I, like many babywearing educators, have experienced those moments where I ask myself what I could improve upon to become a better educator. Perhaps if I were more outgoing or a better public speaker it would improve my ability to teach what I love. I’ve had the privilege of observing many highly talented educators in action. Educators who are compassionate and effectively convey information. The type of educators who really make a difference in the lives of the caregivers they assist every day, and they share a very important skill…they know when to keep quiet. More specifically, they are active and engaged listeners. Could you benefit from listening more and talking less? This primer on active listening will help you build a foundation for the most important skill in babywearing education — listening.
Active listening involves a set of skills that can be used by educators to encourage caregivers to provide as much information as necessary in order for us to come up with coherent suggestions for their questions and concerns. It can also help maximize our time at meetings, establish positive rapport with meeting attendees, and can also help improve chapter interactions as a whole.
Active listening is not a skill that comes naturally to most, since we’re often programmed to wait patiently (and sometimes impatiently) until it becomes our turn to speak without engaging with our conversation partner in a way that is attentive, nonjudgmental, and comprehensive. Though common in therapeutic settings, certain elements of active listening can help us improve our ability to educate others.
Be a Whole Body Listener
The first step to active listening is to engage as a whole body listener. It goes beyond simply being present while someone talks to us. It means we avoid distraction to the best of our ability and we’re mindful of the message our body language sends. It seems simple enough but positive, welcoming body language goes a long way in establishing trust and helping caregivers be at ease with us.
- Make eye contact.
- Have an open body posture.
- Avoid getting out your phone, twiddling your thumbs, folding carriers, casual talk with other volunteers, etc. while a caregiver in speaking.
- Have strategies in place for handling your children at meetings should they be attending. I know this one is easier said than done!
Listen with Sincerity
- Avoid interrupting the caregiver.
- Don’t work on a response in your head while they’re talking. Your goal is to listen and ensure that you fully understand the type of support they’re seeking before coming up with suggestions. For example, I might hear that a caregiver dislikes their ring sling, but instead of immediately making suggestions to try other carriers, it would be better to engage the caregiver for more information to determine whether another carrier is appropriate or if they just need help adjusting their ring sling more comfortably.
Listen without Bias
- Always keep in mind that what works for you may not work for the caregiver. Avoid letting your personal preferences limit your suggestions. While I might love a certain buckle carrier or woven wrap brand, it might not be an appropriate choice for the caregiver I’m helping.
- Don’t make assumptions about the caregiver. An open mind ensures a genuine response.
- Give feedback at regular intervals in the form of short verbal or nonverbal replies. This encourages the caregiver to continue providing information and is a simple way to show them we’re listening and value their time.
- Paraphrase what the caregiver is saying in your own words. This helps to reinforce their words in your mind, and it also gives them the opportunity to clarify anything you’ve misunderstood.
Ask Open Ended Questions
If you don’t feel that you fully understand what a caregiver is describing, asking for clarification in the form of open ended questions is one of the best ways to do that. An open ended question allows for any response other than “yes” or “no”. More importantly, it avoids the perception that we as educators are looking for a “right” answer and gives us the ability to troubleshoot with them, rather than giving the caregiver the impression that we’re preaching or lecturing. It can also be helpful in some situations for the caregiver to show or demonstrate what they’re describing so we may better understand.
- “What are your goals for today’s meeting?”
- “What features of the carrier do you like/dislike?”
- “What alternatives (type of carrier/carry) do you have in mind?”
Once you feel you’ve received enough information to fully understand the caregiver’s needs, you can summarize what they’ve said and ask if your perception is correct. If the caregiver agrees, you’re free to ask if you can make suggestions.
When I first learned about active listening, it was almost overwhelming to keep all of those steps in mind when conversing with someone, but it really wasn’t as difficult as I imagined to implement at meetings. We eliminate frustration and confusion by fully comprehending the needs of caregivers. We maximize our time by spending less time talking. We also increase attendee satisfaction, which can increase turnout and membership. I find that the most successful meetings are ones where attendees and educators have mutual appreciation and respect for each other’s time, and engaged listening can encourage that.
I have also found active listening to be helpful in group settings. One active listening strategy for a group that I like is to ask the goals of those in attendance prior to the teaching portion of the meeting and then repeat those goals back to them. This accomplishes two things: It helps reinforce your memory of what each person hopes to accomplish at the meeting, and it shows your attendees that you’re paying attention.
Active Listening for Online Discussion Groups
Many chapters now have discussion groups with members numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands. Much of our day to day interaction with caregivers happens online. I may never see many of those caregivers at meetings, but when they post questions I can still maximize my ability to help them by utilizing active listening skills. I can do this by:
- Responding in a positive, welcoming tone. Without visual feedback, the tone we set within online group discussion is paramount to creating an environment conducive to learning. The climate in our online groups should resemble what they can expect at a meeting.
- Asking open ended questions to gain more information.
- Resisting the urge to immediately offer suggestions until enough information has been gathered to make a suggestion. I find that this avoids a lot of unnecessary confusion that happens all too frequently without face to face interaction.
- Responding in a way that can be easily understood by any member who comes across my post. I try to remind myself that what I post will be visible to several thousand members, so it’s my responsibility to ensure that it is coherent.
Active Listening for Chapter Management
Successful educators make for successful chapters. The environment under which we volunteer is crucial to promoting feelings of satisfaction and continued engagement with the chapter. Conflict and crisis are inevitable, but how we manage it will determine resiliency and ability to move forward. Active listening is also crucial for recruiting new volunteers, understanding their needs and abilities, and placing them in the right roles within the chapter.
- Time management. Conversations aren’t led by a single person. Everyone can contribute and give each other equal time to listen, comprehend, and respond.
- No ideas are lost. Allowing for free exchange of ideas and knowledge promotes chapter growth.
- Allows us to be alert to the needs of others.
- Promotes feelings of shared responsibility.
- Encourages empathy and respect by allowing us to see the workings of the chapter through the eyes of every volunteer.
- Helps us better understand strengths and expertise, and identify where improvements can be made.
Our goal is to share our passion for babywearing within our communities. We reach our goals through mindfulness in how we listen and respond to caregivers regardless of setting. Our growth depends on how we manage chapter interaction in a way that fosters a cooperative, respectful environment. Our success lies not in our ability to speak, but our ability to listen.