DQ2 – Applied Sociology


For this discussion, you are going to practice mindful listening. After reading the assigned chapter in the book along with the required articles, you have learned some about how to listen in a more mindful way.

Think back to the social justice issue you chose in module 1 for your first discussion. (If you prefer to choose a different issue for this discussion, that is acceptable). Find someone who feels differently about this issue than you do. It doesn’t have to be an opposing view necessarily, just a different one. Let this person know that you are practicing mindful listening (and explain what that means) and simply ask them to tell you their thoughts on this issue for 3 minutes – it may be a good idea to set a timer. This conversation should be either in person or via video conferencing. You are encouraged to show them you are listening, but not interject. While you are listening, see if you can notice when your mind starts to wander off. If it does, just bring your attention back to the person who is talking to you. Keep doing this each time your mind wanders.

After the three minutes is up, take the time to tell the person what your learned from your conversation. Sometimes the other person will want to participate after seeing you lead by example! If they are agreeable to it, maybe they will even allow you to do the same – explain your own thoughts on the issue, without any need to disprove what they have said. If that is not appropriate here, that is okay.

After doing this exercise, please share with us here your own explanation of sociological listening. What does it mean to you? How did it feel to just be focused on listening rather than retorting? If your mind wandered, where did it go (what were you thinking about)? How do you think your day to day life would be different if you engaged in this type of listening more frequently? Referencing your textbook, explain how you will practice sociological listening in your future career or personal life.

Textbook Required Reading:

Chapter 2: Listening

Schwalbe, M. (2020). Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World. Oxford University Press.




It seems like listening to others should be as natural and easy as breathing. All we have to do is open our ears to what another person is saying, and their message will come across clearly. Yet we know it’s often not so simple. Some messages can be hard to express. Some messages can be hard to hear. And there is plenty that can interfere with listening.

Distraction is one obstacle to listening, especially in an era when many people are riveted to their smartphones. Trying to multitask when another person is talking is a way that we distract ourselves from listening. Judgment can be another obstacle. If we are thinking about what’s wrong with what another person is saying—so that we can object as soon as they’re done speaking—then we are probably not listening carefully.

It might seem strange, but fear can also be an obstacle to listening. Sometimes we don’t want to hear what another person is saying for fear that it will hurt us in some way. Or we might be afraid that if we listen closely, some belief that we cherish will be threatened. Not listening carefully then becomes a kind of defense against the possibility of being upset or having to change our minds.

So what does listening have to do with making the world a better place? It has quite a lot to do with it as it turns out. Consider what we stand to lose by failing to listen carefully to others.

Most obviously, not listening means that we fail to learn. Others can be knowledgeable and have good information and ideas to offer. If we don’t listen, or if our listening is impeded, we learn less than we could—and maybe some of what we miss is knowledge that would help us diagnose and solve problems. In short, by limiting what we learn, poor listening can diminish our power to make change.

Failing to listen can mean that we fail to understand how others see the world, the problems they face, and the suffering they experience. In this case, we might fail to appreciate that the world, or some part of it, needs changing because of the problems it causes. Part of making the world a better place is figuring out what’s wrong with the status quo. This, too, is something we can learn by listening carefully.

By listening carefully, we often learn that others see and experience life differently from how we do. Being aware of this diversity of experience can improve our ability to communicate with a wide range of others. If we don’t listen, we can end up with the false impression that everyone sees the world in the same way we do. Such an impression can create tensions that weaken collective efforts to make change. Listening is necessary to avoid or resolve those corrosive tensions.

Connecting with others by listening carefully is also part of how we build trust. When we listen and make others feel understood, they are more likely to trust us. Likewise, when others listen to us and we feel understood, we are more likely to trust them. Trust, in turn, is foundational to solidarity—that is, to being committed to working with others to pursue social change, especially when the going gets rough.

