Docent Educator Logo

Listen to Learn, Talk to Teach? NOT!!!

Okay, so we weren’t exactly a typical tour group. Most of us on the tour of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and the Prado in Madrid were teachers. Some were high school art teachers, others taught history, and all had some facility with the Spanish language. We had done our homework. Our guide, however, had a standard tour in mind. She told us things we already knew. She refused to stray from her talk — leaving; our questions unanswered and missing an opportunity to add some depth to the information she recited. She didn’t listen; she only talked. When our group arrived at the Prado, we thanked her politely and said we’d tour alone. What a missed opportunity! But, a guide or docent who doesn’t Listen to her audience is worse than no guide at all.

There is no good reason tor a docent to be unresponsive to his audience. Even when a docent tours large numbers of people, it is possible to listen. I saw this demonstrated well at San Simeon, California, when the guides for two different tours both told us that they had no “canned” tour. “We look at those things that interest us, unless you let us know what interests you,” one of them explained. As we entered each of the magnificent rooms in the William Randolph Hearst castle, the guide observed where we visitors moved. Did we look at the paintings? Were the furnishings more to our liking? She asked us questions and answered our inquiries about specific items. She gave us information that might have been included in a prewritten tour, but she also responded to our interests as she listened to us.

Docent training programs almost always include ample background information about the exhibits and artifacts of a particular institution. Time is usually allowed for developing age-appropriate questions and activities. Frequently, lessons in public speaking are included. Learning to listen, however, is one of the teaching skills often overlooked in docent training, and it is a skill that separates good docent tours from uninspiring guided walk-throughs.

In some tour environments, such as the marble halls of many museums and historic homes, or the wide-open spaces of zoos and botanical gardens, poor acoustics are a major hindrance to good listening. It’s always easier to communicate with small groups, of course, but in situations with poor acoustics, small groups are even more important. The face-to-face contact necessary for good listening is also easier when extraneous sounds are minimized. Sometimes this is simply a matter of scheduling (restructuring tour programming during the height of the museum remodeling) or flexibility (avoiding the same intimate gallery where another docent is already holding forth.)

Docents also need to be aware that higher pitched sounds are usually the first to disappear as hearing is lost, and most children’s voices are in this higher register. It is doubly important, therefore, that docents working with student groups maximize a good listening environment. This means looking directly at the person talking to you, and even moving your position when needed.

Good listening, however, is not guaranteed by good logistics (and there are times when manipulating logistics is simply beyond a docent’s control). This is when it is even more important that the docent create an atmosphere in which visitors feel comfortable offering their views or asking questions. One way to accomplish this is for the docent to think of her tour more as a conversation than a “talk,” and to structure it so that both she and her visitors have real opportunities to engage —where both are participants who ask questions, contribute ideas, and voice opinions.

When planning tours, consider and incorporate some of these basic mechanics of listening.

  • As visitors speak, think about what they are saying. Avoid thinking ahead to the next exhibit. And, avoid planning your response to their comments or questions before they have even finished talking.
  • Keep your mind off your watch!
  • Listen for visitors’ meaning rather than merely to the words they use. “Listen between the lines,” when required.
  • Restate and rephrase their comments to ensure that you have interpreted them correctly and to let your audience know that you really are listening.
  • Pull other tour members into discussions by asking them to respond or offer their perspective.
  • Verbally encourage questions or comments, and receive them with a smile, a nod, or other appropriate body language.

Speaking of body language, learn to “listen” to the visitors’ expressions and movements. They speak volumes about the visitors’ emotional state (i.e. – interest, boredom, curiosity, confusion, etc.). Do not be so preprogrammed as to be unresponsive to the audience’s needs and interests. And, be prepared to move on to another topic, expand your explanation, or rephrase an answer when your audience’s body language tells you to do so.

Which leads me to that expression on YOUR face! Yes, it does take time to listen to the members of your tour group. True, you may not be able to say everything you wanted or hoped to say. You may not even be able to show the group as many exhibits or artifacts as you wanted to show them. Just remember that a tour where others talk (even if they don’t know as much as you do) may be a valuable use of visitors’ time in your museum.

You are, of course, still “in charge.” When a child (or adult, for that matter) strays too far from the subject, or monopolizes the tour, you have the responsibility to politely, but firmly, steer them back to center. When working with children, in particular, you must walk a fine line between listening to their comments and keeping them on target. Primary children, for example, will often contribute very convoluted stories to the conversation because they have not yet learned what good conversation is. A simple, “That’s interesting,” and return to your topic is usually enough to satisfy these youngest visitors. With adults who monopolize the discussion, however, it may be necessary to offer to listen to them later in order to preserve your tour integrity: “I’d like to hear more about that. Could you stay a few minutes after the tour?”

The difference between a monologue and a dialogue is often determined by a docent’s ability to be a good listener as well as a good speaker. And, being guided by a docent who is a good listener as well as a good speaker often determines how satisfied visitors will be at the end of their tour of your institution.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Listen to Learn, Talk to Teach? Not!!!,” The Docent Educator 7.2 (Winter 1997-98): 18-19.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *