Communication Channels

Every conversation is an opportunity, yet many are wasted or don’t use the best channel for a particular communication. With our limited time, we can’t afford not to use these interactions to get the maximum possible benefit.

In looking at these different channels, keep in mind that the underlying purpose of any conversation is building relationships. When we get to know people better and allow them get to know us, ties are forged, and future advocacy developed. As a leader, particularly in these times, you need all the supporters you can get.

Joel Garfinkle focuses on 5 of The Most Effective Communication Channels at Work. Each offers a different opportunity. The challenge is to know which one to choose for a specific purpose and what you can accomplish.

In Person – This gives you the best opportunity to learn more about the other person. You have a host of non-verbal cues, including body language and even appearance, to help you understand and communicate. In Person is the perfect channel to meet with your principal or other administrator (as long as your principal knows the meeting is happening).

Summer is the ideal time for this meeting when your principal is less harried, and there is less likelihood of interruption. This meeting is especially important if you have a new principal. Your past achievements don’t count.

This is the time to learn their vision, what they want to achieve, and a perception of libraries and librarians. Share your mission and vision and spin it to show how you and the library can support their goals. Use your knowledge of body language to recognize when it’s time to bring the meeting to an end. It’s best if you can do this before the principal does. Change channels and follow up with an email — or a handwritten note—thanking them for their time and highlighting one important take-away.

Video Communication – We have all become Zoomers. Within the school setting this isn’t used as much as now that we’re back to in person classes, but it offers some interesting possibilities.

If you are fortunate enough to have several librarians in your district, a Zoom meeting can help in unifying how you deal with similar challenges. While not the same as in person, it does help you to get to know your colleagues better and build those relationships. You lose some ability to read body language and eye contact isn’t as clear, but it’s a good start. Consider this channel for reaching out to the public librarian.

Phone – These are best for shorter, more direct conversations. Garfinkle recommends you check at the start to be sure this is a good time to talk. The phone is best used for setting up an in-person meeting or reporting in on something. Be specific, clear, and quick. Stay focused on your purpose. You might want to have notes to keep you on track. Follow up with a confirming email. Without any visuals to guide you, listen for verbal cues to hear if the person sounds rushed or background noise that hints at distractions.

Voice Mail – Sometimes this is the only option. You called and the person didn’t pick up. Be prepared to leave a succinct and clear message. Identify yourself and, if necessary, give your preferred call back number. Repeat that at the end of the message – slowly. Keep your message focused on the reason for the cal. Garfinkle advises if you are not prepared to capsulize the reason for your call, hang up. Get your thoughts together then try again. Smiling as you talk will help you sound upbeat and increase the chances of being called back. Your tone is your most important signal in this method.

Email – Although Garfinkle likes this channel the least, it continues to have its place as long as you are aware of potential pitfalls. The first rule is to keep it brief. People are busy and often don’t read all the way to the bottom. They are also often checking on their phones and so are reading on a small screen.

The next rule is to proofread, particularly if it’s an important communication. Spelling errors have a negative impact on you and your message. Also check to be sure your language is clear and is unlikely to be misconstrued. Obviously, this is not the place for sarcasm and emojis aren’t appropriate in the work environment. All you have are your words in this form of communication – no tone, no inflection. Clarity is key.

Before hitting “send,” make sure you haven’t included people who shouldn’t get this message in the “To” section. A “reply all” can get you in trouble. We work so fast, it’s easy to make these mistakes. If it matters, take time to get it right.

Knowing the best channel for initiating conversations is an important leadership skill. Don’t waste or miss your opportunities to reach out and build those vital relationships.

Advertisement

Quiet Your Inner Critic

Of all the people with whom we communicate with each day, the one we speak to the most is ourselves. And all too often we are not kind. We say to ourselves things we would never say to anyone else. And we certainly wouldn’t be saying it so often. Yet, each day the barrage continues, and it takes a toll.

