I have been exploring Non-violent communication (NVC) for some time now. Recently I have been orienting my focus towards empathetic listening and it’s application in a community learning context.

In doing so I have received some quality feedback, the most striking being, “You ask too many questions!”

This really surprised me. How can we ask too many questions? Isn’t providing a space for others to detail there thoughts a productive exercise? Doesn’t that space allow for the kind of empathy and understanding that we need when expressing the thoughts and ideas we hold dear?

And there I go again with my questions.

Pondering this conundrum, reflecting on it with friends and personally, has taken up a fair chunk of my time recently.

I think I’m starting to find the clear edges to ideas that were fuzzy and ill-defined at the start.


There is so much to unpack in this question it is difficult to properly outline it here. The gist is that every experience, ever interaction exists in isolation. As an empathetic listener we have to be present, existing in the moment only.

In addition, we (as a listener) need to identify the specific context to this encounter. Does the speaker(s) need to be heard, or want feedback? Perhaps the speaker(s) desires our opinion or insight? What is the topic of discussion? How personal are the thoughts being expressed? Do we need to tread lightly or does the speaker wish us to be clear and assert our perspective? How do we adjust ourselves with the ever changing dynamics of the conversation?

How we handle and respond to all of these questions will differ on who we are and how we read each encounter.


Questions are a powerful tool. They can help to illuminate a speaker’s needs as well as clarify the meaning or intention of a speakers utterance.

Questions can also be a major stumbling block to communication. The body language, tone and intention behind our questions have a major impact on how they are received and responded to by our interlocutor.

Considering this fact I have been trying to come up with some identifying markers to these different types of questions. In addition, I’ve been wondering what the benefits and pitfalls to each might be.

1) Targeted questions: The goal of a targeted question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific point or clarify a specific utterance so that we might better understand their meaning or intention. These questions can be helpful if applied in the right way at the right times. However, they easily can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The right tone, body language and word choice is vital to conveying the genuineness of our intentions.

2) Targeting questions: The goal of a targeting question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific aspect so that we might argue the point, steer the conversation in a way that allows us to respond the way we want, or demonstrate our perceived superior knowledge on the subject. These types of questions are seductive to a listener who is bent on making a point or “enlightening” their interlocutor as to a “better” path/way/idea. These questions are dangerous and lead to conflict.

TargetED questions can easily be misinterpreted for targetING questions based on the tone, wording or body language we employ when posing the question. In addition, we need to be aware that our interlocutors personal culture may perceive an attack EVEN IF we are being conscious of the above mentioned obstacles. As an empathetic listener it is vital that in times like these that we effectively filter the emotions behind our interlocutor’s responses so as to understand the meaning and basis for the speakers resistance.

3) Illuminating questions: The goal of an illuminating question is to receive clarification or added depth to a speakers utterance. These questions allow a speaker the space to freely respond. These questions build awareness and understanding of a speaker’s point. Tone, body language and wording are all critical in employing these questions successfully.

4) Directed illuminating questions: These are questions we ask when we want the speaker to clarify or go deeper, but in a specific way we have predestined for the speaker. These questions can pose an obstacle for the questioner because they require us to truly be aware of ourselves and our own intentions. These questions can very easily be formed in an illuminated way (see #3), but when we do not hear an answer that follows an expected path we reframe and ask again and again until the speaker goes in the direction we want. These types of questions can cause immense friction between the interlocutors, easily leading to a breakdown in communication altogether.


Questions can be a tricky business, but they are vital to the successful, meaningful interactions that build connections between two people. With an open heart and mind the right questions can lead to discovery, learning and a strengthened bond. Without these attributes encounters have the possibility of becoming ugly, disconnecting and self defeating.

I am sure these are but a few of the question categories to be considered. I would be very interested to hear thoughts or additions that anyone else may have.


I would like to stress that all of this requires practice and that I, nor anyone else, has all the answers. These are personal, self discoveries I have made and would like to share. I am always open to others discoveries and discussions surrounding the snapshots of thinking that are presented herein on this blog.






Empathetic Listening

Graduate school has started with a bang. Orientation has come and gone. Classes have begun in earnest and our collective journey of learning has begun to take shape.

There are ten of us. From vastly differing backgrounds we have come together to develop as human beings as well as educators. The incredible diversity of personal experience has led to a rich and challenging learning environment that I am sure will yield much fruit.

