Listen and Learn – 8 Tips for Tutors

I’ve talked about the “Language of Listening” in recent post, but I haven’t directly related listening to tutoring up to this point. Penn State describes 8 listening tips for peer tutors.

  1. Do not assume. You should never assume you know what a client is going to say. Use your patience to allow the client to complete a full thought before you start talking. Interruption reveals a lack of listening.
  2. Ignore distractions. In most cases (especially in a writing center) you are never going to have complete privacy. You must work through this. Ignore anything going on in the background.
  3. Stay focused. The moment your mind begins to wander is when you will stop listening. If you feel like you are becoming unfocused, move your body.
  4. Remain objective. Tutors should not become emotionally involved with a client. Emotions tend to blur concentration. You may begin to hear what you want to hear.
  5. Wait. Before you begin talking, allow the client a few seconds to comprehend what was previously said. This could be just enough time for the client to figure out something without your help. In addition, you need a moment to think about what you are going to say next.
  6. Observe the subtext. Pay attention to the way a client says something. Their tone and body language are telling. Listening to emotions and words will increase your comprehension.
  7. Use your body. Remember to show that you are listening to the client.
  8. Show respect. It is important to abstain from judging the client’s ideas or point of view. Show the client respect, as it is their paper.

Who doesn’t love an acronym?

Building rapport is an essential part of the tutoring process. I touched on this in a previous post. As a tutor, you want the client to feel comfortable from beginning to end.

Body language can work to your advantage.A positive introduction is important. A firm hand shake, smile, and eye contact will carry you a long way. Welcome the client with an open palm towards a seat with hospitality. Maintain eye contact 60-70% of the time and avoid closing your posture. Remember: if you are relaxed, they will be too! In an effort to not be a “loser”, remember this acronym:

L – lean towards the clients as you approach them

O – offer hospitality and open your posture

S – smile

E – eye contact

R – relax

Attention Tutors: Always Establish Proper Body Lanuage

An article by Penn State introduces tutor-specific rules of body language. Below are rules you should ALWAYS follow.

  1. Smile! Smiling exudes warmth and confidence.
  2. Make eye contact. Doing this shows that you are paying attention.
  3. Show animation. Making hand motions while you speak increases the client’s attention.
  4. Stay relaxed. The client can feel your tension; keep your body relaxed (arms at your side and head straight)
  5. Lean inward. Signal to the client that you are interested in what he/she has to say.
  6. Sit erect. Show that you are alert; no one wants to work with an energy-less tutor!
  7. Be conscious. Avoid playing with your hair, biting your nails, shaking your feet, etc. If you seem nervous, the client will become nervous and more than likely unwilling to continue working.
  8. Break down the wall. Do not invade the client’s personal space, but do make an attempt to shake their hand and create confidence.

Awareness is key. Establishing proper body language allows your to evoke confidence and engagement – two things that make for a successful consultation.

Body Gesture Basics

Gesture exists as an important part of communication as well. Below is a short tutorial on gestures and body language that gives interesting tips on how you should and shouldn’t act in certain scenarios.

I want to touch on a few topics in the video.

  • Building rapport with eyes is pertinent. The video explains that eye contact can make or break an initial introduction. When a client enters the writing center, a client promptly approaches and offers a handshake. In this moment the video recommends giving the client 3 seconds to check you out. Smile, make eye contact, and avoid interrupting this 3 seconds. Building rapport help build a safe environment!
  • You cannot hide how you feel. In a previous class, someone announced: “I’m more comfortable slouched down, leaning back”. The video critiques a similar situation. Sure you can try to justify your body language, but the truth is (according to the video) that your body language reveals how you really feel. Have you ever seen someone that is really excited slouched down in their chair? Or a person that is sad jumping up and down?
  • Everyone is a palm reader. The video explains the power of the palms. Exposing your palms displays honesty. In a recent writing center observation, I noticed a consultant actively speaking with their hands. And her palms? Completely open. The client slowly began to sit up straight and engage in the consultation. Coincidence?

The Language of Listening

As writing center tutors, we spend a lot of our time listening. We listen to what the goal of the client is, their concerns, their expectations. We cannot do our job without first listening. A renowned expert in the field of body language, Patti Wood, says there is a body language of listening. In an article on the subject, Wood identifies 8 forms of body language that make you a better listener. What does a better listener make for? A better tutor.