A result of this negative self-talk is a decrease in our ability to believe in ourselves. When something new comes up, we step back, sure if we take on this challenge, we will mess it up. Our inner critic blocks our path to leadership, adds to our stress, and it leads to feelings of overwhelm and burnout.

But how can we turn off, or at least turn down, the critic that lives inside us? It’s not as if we seek it out. It speaks up almost without us being aware of it. And there is the core of the answer. Being aware of your self-critic is the first step.

In a recent article on Edutopia, Kailyn Fullerton presents the following  7 Ways to Identify and Overcome Self-Criticism:

  1. Understand the negativity bias -Fullerton explains it’s natural. All animals are hard-wired to identify threats, humans included. Unfortunately, we do this even when the situation isn’t dire and as such, look for – and find – all the things going wrong at any given moment. By being aware of this bias, we can notice when it’s not serving us, when it’s not true, and even when others are doing it by having their focus solely on what they think is wrong.  
  2. Monitor your inner voice –What are those negative phrases that play in a loop in your head? Fullerton says these self-critical statements often repeat themselves and suggests identifying your “top ten.”  The “shoulda,” “coulda,” “woulda”s” are always up there, along with “I always,” and  “I never.” Absolutes in a statement are usually a warning. Putting this negative self talk to a “truth test” will help remind you see where the critic is lying.
  3. Set realistic expectations – Having high expectations isn’t a problem as long as you accept the learning and growing process that goes with it. Otherwise, you give your inner critic a space for those negative phrases (back to Monitor Your Inner Voice). Remember, too, that depending on the importance of the task, excellent and “good enough” can be sufficient. Learning takes time, and you can’t rush it.
  4. Create realistic goals – Don’t set yourself up for failure. Is what you want to do likely to happen given all the interruptions you face or do you need more time? Don’t forget the “A” in a SMART goal. If it’s not reasonably achievable, don’t make it goal however much you want to get it. Find a way to break it into something smaller. You can also try the W-O-O-P (Wish-Outcome-Obstacles-Plan) method for creating goals recommended by Fullerton which allows you to acknowledge the things that will get in your way and how to manage them..
  5. Find the helpers – Who can you turn to? Rather than beating yourself up or venting too often and sounding negative, look for supporters. Let those you have a good relationship with knew you are trying to find a solution to some challenges. If you don’t have a mentor, look for one or turn to library-related social media. Someone has already experienced this and will be glad to offer advice and support.
  6. Give yourself a break – If you criticize yourself, you can also be kind. Create a practice of self-compassion. Tell yourself supportive things. My favorite reminder is, “I have done tough stuff before and faced difficult challenges, I will do so again”. The advice is old but true, “Speak to yourself the way you would speak to someone else.” Acknowledge how difficult something is, recognize that this is part of the process, part of being human, and then say something kind to yourself. “I am taking on a big goal. I knew this would be hard but worth it. I am learning and getting closer to my goal every day.” It’s a worthwhile shift and you’ll feel your emotions and energy lift.
  7. Look for the good – Mute that inner critic by loading up with self-congratulatory thoughts.  This counteracts the negativity bias. Do it just for yourself. Make note of your successes. Savor compliments you get. Keep track of them. Create a Success Journal (this is the action that works for me). It’s so easy to overlook what went well. Moments of joy and positivity can make a difference.

Your inner critic is not going to become silent. Note that the title of the article was “Quiet Your Inner Critic” not eliminate it. As Fullerton says, your inner critic is natural and, sadly, well developed. Notice it, release it, find supportive truths, and be kind to yourself and others.

In the Heat of the Moment

We are all stressed. And we are dealing with people who are stressed. The combination can lead to sudden eruptions of temper. Words spill out. More are exchanged, and you are left with the fallout. It’s not pretty, and it can have long-term consequences.

How do you feel after one of these verbal explosions? Exhausted? Still simmering? Annoyed with yourself? Are you re-thinking what the other person said? What you said or should have said?

