Listen before you talk

ListenHere is a transcript of a recent argument with my lovely wife. It’s not verbatim but pretty close:

M: ‘Computers are such time wasters!’

T: ‘Don’t say that, it’s a silly thing to say’

M: ‘BUT THEY ARE! Look, this thing froze up just trying to upload a photo so instead of spending half an hour walking in the sun I spent it in front of the stupid computer screen. It robbed me of my precious half an hour.’

T: ‘But you can’t just bag computers, they have their uses too – I for one enjoy them a lot and have learnt enormously from them over the last few years – you don’t seem to? You see them as stupid, useless and time wasting but there are so many things they can do’

M: ‘All I am saying is that you can so easily waste time with computers. You know, a screen freeze here, a link there and on it goes so before you know it you spend hours in front of the screen.’

T: ‘Well, growing and mowing grass is a waste of time too, TV is a waste of time…everything can be waste of time if you think about it. Computers are no different – you can waste time with them.’

M: ‘And it is just so easy to waste time with computers….’

T: ‘But hold on here. It was not the computer that said ‘you must stay in front of me for half an hour and not go for that walk’, was it? The decision was yours alone! So why blame the computer?’

M: ‘Because they just make it so easy to waste time with them. You spend hours in front of the computer where you could be doing other things…(insert long list here).

T: ‘Yes, but it is my passion, I love the tinkering, creating, learning. It is … (insert long list here).”

M: “I know and I don’t want to deny you of those things but I stick with my original statement that computers are time wasters. Don’t deny me that.”

T: ‘Well yes OK, but you seem to see the bad things about computers, I seem to see the good parts, the benefits. In my work I come across many people who simply say ‘I hate computers’ without having a clue what you can do with them and that frustrates me no end.”

M: “Not all people are like you.”

And so on for a little while longer.

M is my wife (not her real name :-), T is me in this little domestic. Ever had conversations like this? With your partner? Your colleague? An administrator? Friends over dinner?

As the argument progressed, we realised we had both given computers (loosely speaking here because we are really talking digital technologies here) some sort of mythical personal qualities (“Computers are time wasters’ or ‘Computers are wonderfully helpful’). We soon agreed that they are simply things we choose to use.

We have also discovered that my wife actually thinks computers can be really helpful and that the positives of having computers actually outweigh the negatives. “I love the email, and our website and the fact we can communicate so easily with people…” were her words, not mine. One would not have thought so after reading the first few lines above would they?

On the other hand, I confessed to often massive frustration with computers, particularly when things don’t work. And yes, I agreed that one can easily ‘waste hours on the thing’.

Luckily we love and understand each other and it all ended with a laugh. So what went wrong here at the start? It was the thing that so often creates barriers between the ICT enthusiasts (in this case) and ‘normal people’ (slippery, I know) – lack of empathy.

As the argument wound down, my wise and wonderful wife reminded me simply what I could have done in this scenario.

‘You could have listened to me. If you simply acknowledged that I was frustrated, and just try and show me that you understand, or at least are trying to understand, you would have my ear. After a little while, you could have brought up the benefits of having computers and I would probably be nodding to you. Instead, you went defensive straight up and that just brought my walls up too.”

Sounds familiar? Agree?

As a teacher and tech-mentor, I am very wary of the technological determinism of “evangelists” of the kind who say “you have no right NOT to use tech in your class” as much as the Digital Luddites who see digital technologies as the “source of evil, back to books and basics will solve our social and educational ills.” None of these sides really listens. They don’t honour the resistance people may have to their ideas. Both impose, and the more they do that, the less likely it is that digital technologies have a chance of actually making a real, tangible difference on the ground.

Let the use of digital technologies grow between the black-or-white, all-or-nothing camps. People are analogue, not digital/binary. Technology either ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ – it’s black or white, 1 or 0. In contrast, people operate in the grey, between the two extremes. Let people discover it, try it, fail with it, complain, brag, ignore what they don’t want and explore, then take what they like.

The described exchange with my wife this afternoon reminded me again that the best start to any promotion of digital technologies at a school, another organisation or your dinner table indeed, is by listening, not talking. Showing empathy to others (walking in their shoes) is different to sympathy (agreeing with them, particularly if fake!). Once a common ground and a level of trust is established, asking the person or group about any positives they may feel towards the things you seemingly disagree with is much more likely to bring out an understanding and a shared one at that. This is no ‘rocket science’, just a simple law of communication that so often gets forgotten in the business of pushing agendas and goals.

By the way, I argued in person, drafted this post on a piece of paper, then typed it up and sent it to you (around the world, regardless of location) using the now pretty common piece of digital technology. Without this technology, you probably would not be reading it.

Have I wasted my time? Your time? …. Probably – but thanks for reading anyway.


  1. Sue Waters

    Personally I think washing clothes, hanging out washing, bringing in clothes, cooking dishes, washing dishes, cleaning the house….. are much bigger wastes of time. At least using a computer you are achieving something whereas with household chores 2 seconds late you have to do them again.

  2. pdonaghy

    Hi Tomaz
    Thanks for stopping by last week and for your lovely comment. I can tell you that definitely wasn’t a waste of time, nor was reading this post 🙂
    Great advice about the listening especially when working with sceptical students. Nice to be reminded. Love the 2minute moodle videos but glad to see you are also expanding your blog posts and sharing other thoughts and ideas!

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