Listen up: Retired UW-L professor says listening is key to communication

June 24, 2011

Tom Wirkus practices drums in a tiny room filled with awards he's received over the years. He was added to the International Listening Association Hall of Fame in 2011.

Tom Wirkus plays drums in a tiny room filled with awards he

Tom Wirkus learned how to listen when he was a teenager playing drums in a band. It may seem ironic, but bashing sticks into a drumhead required him to pay careful attention to sounds around him.

“So often there wasn’t drum music and music educators didn’t have people to teach percussion so you had a lot of people learning by themselves and just listening,” he says.

Wirkus, 78, said this youth band experience sparked interest in learning listening skills, which he pursued in his career as a teacher years later. Wirkus, a retired UW-La Crosse communication studies professor, started the first listening course at UW-L in the 1980s. He has been a member of the International Listening Association for 28 years, a professional organization whose members are dedicated to learning more about the impact that listening has on all human activity. Wirkus was recently added to the Association’s Hall of Fame.

“It’s the highest honor that we give to our members,” said NanJohnson-Curiskis, executive director of the association. “I’ve known Tom for 30 years and he has been a presenter, a solid member and contributed a lot of knowledge to the organization.”

Wirkus started teaching at UW-L in 1959 and spent 35 years as a UW-L professor in the Speech and Communication Departments. He helped start four broadcast courses at UW-L. He discovered the communication studies curriculum, primarily devoted to speech and writing and reading, lacked information on listening. So he started a listening course too.

To demonstrate the importance of listening in his classes, Wirkus quoted research, which found people spent a greater percentage of their time listening than speaking, reading or writing.

“We spend a lot time listening, but we don’t necessarily know how to do it — at least not very efficiently,” he said.

Wirkus taught his students 10 ways to improve listening by pointing out some bad listening habits:

– Calling the subject uninteresting
– Criticizing the speaker’s delivery and mannerisms
– Getting get over stimulated
– Listening primarily for facts
– Trying to outline everything
– Faking attention to the speaker
– Creating or tolerating interfering distractions
– Avoiding difficult material
– Letting emotion–laden words arouse personal antagonism – if you get caught up in one word or phrase, you probably are missing a later point.
– Wasting the advantage of thought speed – We think faster than someone can speak, which gives us time to wonder and think about other things, so we do.

Material from Ralph Nichols and Lyman Steil at the University of Minnesota.

It turns out listening had a wider appeal than just campus classes. Over the years, Wirkus conducted numerous workshops on listening for high school teachers, business and professional organizations and the UW-L Continuing Education and Extension Office.

Wirkus no longer teaches, but he continues to be a drummer. Last year he marked his 50th and last year playing drums with the La Crosse Concert Band. He continues to play with the groups, Grumpy Old Men and Rev. Allan Townsend’s Wonderful World Jazz Band, primarily at convalescent homes. He says the pay isn’t much, but that’s not the point. He’s just happy to know people are listening.

“It’s reassuring when you can sense a little tapping of a hand or a foot,” he said. “You think you are making a contribution – making lives a little better for at least one hour that day.”