Listening matters even apart from efforts to change the world. We might know this from our own experience. When we feel isolated, anxious, depressed, or afraid, just being able to talk to someone who will listen carefully and nonjudgmentally can make us feel better. And of course, we can do the same for others. So even if we aren’t engaged in a world-changing struggle, listening carefully can make a difference by reducing the amount of suffering in the world.

Failing to listen can also create suffering. Conflicts often persist because people are unwilling or unable to listen to each other carefully and thus fail to understand each other. This isn’t to say that listening makes all conflicts disappear; that’s clearly not the case. But we can’t find workable compromises and figure out how to get along without listening. If making the world a better place means improving our abilities to negotiate peaceful solutions to conflicts, then listening is essential.

It seems true, then, that listening is an important part of social change; that failing to listen can cause problems; that there are obstacles to listening; and that overcoming these obstacles will improve our chances of making the world a better place. What all this suggests is that if we want to pursue change and make a difference in a positive way, it’s necessary to learn to listen better. Here is where sociology can help.

How to Listen Mindfully

Sociologists who do interview studies and field research are professional listeners. We try to understand human behavior by asking questions to explore other people’s experiences. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. It takes practice to get good at asking the right question in the right way at the right time. But in addition to asking questions, we also have to get good at listening.

The kind of listening that interviewers and field researchers learn to do is sometimes called “active listening.” As the term implies, this involves more than sitting back and letting another person’s words wash over us. It involves making a conscious effort to engage with the other person. The specific things we can do, mentally and behaviorally, to listen more actively are described below.

Pay focused attention. This means giving the other person our full attention and ignoring distractions such as phones, computer screens, or things that are happening nearby. The goal of listening is to learn about the other person’s experience, and anything that divides our attention interferes with achieving this goal. In a moment of distraction, we could miss a crucial piece of information, perhaps the piece that helps us make sense of the rest. Multitasking when trying to understand something as complex as another human being is a sure way to do a poor job of it.

Signal attention. We signal attention by maintaining eye contact, nodding our heads, and saying “uh huh” in response to what others say. These small behaviors tell others that we’re tuned in and not drifting off. Others are likely to tell us more, more honestly, if we signal our attention in these ways. Signaling attention also helps us keep our attention focused, which in turn means that we will hear more.

Listen nonjudgmentally. If people think they are being judged for what they say, they will often censor themselves. If people feel they are being listened to and heard, not judged, they are more likely to speak openly and honestly. Even seemingly positive judgments—praising or cheering for something a person says—can have an inhibiting effect because every positive judgment (“Wow, that’s cool!”) implies that something else is less good, less worthy of being talked about. Good ­interviewers—those who are able to learn the most from other people—treat the other person with respect, while not conveying judgment about what s/he is saying.

Withhold advice. Researchers aren’t usually tempted to give advice when they’re doing interviews, since the goal is to gather data. In everyday life, however, the impulse to give advice can be strong. The problem is that when we give advice, we’re not listening. Jumping in with advice might also make the other person feel incompetent, a feeling that probably won’t incline them to keep talking. So it is generally better, if the goal is to understand a person by fully hearing them out, to withhold advice unless they ask for it.

Reflect and paraphrase. It can be hard to express complex thoughts and feelings. That’s why people often say “Do you know what I mean?” after trying to describe an experience or explain an idea. As casual listeners, we might be quick to say yes, almost as a reflex response. But a more active listening technique is to paraphrase what we think the other person has said, then reflect it back to them for checking. This assures the other person that we’re listening and trying to understand them. It also gives them a chance to clarify and add more information.

Ask questions. Researchers typically devote a great deal of care to crafting their questions in just the right way prior to an interview. But often the most effective questions are probes—follow-up questions formulated on the spot to elicit more information or clarify meanings. Active listening is not research, but it entails a kind of probing to make sure that we understand what the other person is saying. Sometimes a simple question—What do you mean by that?, or How did you feel about that?, or What happened then?—can be the invitation another person needs to open up to us.