A key component to collective learning is the idea of empathetic listening. It is a skill that demands continual practice. It is a skill many believe they have, but few truly obtain.

To empathetically listen we must first be wholly present. Chuang-Tzu put it well

The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.” 

Creating emptiness of faculties is far easier said than done.

Listening empathetically demands nothing but you. The past matters not, and neither does the future. Only your presence in the here and now is required. Maintaining this presence is a struggle. It is this struggle that demands our constant attention.

Success in this endeavour yields the positive connections that underpin our interactions, and thus the experiences that shape us as human beings.

It is hard to remember a time that have I returned home at the end of the day feeling so enriched, challenged and mentally fatigued as I have following each day of this previous week. It’s a magnificent feeling.

Listening empathetically is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give to others. When speaking with another today, try only to be there. Don’t think of the next thing you’d like to say. Don’t offer advice. Don’t one-up or educate. Don’t console, tell a story or shut down the line of communication. Don’t sympathize or interrogate. Don’t correct or explain. Simply listen with your whole being and respond spontaneously.

A large debt of gratitude for this post needs be paid to Marshall Rosenburg. The ideas herein are generated largely from his fantastic book NonViolent Communication: A Language of Life.





Over the past few months I have dipped my toes into the depths of mindfulness and NVC (nonviolent communication). Graduate school now has me fully immersed in it.

It has changed my life immeasurably. Rebirth is the only word that comes close to being apt enough in expressing just how much it has changed me.

In just the last week alone I have felt monumental change from within. The kind of change I have been working to achieve for at least 12 years (and, although passively, for my entire life). The road is long and I am only at the beginning, a thought which only brings me more happiness.

In the last few weeks I have worked on observing myself. Truly observing my emotions as they happen. Observing my reactions. I have learned to connect my feelings with the innate needs that instigate them (a challenge I will spend a lifetime trying to perfect).

All of this observation and reflection has informed me about parts of myself I never knew existed. Learning about and beginning the practice of NVC and mindfulness has led to an indescribable serenity that I have never found in my life. I have been serene. I have been at peace. But never have I found such depth and breadth of each. Never have I truly experienced each during periods of difficulty or trauma.

This post serves as a reminder to me. It reminds me to have courage. For when I have courage and open myself I get what I need. It reminds me of the glorious weeks in my life when I truly found myself. It reminds me of the love and support so many can, and do, provide. It reminds me of a great many things.

Things to remember (notes from my reflective journal):

1) Emotions are what they are. There are no good or bad emotions. (Thanks Anne)


3) That which meets the most human needs is what comes closest to truth.


4) I am responsible for my feelings and needs.

5) I can’t control my waves of emotion. The waves aren’t bad. I CAN learn to surf them better. (Thank you for this one Kathy)

6) Holding others responsible for my feelings and needs as well as having limited strategies to meet those needs puts ourselves in a straightjacket voluntarily.

- Connor, Jane; Killian Diane. Connecting Across Differences

7) Viewing the world through a “right or wrong” lens negates the complexity of life and full human experience.

8) If you say no and I am OK with that answer, it is a request. If you say no and I’m not OK with that answer, it is a demand.

- Rosenburg, Marshall Nonviolent Communication

9) Emotion does not indicate weakness or vulnerability.

10) Feelings cannot be fixed. They are our lifeblood and bring awareness of being fully alive.

11) Hold all needs as valuable

12) Needs are intrinsic and intangible. Strategies are specific and tangible.

13) Self acceptance requires that we accept our choices and hold our needs as valuable.

14)  No one’s behavior can make me feel anything.


Thank you for allowing me the space to share. It feels absolutely marvellous to have found the strategies and awareness necessary to discover so much about myself. I feel doubly pleased to be able to share it with you.

May you be happy and at ease whenever and wherever this may find you.

the challenge of mindfulness

Mindfulness is much more than a word.

As I begin my journey in graduate school I also begin my journey into becoming more mindful. Neither of which are easy, and although I have only just begun each, I already know that practicing being mindful will be as great, or a greater, challenge in my life.

I see mindfulness as being present in the moment and being aware of my own feelings and the needs that instigate them.