We are in the relationship business. Having a professional relationship with everyone in the building is a job requirement for school librarians. We can’t afford to lose our temper in the heat of the moment. We need to quickly defuse the heat whether it’s ours or theirs.

It’s important to anticipate these outbursts and possibly more important to know how to deal with the consequences. Knowing these confrontations are bound to occur, have a plan for dealing with it to lessen occurrences and/or any damage it does to relationships.

The Leadership Freak’s blog post offers sage advice, giving 7 Proactive Responses to Hot Emotions. The title refers to the focus of the post: reactions are too often an out-of-control response to a situation. As he says in his list of “7 Dangers of Reacting, “The more you react, the more your thinking congeals,” and “The more you react, the more negative consequences you experience.”

The “5 Emotions that Switch on Reaction-mode” according to the Leadership Freak are ones we experience frequently. The first he mentions is Stress, and, as noted we are living with high stress. Discouragement is another emotion he identifies. So many librarians are feeling frustrated about schedules that keep them from doing their job as librarians. It’s no wonder that things boil over.

To deal with these situations, Leadership Freak suggests “7 Powerful Proactive Responses to Hot Emotions.”

  • Gratitude – Thank the person for bringing the issue to your attention. When you do this, focus on the message the other person is sending, not the manner of delivery.
  • Acknowledgement –  Recognizes the other person’s feelings. There are two of you (or more) in this moment. Notice what is happening for them.
  • Space – A time-tested technique for any relationship, personal or professional. It’s counting to ten or the parent classic, “Go to your room, I am too angry to deal with you now.” In the work setting “Give me some time to think about this” achieves the same aim.

If you respond offensively or defensively when someone’s hostility is directed at you, you set off an escalating confrontation. You will need to invest time and effort to restore the relationship to where it was previously. If others were present to hear it you may have some repairs to do there as well.

The scenario is somewhat different when you are the one who starts the conflict. It maybe you were asked to do one more thing and just exploded. Whatever triggered your reaction is not as important as what you do after. That step is crucial.

As soon as possible, apologize, another of Leadership Freak’s proactive responses. It’s best to do so without adding reasons. Start with, “I’m sorry. There is no excuse for my behavior.” Justification is a natural way to remove some of the blame (and shame), but you will get the relationship back on track much faster if you take full responsibility.

And remember, what is true in the work world is also true in your personal life. These outbursts will happen. Be pro-active to de-escalate them rapidly. The more clearly we can communicate, the less stress we’ll have in our relationships and our lives.

Powerful Words – Powerful Results

Our word choices – whether speaking or writing—impact how we are perceived, and the results we get. When we write, we take time to search for and edit out weak words, those which don’t say what we want or which muddle the clarity of our message. In conversation, it’s important to choose words that convey surety and confidence.

This is vital is when writing your Mission and Vison statements. When I give presentations on the subject, I often point out how a simple word choice or change can make the statements more powerful. We eliminate words like “will” and “plan to” and put the statements in the present tense. Even a Vision statement you don’t see as entirely possible to achieve (or at least not for a while) gains strength from being written in the present tense. Let’s look at the difference the right words can make:

Compare:

The Mission of the Blank School Media Center Program helps in creating lifelong learners with critical thinking skills and an appreciation of literature with enriching opportunities for all students to gain the self-confidence necessary to successfully learn in an information-rich world.

With

The Blank School Media Center Program creates lifelong learners possessing critical thinking skills and an appreciation of literature by collaboratively providing opportunities for all students to gain the self-confidence necessary to successfully learn in an information-rich world.

“Help” is weak, while “Enriching” is vague in the first example. They aren’t wrong, but they are supplementary. When writing something so concise, and something we want to have an impact, we can’t afford to be supplementary.

Changing a Vision statement into the present tense immediately adds force.

Compare:

The School Library Media Program will be a user-centered environment where up-to-date resources and technology and a responsive staff empower students and teachers to achieve their academic and personal goals.

