When we ask someone “Are you listening to me”, we’re typically expressing our exasperation. We don’t feel as though what we’re saying is being heard, and that’s frustrating. But what about the reverse? Are we really listening to what others are saying? And are we listening to ourselves?
Active listening, like emotional intelligence, is an important skill to master. So many messages come at us, verbal and unspoken, it can be hard to focus during a conversation. However, the skill is too valuable for our leadership and for our lives in general not to work at getting better at it.
Learning to listen opens the door to expanding relationships, which is key to our ongoing success. In Nine Practices All Leaders Share, Dr. Alan Patterson shows what can be built by improving your ability to listen. Some of his advice is more of a reminder, but reinforcing the basics helps you reach the next level in your leadership. Here are Patterson’s recommended practices, annotated:
- Listen with Intent—Focus on what is being said, not the answer you plan on giving. It’s about respect. If you can, use restating to keep you on track and let the other party know that you think what they said matters. It’s an early step in relationship building.
- Ask Probing Questions—After listening, go deeper to increase connection and understanding. “Could you explain?” and “Why?’ take you past restating and opens the discussion. A good leader needs to know the concerns and issues of those they work with, whether it’s teachers or students.
- Study People—Listening includes reading body language and other non-verbal cues. Be careful about the implicit biases and judgements we all make. You need to see and listen to what the person inside is telling you. It’s not easy, but it is a skill worth developing. Patterson adds that as you get to know a person, you learn what is important to them.
- Share observations about the broader horizon with your team, colleagues, and senior leaders—Share your Vision and how you think it can become a reality with teachers and administrators. Contact teacher friends who you think would be open to trying something new and collaborate. School vacation is also the best time of year to have a meeting with your principal and outline your path for going forward. Listen for their responses so that you can see how your work will support them as well.
- Look for opportunities to engage in a dialogue—Have conversations that are not only about work problems or situations. Patterson recommends asking “how” and “why” questions to better understand what people need and want. Relationships, connection, and advocacy grow when your colleagues see you are aware of and responsive to their needs. Knowing who your colleagues really are–including as people outside of school–develops the relationships critical to your success. And when they answer–listen with intent and ask probing question.
- Practice translating a project or concept into the language of the audience—We do this all the time when we are teaching students. Use the same thinking process when making a presentation to a group, whether it’s parents or a grade/subject meeting. This is not the time for “library language.” What do they already know? What do they need to know? Why? What do you want them to do as a result? Using language that everyone understands makes people feel included and allows them to listen to you better.
- Translate vision into individualized responsibilities for your team members—Whether it’s students or teachers with whom you are collaborating (or cooperating) with on a project, be sure all concerned know who is doing what. This will show that you’re listening to what they need and that you’re available if they need help. And be sure to acknowledge their work to the principal.
- Trust that your success is based on your ability to create the conditions for other to succeed—You need feedback. That is an important part of listening. Ask in such a way as to get an accurate response. “What did you think of the project?” is not likely to get any helpful feedback. “What could I have done better?” or “Was anything missing?” will get the discussion started in a meaningful way. And listen to the responses you are getting. Receiving feedback builds trust.
- Focus on impact and meaning—Reflect on your week. Where did you make a difference? Where do you want to go next? Go an extra step. Ask others where they saw themselves making a difference–and listen to their answer.
Listening is at the heart these leadership skills. It’s also at the center of building the relationships you need to be successful as a leader in a school. Take the time to listen to others and yourself and you will find yourself making a greater impact.