As I begin this journey I feel I’m lacking the tools necessary and/or the helpful exercises that can assist in managing the moments when emotion exerts its influence.

Sometimes it’s not too difficult to single out the need/feeling relationship. Often times, however, an emotional tidal wave hits me and knocks me far off course.

Over the past few months I have attempted to observe myself in detail. What is happening inside before that tidal wave comes? It’s a complex and somewhat obscure process that has required much observation and reflection.

If I were to explain these difficult times in words, it’s as if my chest is a nuclear reactor. Atoms are buzzing around inside of me, creating an immense energy. When certain incidents occur those atoms pick up speed and the energy they produce grows. For the sake of this analogy, those incidents can be seen as the reactors control rods. As different things happen control rods are withdrawn, which allows the atoms to buzz around faster, thus creating more energy.

As the day carries on that energy stays with me. Sometimes that energy feels almost hidden. If I am not watching myself very carefully, it is like that force isn’t with me any longer. However, when something else happens, it comes roaring back with more ferocity than ever. When too many control rods are taken away the reactor overheats and melts-down. When that happens the failsafes to my control room (ie brain) are cut. I might as well be a walking, headless ball of emotion.

When I return to equilibrium I can assess the damage. Finding empathy and compassion for myself at this stage is near impossible.

The more I ponder all of this the more I wonder how others feel? Surely everyone experiences emotion differently. It would be hugely helpful to hear how others handle the intensity of emotion.

If you have a few moments I would love to hear your answers to the questions below.

What concrete exercises or measures can we take when powerful emotions seek to control us?

How can we empathize and be compassionate with ourselves when we fall down, especially over the same hurdle, time and again?

How do your powerful emotions effect you?

Sitting down and observing myself and my emotions has been an eye opening experience. I feel like I have seen myself in a whole new light. I feel as if there is a whole new world for me to explore.

Truly, mindfulness is so much more than just a word.


a new chapter

For the previous two years (I can’t believe it’s been two years already!) I have used the platform of OtC to reflect upon the various components, experiences and challenges that make up my classroom.

Now, as my life heads sees the start of a new chapter, so shall OtC. As of last Friday I have begun coursework to complete my masters degree is TESOL.

In keeping with the reflective tradition established over the past two years I will be using OtC as a platform to reflect upon the classroom. During this experience I will work to reflect from a variety of perspectives: as a student, a group member, a learner, a teacher and I’m sure a fair few more.

Finally, a HUGE, GINORMOUS thank you to everyone who has stopped by, read, commented, and helped me grow and learn as a teacher, and as an individual.

I hope you will continue with me on my learning and reflective journey.


rpc 6- action plan. one road ends, then next begins

If you have visited OtC recently you have no doubt seen a number of blog challenges relating to reflective practice. If you have missed them, please take a minute and have a look. Here are the first, second, third, fourth and fifth challenges.


Next, if you, good reader, would permit me to recommend a few of the bloggers who have generated so much discovery and learning through their various blog posts and comments during this challenge. Some truly fantastic educators have weighed in and I feel quite honored indeed to have been able to play a small role in the broad and deep discussions they have produced.

Anne Hendler, Hana Ticha, David Harbinson, Rose Bard, Ann Loseva, Mathew Noble, Kevin Stein, Roseli Serra, Kate (sorry not sure of your last name)…

And an extra special thank you and shout out to Josette LeBlanc and Zhenya Polosatova for providing challenges 4 and 5 in addition to all your other fantastic additions to the groups conversation.

What a phenomenal group we have here!


Now, as we proceed to the final challenge it is time to think SMART.

SMART plans are a critical component to the ELC. It is with our actions plans that we take what we have learned through our reflective process and attempt to apply lessons learned in our next experience. And then the ELC process starts anew!

So, let’s talk SMART. This is an acronym for





Time frame (also could be time bound)

Wikipedia provides a more detailed run down of the SMART criteria here.


A format you may find helpful when working to formulate your action plan goes something like…

Next time ___________________

I will ______________________

So that _____________________

There are any number of ways to develop SMART action plans so please don’t feel limited to this example.

Developing action plans help us solidify the thoughts and ideas generated by the ELC. They also give us something firm, something tangible with which to approach future experiences in the classroom and elsewhere.


And with that we come to an end of our journey. I say “an end” because reflective practice never truly ends. The learning never stops!