With

The School Library Media Program is a user-centered environment where up-to-date resources and technology and a responsive staff empower students and teachers to achieve their academic and personal goals.

In our conversations, the subtleties communicated in our word choices can make a huge difference in how our messages are received. Saying, “I believe that purchasing books by diverse authors will make a positive difference in our students’ sense of belonging,” does not convey the same message as “I know that purchasing books by diverse authors will make a positive difference in our students’ sense of belonging,” “Believe” does not convey the same strength of conviction as “know.” Being aware of words that weaken or soften your impact can improve your proposals and have you better positioned to be accepted and approved.

In his article The Love for Confidence and Conviction, Bob Decker points out how “soft word” choices communicate the degree of confidence you have in your ideas, regardless of how much confidence you actually have. He recommends you eliminate the following terms:

  • Maybe
  • Possibly
  • I think
  • Just
  • I hope
  • Potentially

because they suggest you aren’t certain about what you’re saying. Each conveys hesitancy and a lack of conviction which does not support your success.

It is an odd fact of life that as receivers of information, we recognize these indicators of uncertainty and lack of confidence, yet as senders, we are frequently unaware of the implications of our word choices. To improve the power of your communication, both written and oral, tune into how others express themselves. Listen to the words your principal uses in proposing an initiative or plan. Did you hear confidence or uncertainty? Observe how others respond. Then take the time to notice your own language choices and speak (and write) from the passion and enthusiasm of your work.

Always Leading

Leadership should not be something you turn on and off and it’s more than something you do. It’s a mindset and a way of being. When you see yourself as a leader, you carry your leadership qualities and skill set into all situations and regardless of the type of administrator you work for.

By being aware of what your administrator(s) want and need, and responding as a leader, you sharpen your leadership skills. Other people respond to your actions by seeing you as a leader. The more naturally you assume the role, the more you own this identification. Your colleagues and administrators come to view you as one of the building leaders and respond positively to your suggestions and proposals.

Managing or leading up can be critical in a building or school district where administrators change frequently or the one in place is inept. Jenn David-Lang and Donna Spangler explain why and “How to Manage Up in a School Setting.”  They identify six different administrators and what skills you want to employ:

  • Brand new – Get in early and be regarded as a helper as the administrator becoming acclimated. Learn their goals and show how your work supports this.
  • Hands-off or distracted – Take the reins and run. They won’t notice it, but the teachers will, and many will be grateful.
  • Micromanager – Sending detailed reports shows you know how to do your job – and how they like to do theirs.
  • Inexperienced with teaching and learning – Infographics are a good source of help. You want to present information as succinctly as possible so they can absorb it and see the connection.
  • Know-it-all – Show that you’re aware of their knowledge. Introduce ideas with phrases like, “As you know…”
  • Indecisive – Present options (but not too many) and offer rankings along with reasons or evidence for choices.

David-Lang and Spangler expand on dealing with these six types of administrators with their “AAHH” strategy.

Ask – You need information to prevent missteps. Ask questions to learn their vision, what they see as success, and gain a sense of who they are. You also want to know what issues the administrator is focused on and any background information on it.

Adjust – Change tactics depending on which of the type of supervisor you are dealing with. What worked for a previous administrator, might not work for your new one. For example, if you were a micromanager, presenting a plan of action and having a written agreement on who will do what (and probably by when) works well. With a hands-off administrator, you can be more general in your plan and stay focused on presenting the successful end result.

Head or Heart – Some administrators want just the facts. They love data. Others respond better to the emotion behind a project. Micromanagers and Know-it-alls tend to be the former. The others can fall into either category, so it helps to identify early how they react to information and present it in a way that facilitates their hearing you.

Hands – When you make a proposal, you need to support it with an action plan. All types of administrators need to know they can count on you to deliver—and make them look good.

Get to know your administrators and their style. Present yourself and your work in the best light by giving them what they need, the way they can you it best. When you do, you are better able to lead everywhere.

