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Talking and Listening for Brainpower

The following tips are about the power of talking and listening. Both can help one learn more and to use one's brain more effectively. It is perhaps obvious that we can learn from listening, as we do from the start with parents and later with teachers in school. But the tips below have to do with listening not as an academic activity, but as a part of life after school. As we age we often stop listening to others very well, and instead just argue or trade opinions.

Talking is an activity that I have recommended before in the Brainpower Newsletter. Specifically I have suggested that in the process of explaining ideas we can understand and develop them better. Talking is not just a way to communicate with others, but also a way of thinking. There has been some research that demonstrates the power of talking as a way to boost brainpower, and we'll start with that.

Talk to Think Better

Dr. Jay Roberts, from Earlham College, wrote an article for the Association for Experiential Education (since removed from online pulication). To summarize part of what he reported, there was a research study done which was titled, "Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions." Students were asked to answer a conceptual question using a clicker to select their answer, and then they discussed their answer with another student and answered again after this discussion. It probably did not surprise the researchers that the second answer was correct more often than the first.

Of course, the student next to each student -- the one they discussed their answers with -- could be smarter, and that this might be the reason for better answers. So the researchers asked a second question, which was related to the first conceptually, and which was answered individually (they refer to this similar question as "isomorphic"). The correct answer of the first question had not been revealed.

What they discovered was that talking to one's peers enhanced understanding. This was true even when none of the students in the discussion group originally got the answer correct. The result was beyond any variation that might come from random guessing. The bottom line is that talking improved thinking. It suggests that just listening to a teacher might not be as effective as stopping to discuss what they are learning. I would say it provides evidence for my idea that to talk is to think.

Listening Tips

As my regular readers know, I have said more than once that you learn more by listening to what others have to say than by expressing your own opinions. However, we're not all naturally good listeners, so it helps to practice. Here are a few tricks to pay better attention when listening to others.

=> Don't think about what you are going to say next. This is a tough one, but we often are so busy trying to formulate what will next come out of our mouths that we are not really listening. Stop the process as soon as it starts and just listen to the person. Your response will probably be better if you actually know what was said, after all, and again, you don't usually learn that much from repeating what you already know anyhow.

=> Hold your questions for a moment. We sometimes are afraid that we'll forget what we want to ask, so we interrupt the speaker. The process of looking for the right moment to interrupt prevents us from fully paying attention. Instead, just let go of the questions in your mind while you listen, and trust that they will arise naturally when the right moment arrives.

=> Notice your own reactions to a person. When you meet someone new, consciously identify your impressions and assumptions about him or her. If you feel like they are mean or silly, admit that to yourself. If their clothing or mannerisms make them seem strange, note this potential reason for bias. This simple process, which was suggested by one of my Brainpower Newsletter subscribers, helps clear your mind and makes you more attentive and objective.

Now, you might wonder at the pairing of these two approaches. First I say to talk is to think and then it seems I'm saying "shut up and listen!" Well, that's about right. There are times to talk, like when you are learning and exploring ideas. But then, when talking will be nothing more than repeating what you already know (or think you know), it is time to listen.


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