I’d, once again, like to thank everyone who participated through blog posts and comments. Reflective practice asks a lot of us. It dives deep into our beliefs and who we are. In doing so, it requires courage and trust to open up. Thank you all for showing such courage. It has been a monumentally enlightening experience.

The reflective challenges may end here on OTC, but we’d like to keep our momentum rolling. If you’re interested in reflection, learning and growth please feel free to join us for future discovery at the Reflective Practice Peer Learning Network (#RPPLN).

By for now!

rpc5 – generalization

***Guest Post Alert***

I am pleased as punch to announce that once again observingtheclass is hosting a wonderful teacher and individual to lead us in the next step on our reflective journey. This time Ms. Zhenya Polosatova will be leading us.

Meeting Zhenya and being introduced to her fantastic (and new!) blog has been a wonderful addition to my 2014, I hope this introduction will add a little to your year as well.

While Zhenya may be new to blogging she is an experienced reflective practice practitioner. She has gained that experience through her teaching in her native Ukraine and teacher training in many places around the world.

Join us as Zhenya leads our #RPPLN into the next stage of our Reflective Practice Challenge.


Reflective Practice Challenge 5: Generalization

In the previous RP challenges our RPPLN started to apply the ELC for our own experiences: started to Describe first [description challenge] and then Analyze though various lenses [analysis challenge]. It is now time to move to the next stage of the ELC, and that is to Generalize.

Note: sometimes instead of Analysis and Generalization stages you may hear another term, Interpretation. We are separating the two parts, and my post below is aiming at explaining why do to so (and hopefully to motivate the readers to do the same)

In the Analysis stage we were looking at the experience we had had (and described) and thinking how it was (or was not) helpful, useful, significant, for everyone involved in that interaction. We were ‘staying in the experience’ and were using different reflective lenses to understand it better.

For the Generalizations stage, there will focus more on our learning, or conclusions from that experience, or beliefs one we could notice or discover based on the preceding stages of the Cycle (description + analysis).

There are some questions that may help you see that learning (or generalizations)

What did you learn about yourself (as a human-being, as a teacher, as a learner, etc.)?

What did you learn about others?

What did you learn about communications?

What did you learn about class atmosphere?

What did you learn about … [add what else seems important for you]?

As you see, the questions above are moving you from staying in one specific interaction into thinking in more general terms, stating what you think is true for more than one group of learners (if you are reflecting on a lesson you taught) or true about you and your feelings in more than one situation, for example (if you are reflecting on how you interacted). By stating our generalizations, or beliefs, we are becoming aware of our personal values, things that matter, and therefore learning to form, shape, define our teaching style (or communication style)

You could add ‘in general’ to each question above. It helps some teachers, but it might also sound ‘too general’ for others. I usually suggest that you use the word ‘theory’, or ‘hypothesis’ as of today, meaning that this idea seems to be true now, and definitely needs more data, or evidence in the future.

Below you can see a couple of examples of how Analysis and Generalizations differ. This is only done to serve the purpose of this post, so you are not looking at the description or action plan.

  analysis: Ss might have been too used to the T style of giving instructions It was probably harder to only listen to what T was saying The lesson was after lunch, which might have made some Ss tired/bored The task might have been too easy (which might have made some Ss bored) T might have underestimated the Ss language level, or pace   possible generalizations based on the analysis above: It’s important to vary the style of setting tasks, especially in a lesson after lunch (to surprise/wake up Ss) Combining visual and audio channels of giving a task helps to draw Ss attention Designing a task where there is room for some challenge for stronger Ss help to engage them It’s helpful to give students time and space for independent learning, so writing instructions down on a worksheet might help

Skipping generalizations stage means being ‘locked’ in what we already did and might do again, and never seeing a ‘bigger picture’, or the reason for acting this or that way. Based on our beliefs, or generalizations, it will be easier to come up with a plan of actions (or set an action point for the next stage of the ELC) so that our actions reflected the beliefs we have.

Directions for RP Challenge 5: look back at the description and analysis you provided and formulate generalizations about learning, teaching, communication, (personal and professional) awareness, etc. Are you surprised to see the generalizations you wrote? Have you had them for a long time or are they the result of that particular experience you had?

Looking forward to reading what you come up with! (and will be sharing mine soon)