Listening Legend Interview, Dr. Ralph Nichols

Interview by Rick Bommelje, Listening Post, Summer 2003, Vol 84 

Dr. Nichols died in 2006. He received the lifetime achievement award at the ILA conference in April, 2006.

Long before the creation of the International Listening Association, Dr. Ralph Nichols fathered the establishment of the study and development of the “field of listening.” In tracking the extensive history of listening research, teaching, and consulting, “Nick’s” work at the University of Minnesota led the way. Without Dr. Ralph Nichols’ pioneering work, the field of listening would not have developed to its present state. Moreover, the ILA would not exist. Dr. Nichols is an inductee into the ILA Listening Hall of Fame and an ILA Lifetime Member. At 96, Nick remained committed to advancing the impact of listening and listeners, and the International Listening Association.

Dr. Nichols, what originally motivated you to become involved in the field of listening?

My field of study for more than 40 years focused upon the art of listening. I began my career as a high school speech teacher and debate coach. As my debaters improved their listening skills, I discovered they improved their persuasive skills. As I moved to the University level, I supplemented my work in speech education with an extensive personal schedule of speaking

In the 1940s, we tested the listening skills of the University of Minnesota, St. Paul Campus freshman class. The lowest 20 percent were enrolled in our Effective Listening classes, and in nearly every class they improved their listening to a point greater than those who were not required to take the class. On all fronts, my work taught me a great deal about listeners, and my interests shifted from the sending to the receiving side of oral communication.

As the “Father of the Field of Listening,” what do you consider your most significant accomplishment in the field of listening?

You are kind. When one is engaged in pioneering work, the point that it is pioneering is often missed. We simply get caught up in the obvious challenges of the moment and move forward with excitement. In looking back, it is much clearer that the core of my seminal research, educational programs, professional articles, popular books, and numerous speeches helped a multitude of individuals and organizations become better listeners. I am pleased we created the “Minnesota Listening Model”, wherein Ron Brown, Manny Steil, Warren Gore and I taught listening to thousands of students for more than forty years. As a result, the elemental question, “Can listening be taught?” was explored, answered, recognized, and accepted. Yes, it can! In the process, we helped listening take a legitimate seat at the communication table; I am pleased to know I had a meaningful role in extending the linage of professionals committed to advancing the worldwide study and development of listening. At 96, to know that so many have followed my lead, and are continuing to advance the study and development of listening throughout the world is satisfaction and accomplishment enough.

How will the listening field need to change to meet the needs of future generations?

The basic compelling needs of mankind have not and will not change. With ongoing conflict around the globe, the pressing need for understanding is greater than ever. It is imperative all members of the international [sic] and achieving the basics of acceptance and cooperation. With mankind’s need to understand and be understood, everyone in the field of listening must focus on the opportunity to raise the bar of listening research and teaching. We need to enhance listening in every corner and quarter of society. Action is the key. To meet the listening needs of future generations, we must target the listening needs of the present generation. As professionals in the field of listening, we will impact future listeners by impacting the listening of present leaders in every walk of life. If we fail, future listeners will listen like past listeners, and that will not be good enough.

What do you see as the future of the International Listening Association?

As has been said, ILA’s potential future is extraordinary. The foundation is solid. Its members are knowledgeable and committed. Our potential is great and our challenge is simple. If the ILA is to fulfill its potential, we must grow to a size and collective activities that allow measured impact. We need to create “partners and contributors” in every segment of society: Education, business, government, churches, health care, financial circles, the military, science, international community, the arts, and in the media. Everywhere. Until we find partners, expand the scope, increase financial funding, and increase the number and impact of the present ILA members, we will miss the grand opportunity to grow listening and listeners throughout the world. As our present ILA members recruit additional members, become lifetime members, contribute actively to ILA and excite new “partners and contributors”, the ILA will grow and thrive. As we do, listening and listeners will be served.

In our ongoing recognition of ‘Listening Legends’ we are privileged to recognize and honor, Dr. Ralph Nichols, “The Father of the Field of Listening”. We extend a special thanks to Dr. Manny Steil, Dr. Ned Nichols, Lucille “Colonel” Nichols, and Warren Gore for their assistance in this insightful interview.

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