Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mindful Listening in Coach Carter

I wrote this paper as a course requirement for a class I was taking on Interpersonal Communication.

Julia T. Wood begins the chapter on Mindful Listening with a quote by Zeno of Citium. As I sat down to write this paper, I also wished to begin with a proverb. So I went to to find one to begin this essay. To my surprise, I found more than four thousand sayings from different times and cultures related to listening. For the purposes of this short essay, I would like to intertwine the concepts explained by Wood in chapter six of our textbook with the movie Coach Carter, and perhaps a few of the sayings I found to further illustrate some points.
“To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.” This quote by Igor Stravinsky illustrates the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, as Wood explains, is purely a physical act; listening is a process which requires a conscious effort from the listener. In the movie one of the ways that Coach Carter promoted the shift from just hearing to listening was by requiring his basketball players to sit in front of their classes. Seating in front of class would help reduce external distracters, or noise, that may hinder the student’s listening.
Message overload, message complexity, and noise comprise external obstacles to effective listening. To counteract these obstacles, Wood mentions strategies such as taking notes, asking questions to clarify and grouping material to organize in order to make the process of remembering easier at a later date. She also mentions the use of mnemonic devices as a viable strategy for recalling information. Coach Carter used mnemonic strategies to help his players learn the needed defensive and offensive plays. He used women’s names and created a cohesive back story for the students to remember the specific characteristic of that play based on the personal characteristic of the woman he mentioned. Candy, Diane, and Linda were just some of the women’s names that became an integral part of the team’s playbook.
“My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that's what she said.” This anonymous quote serves a nice segue to nonlistening. At the beginning of the movie most of the students practiced various forms of, what Wood characterizes as, nonlistening. Many of them engaged in pseudolistening when Coach Carter spoke of the contract rules and the consequence of breaking them. Also, although it is not explicitly shown in the movie, it is safe to infer that they practiced pseudolistening and selective listening as well in classes and basketball practice.
Other nonlistening forms that are present throughout the movie are the aspects of monopolizing conversations, defensive listening, and ambushing. These forms of nonlistening mostly took place in interactions between Coach Carter and different adults in the movie. For example, defensive listening was clearly taking place when the teacher stood up during the School Board Meeting scene. He mentioned that Coach Carter was telling the teachers that they were failing to do their jobs because he was asking for progress reports. Coach Carter only intended to use the progress reports to see if the team players were upholding their end of the contract by keeping a 2.3 GPA, and attending and sitting in the front row the classes. He would not be able to hold the team accountable without the teachers’ support. However, the teacher interpreted the request for frequent progress reports as a way to keep tabs on his performance as an educator.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey may not have been experiencing listening for ambushing purposes but was able to convey the idea nicely in this quote. In the movie, ambushing was evident when Coach Carter became irritated with the failure to receive support for his tactics from the school’s principal. Coach Carter would take advantage of words said by the principal that painted a grim picture of the students’ future and used them to throw the problem back at her. On one specific occasion she said “Your job is to win basketball games, Mr. Carter. I suggest you start doing your job.” To which he immediately quipped, “And your job is to educate these kids. I suggest you start doing yours.”
“The reality of the other person lies not in what he reveals to you, but what he cannot reveal to you. Therefore, if you would understand him, listen not to what he says, but rather to what he does not say.” Kahlil Gibran sums up the idea that communication goes beyond what is literally being said. During one of the earlier scenes, when Coach Carter is trying to decide whether to take the coaching job or not, he engages in what seems to be literal listening. However, because communication goes beyond content and includes creating meaning through relationships, Coach Carter’s girlfriend, Tonya, was able to discern that what he really meant. After giving all possible reasons on why not to take the coaching position, Tonya asked “So when do you start?” What seemed to me, the viewer, a literal interaction, had an extra layer of meaning that I could not understand because I lacked the insight knowledge of the relationship between Coach Carter and his girlfriend.
“Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.” Saint Benedict understands the importance of listening with your whole being. In the movie, mindful listening through dual perspective took place was in the scene when Damien Carter, Coach Carter’s son, finally convinces his dad to allow him to transfer school and play basketball for him. The coach listened to his son and was able to understand what playing basketball in Richmond meant for Damien.
“If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Although a fluff in someone’s ear may be an external obstacle to listening, I’d like to use this Winnie the Pooh quote as a metaphor for internal obstacles to effective listening.
Out of the five inner barriers that Wood mentions that hinder mindful listening, the movie clearly touches upon two: prejudgment and reacting to emotionally loaded language. When the team first meets Coach Carter, they dismiss his coaching style because they prejudge whatever message he is trying to convey based on the way he looked, spoke, and carried himself. Timo Cruz says mockingly, “Are you some country church nigga, with your tie on and all that?” Obviously, Cruz is referring to the coach’s dressing style as well as his demeanor. The students’ reacted by laughing and sneering, indicative of a dismissive attitude towards the coach due to pre-conceived ideas of who Coach Carter was based on his physical appearance. On the other hand, Coach Carter refrained, at first, from reacting to Cruz’s emotionally loaded assertion. It wasn’t until the student continued to taunt Mr. Carter by using the word “nigga” and calling him an “uppity Negro” that Mr. Carter, finally tells Timo that he is “a very confused and scared young man.” This emotionally loaded statement finally escalates the verbal altercation between Coach Carter and Timo to a physical confrontation. Both Carter and Timo reacted to each other's emotionally loaded language resulting in a complete breakdown in communication.
In conclusion, Sue Patton Thoele says “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” Coach Carter practiced what Wood called listening to support others. He wanted his team to beat the grim statistics, not only in basketball but in the game of life. He was able to see past his students’ literal words and tough exterior. In turn, the students’ were able to push through their fears and realize that they were “powerful beyond measure.”

Wood, J.T. (2006). Mindful listening. In Interpersonal communication: Everyday Encounters. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Wadsworth Publishing.

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