Listen for the whole message. Sometimes people say one thing on the surface (“I like school”) and something else beneath the surface (“I like school, but there are parts I dislike, so I’m really kind of ambivalent about it”). Active listening means listening for the subtext, the message beneath the surface. This means paying attention not only to what is said but how it’s said. Again, it’s important to reflect and paraphrase to make sure that we’ve got the message right and that we aren’t imagining a subtext that isn’t really there.

Stay in the moment. It’s easy for our minds to drift off when we talk with others. We might start thinking about what we’re going to do later in the day. Or we might be thinking about what we’re going to say when it’s our turn to talk. When this happens, we’re no longer truly listening. The active listening techniques just described will help overcome this problem. It also helps to be aware of the tendency and to resist it. When we notice our minds wandering, we can bring our focus back to the present moment and the person who is right in front of us.

These techniques of active listening aren’t intended to turn ­everyday conversations into research interviews. Rather, these are techniques that researchers use to do a better job of something that is no less important in everyday life: understanding others and their experiences. As I suggested earlier, understanding others is part of learning from them, building trust, and maintaining solidarity—all of which can inspire and bolster efforts to create social change. So, as simple as it sounds, listening is a practice at which we can get better and in the process gain power to make a difference.

When I teach interviewing techniques, I tell students that it doesn’t take hundreds of research interviews to refine their skills. I say that interviewing skills can be practiced whenever we have a serious conversation with another person. The same point applies to the advice I’ve offered here. For most of us, everyday life provides opportunities to practice active listening. And, like anything else, the more we practice, the better we get. In the case of active listening, the better we get, the more we learn and the more deeply we connect with others who might also want to make the world a better place.

Listening Beyond Hearing

The way I have described listening so far conjures an image of two people in close conversation. This is indeed the image I wanted to conjure; active listening is mainly about what we do in one-on-one conversations. But listening can also be thought of more broadly, as a kind of seeking and tuning in to divergent perspectives that are present in the social world. Think of a satellite dish that sweeps the sky for signals that can be decoded to obtain potentially useful information. We can try to be like this, figuratively speaking.

Listening, I am suggesting, can be more than paying close attention to people with whom we routinely cross paths. We might go beyond this and seek to cross paths with others who have something useful or important to tell us about the social world—something we don’t already know. This can be an even harder kind of listening to practice because it means going out of our way to hear things we might not want to hear. Here is an example.

A few years ago, a white student in my social inequality course said to me, after class, that he disliked the slogan “black lives matter” because he thought all lives should matter. I said that he should explore the meaning of “black lives matter” more deeply and that he might start by asking one of his black friends to explain it to him. He responded with silence, which I took to mean that he didn’t have any black friends to ask. So I suggested that he ask another student in class, a black woman who struck me as being smart and politically savvy. To my surprise, he did this, and later he made a comment in class to the effect that the slogan “black lives matter” did not mean that only black lives matter but that black lives matter, too. He had listened.

The nudge I gave my student is one that we can learn to give ourselves. When we become aware of views that baffle or irritate us, we can go out of our way to listen to those who express those views and try to understand them (see chapter 6 on empathizing). This doesn’t mean that we accept those views—we might still think they’re wrong. What it means is that we will have a better idea of precisely what those views are, where they come from, and how they make sense to the people who embrace them.

Sociologists do this sort of thing all the time. Many research projects grow out of curiosity about how the conditions of people’s lives lead them to see the world in particular ways. Listening is an essential part of the process. One thing we usually learn, after listening carefully and considering the conditions of people’s lives, is that how they see the world actually does make sense (though, again, this doesn’t mean taking what they say as true). By listening carefully in everyday life—and going out of our way to listen to more voices—we might arrive at a similar insight: that even those whose views seem strange or wrong can teach us something about the social world, if only how it looks from one corner.