You Aren’t Listening

Did you ever have someone call you out because you weren’t listening to them? Have you ever said that to anyone? You can’t have a successful communication if one party isn’t listening. We know this and recognize the importance of active listening, yet all too often our conversations go astray as we or the other party tune out.

We (or the person we’re talking to) tune out when our thoughts go elsewhere. We also tune out when we are trying to make our point and override what the other person is saying.  This typically happens if we have decided we are not being heard. In the process, we block what is being said to us in an attempt to reinforce our perspective.

The result is the communication doesn’t work. Whatever the purpose of the conversation, it isn’t achieved. Worse, we may need to repair any damage we have done to a relationship we are building if we have left the other person angry or annoyed.   

Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn identify three conditions needed by an effective communicator in their blog post, Leadership: Listening to Others in Volatile Times. The three requirements are:

  • Focus – Keep the conversation focused on the speaker, even if you’ve gone to them for something. Either they need the help or they have what you need.
  • Openness – Be willing to listen. Don’t make up your mind before hearing what the person has to say.
  • Willingness – This is the tough one. You need to be prepared to change your mind or your actions based on what the other person says.  You cannot get here without being focused and open.

Knowing these three conditions doesn’t mean we put them into practice.  There are barriers we construct that keep us from being successful at active listening. Williamson and Blackburn list these five. If you notice these barriers coming up you need to return to practicing the three requirements.

  1. Indifference – For some reason, we think the speaker or their issue is not important.  They may be someone who always has an opinion, and we are tired of dealing with them. It could be a student who regularly brings up something that interferes with the direction you are taking the lesson.  The other party will eventually notice from body language, incorrect answers or other slips that you were not listening.
  2. Assumptions – This happens when we judge other people and categorize them based on our implicit biases.  Although getting to know them can change these perceptions, tuning someone out based on these assumptions hampers building relationship and affects how we are perceived in turn. You are missing an opportunity to connect and get to know someone who could be a true ally if given the chance.
  3. Distractions – Our days are filled with them. You hear your phone vibrate and stop listening to the speaker. Other people in the library have part of your attention, or the project you were managing before this conversation is still on your mind. In these instances, you are out of the conversation and have gone somewhere else. Allowing yourself to be distracted telegraphs the message that the other party and their issue isn’t important.  
  4. Hurrying – The other barriers – in addition to our overloaded schedules – frequently has us trying to hurry a conversation, not allowing the other person the time they need or deserve. Who has time?  We are like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. If you find yourself thinking, “get to the point,” you aren’t listening and you may miss an important piece of information. You’ve definitely missed a chance to connect.
  5. Information Overload – As librarians we are often guilty of doing this to others.  They come in with a question. We find the answer and keep going with related information and more detail than the person asked for or needed.  Given the likelihood of distractions and hurrying, less is more. When approaching your principal with a proposal, don’t give all the details. Hit the major bullet points and let the other person know you have more information if they need or want.

In conclusion, Williamson and Blackburn list 10 behaviors to promote active listening, many of which I’ve written about before:

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Use positive body language.
  3. Restate or affirm what the other person is saying
  4. Ask clarifying questions to help you understand.
  5. Wait to share your comments until they finish.
  6. Pause and allow silence if appropriate.
  7. Be fully present and avoid distractions.
  8. Keep an open mind.
  9. React to the content, not the person.
  10. If you take note, explain why, so they don’t think you are ignoring them.

Leaders must be good listeners to be successful communicators. Check in with yourself if your mind wanders and get back to focus, openness, and willingness. Soon, you’ll be actively listening to and engaged with the person speaking with you.

First Impressions

It’s an automatic response. We see someone or something and we make an assessment. With people, it encompasses our biases about everything. We notice skin color, weight, height, clothing, and a host of other outward signs. And while we are having that instant reaction, the other party is doing the same. Fortunately, there are things we can do to make strong and accurate first impressions that will support our success and create a strong foundation for new relationships.