  • Facial feedback is important, even necessary. Wood remarks that listeners often zone out, resulting in a dazed expression that most people can notice. Training yourself to show empathetic facial expressions while listening is key. Raise your eyebrows or widen your eyes when the speaker is in shock. Open your mouth when the speaker is in disbelief. Providing these facial cues generates cues within your brain that Wood believe actually makes you feel what they feel.
  • Always make eye contact. Wood claims that the listener should always be the one to provide more eye contact. Making eye contact 60-70% of the conversation creates rapport and guarantees hostility won’t evolve. According to Wood, women are generally better at providing significant eye contact, but in turn also desire more in conversation.
  • Nodding your head says a lot. Nodding your head shows that you are paying attention. Do not over-exaggerate this by shaking your head like a toy. Nod when it feels appropriate and engage in the conversation. But more than sending a positive message to the speaker, Woods says that nodding actually releases endorphins in your brain and make you feel more comfortable in the situation. An interesting gender difference is presented within the article.
  • Technology is not always your best friend. Our society has become obsessed with technology.  The best thing you can do: turn off your technology. Wood says that verbally announcing that you are going to turn off your device can prove to the speaker that you are paying attention.
  • Lean forward while your listen. Leaning towards the speaker communicates that you want to be involved in the interaction. Note: you should avoid invading their “personal space”. If you do the opposite (lean backwards) you may be communicating dominance that will make the speaker uncomfortable.
  • Position yourself appropriately. Turning yourself towards the speaker (“exposing your heart” as Wood calls it) make the speaker want to share more with you. It emits a sense of openness; it tells the speaker that you will receive their idea. Wood says that even a slight turn away from the speaker can signal you are not interested in what her or she has to say.
  • Barriers can transform interaction, and not in a good way. Blocking yourself from the speaker can block the conversation. Wood says that arms are a barrier. “Though we have over sixty different motivations for folding our arms, speakers see any arm fold as a barrier and a cue that you are not listening…the arm fold is the most obvious indication of a lack of interest. You actually retain 30 percent less information from the speaker when you listen with your arms crossed” (Wood 2005).

Listen before you speak. Approaching listening with the influence of body language in mind allows you to consciously make your speaker feel more comfortable. Doing this will make an engaging consultation develop more quickly.

Taking Control of the Awkward Silence

All silences are not the same. How you react to them is important. Below I will discuss some of consultant Eric Klein’s top reactions to different silences and explain how you can stay in the game.

Silence #1: “I don’t agree, but I’m not going to say anything out of fear”

This silence is generally a product of power imbalance. You might see this in the classroom. A professor may voice his or her opinion, but out of fear you do not interject. This is unlikely to appear in the writing center, as consultants make a point to present themselves on the same level as a student. They stress they are not in control.

What should you do? Klein states that you should “make yourself vulnerable”. He is really asking you to open the floor up for suggestions. Simply, do not say that your opinion is the only way.

Silence #2: “I have a different idea, but I know you won’t listen to me”

This can be looked at in two different ways: 1. a power imbalance like shown above or 2. the listener is quiet based on the enthusiasm placed in the other idea. I observed this scenario in the writing center. The consultant, who was also the instructor of the class, met with a group of students who were all completing independent projects. I noticed a few students perk up to several questions, but then retrieve into an uncomfortable slump immediately after.

What should you do? Speak up. Ask for feedback, but do not negotiate what you firmly believe in. This is when your words will become absolutely necessary.

Consulting is a game Silence #3: “I have a concern, but cannot find the right words”

We’ve all been in a situation where we just can’t put into words what we are thinking immediately. Your audience can experience this same thing.

What should you do? If someone is visibly having a hard time with your idea, consider their point of view. Have you said something to offend them? Is the concept in a field they are unfamiliar with? Once again, this is all about considering your audience. In the same group consultation I mentioned earlier, I observed the consultant jump to ask clients if they understood immediately after he saw a look of frustration or confusion. Talk about being quick to react!

Silence #4: “I’m thinking”

Sometimes you will find yourself in what you think is an awkward silence, but really the audience or listener is thinking.

What should you do? Avoid jumping to conclusions. Everyone has their own mind, and therefore take a different time to process an idea. Adjust your pace to fit that of your audience. Supply appreciation may have a positive effect on your audience and avoid the awkwardness that you may otherwise experience yourself.

In order to react to situations effectively in the writing center you need to stay aware and on your toes. This may sound strange…after all, we are not talking about a game. But then again, a consultation is some what of an offensive-defensive game. In any consultation, you should be playing the game in reaction to the other side. A successful consultation is a tied game. If the client misses the shot, rebound the ball and start dribbling. They will come steal the ball back eventually, and your session will continue.