Just as we can listen more or less well when people talk to us, we can listen more or less well when people write. “Listening,” in other words, can be taken to include listening to texts—the articles and books we read, whether in print or online. This is another form of listening that works better when it is active rather than passive.

In college, most of us learn to listen to texts in a critical way. We learn to play what Peter Elbow, an English professor and writing teacher, calls the doubting game. By this he means that we learn to look for what’s wrong with what we’re reading so that we can avoid being fooled by a specious argument, or so that we can show how smart we are. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical. But Elbow says that when we play the doubting game, we risk not fully grasping what we’re reading because we’re too busy looking for what’s wrong to see what’s right and useful. It’s a kind of bad listening.

The other way to approach a piece of writing, Elbow says, is by playing the believing game. In this case, instead of trying to find what’s wrong with what a writer says, we try to believe it. To do this, Elbow recommends that we try to see through the eyes of the writer to figure out why the writer believes what she or he is saying is true. This can help us understand more of what a writer is saying. Playing the believing game also helps us find what is useful in a piece of writing—something that we might overlook if we are intent only on finding what’s wrong or something with which to disagree. Playing the believing game, I would say, is a better way to listen to a text.

The advice to play the believing game makes some people anxious. What if, in playing the believing game, we end up being seduced by a writer peddling bad ideas or information? What if, by trying to believe what a writer says, we end up overlooking weak arguments and inadequate evidence? And doesn’t playing the believing game compromise one’s independence of mind? These are fair questions. But if we play the believing game as a conscious strategy, we needn’t worry about being fooled.

Playing the believing game doesn’t mean giving up one’s independence of mind. It means using that independence differently. In the end, it remains up to us to decide what to believe. In fact, by reading or listening more closely, we might see more clearly where an argument goes wrong as well as what might be reasonable about it. This represents a potentially valuable intellectual gain, relative to listening or reading in a less attentive way. What we gain, along with a deeper understanding of others, is a greater ability to make intelligent, well-informed judgments of our own.

A final point: getting the most out of the techniques I’ve described here doesn’t come just from appearing to be a better listener or reader. It comes from taking in and reflecting on what we hear and read. Playing the believing game is a step in this direction. We also need to think about how what we’ve taken in, by way of new information about others’ thoughts and feelings, makes sense in light of the conditions of their lives and their experiences. This kind of deeper, sustained reflection is what turns active listening into sociologically mindful listening, which is what can turn information into understanding.

Other Required Readings:

(Read section only: “Role of the Researcher”) Austin, Z., & Sutton, J. (2014). Qualitative research: getting started. The Canadian journal of hospital pharmacy, 67(6), 436–440. https://doi.org/10.4212/cjhp.v67i6.1406 (Links to an external site.) (link to full article here) (Links to an external site.)



^^^Summary: This article discusses methodologies commonly used in qualitative research. While it is directed at those in the field of pharmacology, the breakdown of methods is still relevant and helpful.


Mooneyham, B. W., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: A review. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne De Psychologie Expérimentale, 67(1), 11–18. doi: 10.1037/a0031569 (link to full article here (Links to an external site.))



^^^Abstract: Substantial evidence suggests that mind-wandering typically occurs at a significant cost to performance. Mind-wandering-related deficits in performance have been observed in many contexts, most notably reading, tests of sustained attention, and tests of aptitude. Mind-wandering has been shown to negatively impact reading comprehension and model building, impair the ability to withhold automatized responses, and disrupt performance on tests of working memory and intelligence. These empirically identified costs of mind-wandering have led to the suggestion that mind-wandering may represent a pure failure of cognitive control and thus pose little benefit. However, emerging evidence suggests that the role of mind-wandering is not entirely pernicious. Recent studies have shown that mind-wandering may play a crucial role in both autobiographical planning and creative problem solving, thus providing at least two possible adaptive functions of the phenomenon. This article reviews these observed costs and possible functions of mind-wandering and identifies important avenues of future inquiry.