’s economic problems is its foreign debt.

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