In her article, Make a Good First Impression: Expert Tips for Showing Up at Your Best, Shonna Waters writes: “First impressions last. Whether they are accurate or not, it normally takes a long time and concerted effort to change a first impression. Because they are largely subconscious, first impressions are very persistent. Even in the face of contrary evidence.  Because of our implicit biases and cognitive biases, we see the world and other people through our own set of filters and make decisions based on them. All of your relationships are affected by the first impression that you make.” So how can you make first impressions work for you? Waters top suggestions are:

  • Make eye contact – Before you say anything, making eye contact sends a message of trustworthiness while giving you the opportunity to notice your own reactions and (possibly inaccurate) impressions of the other person. Waters says eye contact indicates you are listening and engaged. At the same time, notice if the other person has returned the eye contact. Are they open to listening to you or just waiting for the conversation to end as fast as possible? This is important information that can help you to know how to continue the conversation.
  • Smile – A genuine smile puts people at ease and creates connection. You want the smile to reach your eyes, or it looks phony (yes, wearing masks makes this harder, but we’re getting used to it.). If you’re nervous, try thinking positive thoughts. This will help your brain activate a real smile.
  • Dress for the occasion – How you look makes an impression, so be aware of what the situation calls for and how you can convey your awareness by your clothes. Dressing appropriately sends a subtle message that you value this interchange. Dressing for success is always wise. And for job interviews, the advice of “dress for the job you want to have” holds true. Remember to be mindful of what you might be doing as part of the day. Comfortable shoes go a long way for an extended interview or presentation.
  • Be a good communicator – Listen more than talk. Pause before answering a question. Restate it to ensure you understand what is being asked. This allows people to notice your communication skills. And remember to really listen—hear what is not being said. Whether asking a principal to support a new program or going for a job interview, we tend to hear the parts we want to hear. Did the principal understand what you meant by digital literacy or were they not aware of all the aspects you meant? When the principal said their library was the heart of the school, what did they actually mean by that?

Outside of face-to-face interactions, remember your library also makes a first impression. It’s a good practice to pause occasionally before walking in and taking in the room as though you were seeing it for the first time. What message is it sending? Is it the one you want? If not, how can you change it? If it is, how can you strengthen it?

We can’t monitor or control all the first impressions we make. There are too many. But if you can stay aware of the ones that are important, you’ll be able to support your success by starting new relationships on the right foot.

Communication Not Information

Our days are filled with conversations, text messages, social media, and the myriad of other ways we send and receive messages. When we talk about communication, we are usually thinking of these. And while we occasionally make missteps in haste (and hit “Reply All” when we want to send to one person) mostly we are aware of what we are sending and receiving. But what about the silent messages we send. Those are often the most important ones. They are constant in any face-to-face interactions, and can be present in phone calls. If we are not attuned to them, we may make blunders far more serious than “Reply All.”

In What My Time in Theater Taught Me About Corporate Communication, Monique Maley referred to the conversations we are aware of as Information not Communication. It was a novel way for me to look at what is happening during our silent communications. So much can be gained or lost without our being conscious of it occurring.

To add depth to their performances, actors are highly aware of the importance of silent communication. They portray emotions beyond their words. With the right skills, they can tell us, without a word, that they cannot be trusted. I can remember seeing Alan Rickman in Dangerous Liaisons. In one scene his body was absolutely still, and then he moved one finger. The audience knew he was lying and about to do something abhorrent.

Maley offers the following thoughts and advice to those of us who aren’t actors:

  • We are perpetually in dialogue – Anytime we come in contact with others the conversation begins. Although you are both sender and receiver of information, most frequently it’s your role as receiver that is most important. The speaker/sender is using many parts of their body, and you need to be attuned to them.

Maley talks about noting their energy level. I’ve recognized that most often in students. They are like a shaken can of soda and any one thing can cause it to pop open. You can spot it in their finger and eye movements. Does the other person seem distracted or impatient? Does their smile reach their eyes?

