Free Listening Project More than Meets the EarMay 5, 2015

As students situated along the sidewalk of Kansas City’s busy Country Club Plaza found out Monday evening, effective communication doesn’t mean getting the last word — it actually doesn’t need to involve talking at all.

Stretched along a three-block section of the pedestrian shopping and entertainment district, six groups of three students on Monday held signs promising “free listening,” inviting passers-by to share whatever is on their mind. The students, as part of Rockhurst’s listening research class, are looking to hone their ability to listen, an important communication strategy, and provide a unique service to their community.

Laura Janusik, Ph.D., MBA, Rockhurst associate professor of communication, said the project is based on the Urban Confessionals free listening project first organized by Los Angeles-based actor Benjamin Mathes. Participants offer free, discrete and non-judgmental listening for people who don’t always have someone else in their lives to talk to.

“It’s a simple concept, in a lot of ways, but listening is as close to an act of pure service as one can get,” Janusik said.

C.J. Durham, a Rockhurst junior pursuing a psychology degree who hopes to one day serve as an educational administrator, said the class and the free listening project have helped him become more aware of using his body language in a way that expresses attention and empathy —skills that he said allow him to communicate more effectively even when he’s not speaking.

“I often catch myself looking in another direction and things like that,” he said. “So I’ve been working to maintain eye contact and use nonverbal communication to let the other person know I’m really listening.”

Though it seems like a natural skill, Janusik said listening attentively and effectively can be difficult for those living in an age where so much communication is mediated by technology.

“This sort of project forces them to put the devices down and listen,” she said. “They’re not there to give advice; they’re not there to solve problems. They are there to be empathetic.”

Janusik, a past president of the International Listening Association whose research often examines the science of listening, said offering free listening allows the public to get a glimpse, too, of the power of giving one’s attention wholly to someone else. Durham, having spent his evening doing just that for strangers, said he is convinced.

“Dr. Janusik told us that being heard is so close to being in love that some people can’t tell the difference,” he said, paraphrasing the David Ausburger quote. “That’s really stuck with me. So we’re trying to show Kansas City some love.”

Janusik’s class is scheduled to offer free listening again on Monday, May 11.

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