When you read the silent communication, you are able to tailor your response so it’s more likely to be received. While doing so, consider the message you are silently sending. The receiver may not be aware of the signals, but they will respond to it.

  • We must be fully present – When you allow something to distract you, you break the communication. That break may cause you to miss a turn the conversation has taken and picking up the thread can be difficult. This can give the other person the impression that you are not interested, or they are not important.

Maley recalls playing Cordelia in King Lear when the lead actor suddenly spoke lines from Hamlet. Being fully present allowed her to bring him back. If the person speaking to you is distracted, they might go off on another topic. The sooner you can detect that shift, the quicker you can return the conversation to its initial direction. It also gives you the ability to see if they are present to your words or if your message isn’t landing. Maley states, “Being full present isn’t just a skill; it’s a muscle that needs to be built up and practiced.”

  • Our verbal and non-verbal communication must match – When our words say one thing, but our body language says another, we are perceived as insincere. The receiver may not know why they feel you are not giving them the truth, but they will sense it. Maley writes, “Mastering this skill helps ensure that you don’t unintentionally make people defensive, destroy your credibility or harm their perception of you.”

Your mindset is critical in keeping your body language aligned with your words. For example, it’s not enough to meet the kids in your toughest class with a smile and cheery greeting.” You can prepare yourself with the thoughts of, “We are going to have some fun together” and then show them that belief.

Putting these together allows your communication to focus on engagement. Being conscious of the silent communication of others will ensure that the message you want to send gets through. And perhaps, the next time you watch television or a movie, notice the non-verbal language of the actors to learn from them how you’re communicating at all times.

Are You Listening?

We have so much on our plates and too many distractions. We’ve got a huge to-do list and not enough time. People check their phones during meetings – live or virtual. We’re focused elsewhere during Zoom calls without the other participants noticing, and, sadly they’re likely doing the same. Unfortunately, it damages our abilities and interferes with being a leader.

All too often if I am in a rush, when a person on my Zoom meeting is restating what they or others have said, or because I have something I want to say and am waiting for the right moment to jump in I discover I haven’t been listening. Being aware of my tendencies, I can usually stop myself before my tuning out to the speaker lasts more than a minute, but it’s a challenge.

When someone says, “You are not listening to me,” they are probably right. Whether it’s an adult or student we are being disrespectful. In Effective Listening as a Key Skill for a Better Leader, Emma Coffine writes about the importance of this skill for those leading teams in the business world, but their tips are equally important in education. Here are her 7 ways to improve your listening and why they are important.

  1. Get to Know Them – To build relationships, you need to know the person, student or colleague, beyond the superficial that is often our norm. When you know them, you see them as whole people, not just their job persona. That knowledge aids you in paying attention to what they are saying and making sure you are understanding it. When starting a collaborative project, look for ways to put relationship before the task. Checking in to see how the other person or persons are feeling may sound like wasting time, but it smooths the way for what follows. It shows you care and value them.
  •  Make This a Priority – Knowing something is essential and making it a priority are different things. Improving your listening skills is not something to fit in when you have time. It affects all your interactions. Each encounter is a way to build a connection. Coffine notes that making it a priority affects your mindset. As you recognize the importance of truly listening, you see the other person in a larger context. You enter the conversation focused on what is being said, not on your own plans.
  • Keep Distractions Away – Our phones are almost another appendage. Think about your reaction if you are speaking and see one or more people looking at their phones. Your reaction is likely to believe they aren’t interested in what you are saying—which may not be true. Make a point of removing as many distractions as possible when you are talking with someone. The distractions will be there later – the person may not.
  • Care – Remember that saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care?” We need human connection. Our experiences with the pandemic prove it. Listening and focusing on the other person is a simple way to show you care about them, what they are saying and what they are experiencing. This connection goes a long way in the moment – and in future interactions. It also gives you an opportunity to learn more about who they are and not only what they might want.
  • Be Empathetic – As much as we wish we could, it’s nearly impossible to always leave your problems at home. That’s not a problem. Whether you have staff to manage, teachers to collaborate with, or students to teach, we are there to support each other, and we can’t do it unless we know how they are doing. Some days you’ll be the one who needs help. Sometimes it will be someone else. By being empathetic, you can give and receive support and relieve some of their burden on those bad days.
  • Body Language – Not everyone is comfortable sharing personal matters. This is where it becomes important to observe people’s body language. This includes your students. Conversely, people are also reading your body language. You may think they are unaware that you have tuned out, but they can see it in your eyes and how your body is reacting – or not – to what they are saying.
  • No Judging – When we judge, we aren’t listening. We’ve jumped to a conclusion and are holding that belief rather than connecting with the other person. People come from so many different experiences and perspectives that it’s important to stay open to who they are without our own filters interfering as much as possible. As Coffine writes, ‘if you want to listen effectively, you need to stop judging and be more compassionate.’

Leaders succeed by building relationships which builds support. Listening attentively is how you build both. Look for new ways you can pay attention.

Words of Praise, Words of Encouragement

We know compliments are important.  They can make a person’s day, but we should be more conscious of the ones we give.  Too often we praise students saying, “good job,” but our words fail to make much of an impact without specifics.

If you tell me I did a good job, I’ll be glad to hear it, but I probably won’t think about it again. However, if you said, “that story you told to make your point really resonated with me,” I will remember.  The difference between the two?  The second compliment offered something specific. It showed you weren’t making an offhand, polite statement. You noticed what I did and how I did it.

Making your compliments specific takes time and requires that we “see” the person.  We go beyond the surface and recognize what the other person has done. Telling a student that the design of their presentation had a professional look then going on to ask how they learned to do it will make an impression and a memory. 

Encouragement is also best when specific.  When we say, “You did much better with this assignment,” the student will appreciate it.  But pointing to the examples of the improvement and noticing what they learned will mean much more.

Even better than giving someone a verbal compliment or an encouraging word is to write it. I have been known to copy/paste and print comments my students have written to me at the end of a course so that I can refer to them, especially during those times of Imposter Syndrome.  It means a lot to know I reached them and made a difference.

In The Value of Mailing Encouraging Notes to Students, John Tiersma takes the concept a step further by making a commitment to send a handwritten note to each of his students every year. The results have been long lasting. Tiersma tells the story of a former student who displayed his note, written seven years earlier, on her dorm room wall. His reasoning on why this works is:a

Feeling Important Is Important – Our inner voice is a harsh critic.  Sometimes it’s all we hear. The school dynamic may compound that sense of not being smart or worthy.  A note is a physical representation that you are seen as being of value.  Having positive skills and characteristics recognized is a motivator to build on them and become engaged in learning. Tiersma stresses the importance of making your words “specific, genuine, and true.”

Another Way to Connect – For those of you who cannot do handwritten notes, Tiersma suggests “authentic compliments”, which I discussed earlier, and he encourages having “non-school conversations.” It’s how you get to know the person, not just the student. 

These conversations are also an effective relationship building approach with teachers.  They are not their job.  We only see a portion of our colleagues and students if all we see are their job-related personas.  As you connect with praise or encouragement, you may be surprised to learn what you have been missing.

With everything already on our to-do lists, starting small is probably the best approach.  Pick a student who has been looking bedraggled or one who has been showing improvement, then send them a handwritten note. Or, set a goal to have at least one to two “authentic conversations” each week. Tiersma suggests focusing on someone you don’t know well.  Learn their interests and hobbies.  I built a relationship with one teacher when I learned she liked fly fishing. I don’t share that interest, but I was able to get articles to her she might otherwise have overlooked.

As we deal with students who have been traumatized because of the pandemic or for other reasons, consider how offering praise and encouragement this way will help you to expand and develop your relationship building skills and make a difference in your work.  And remember, this doesn’t only have to be with students. Teachers need this as well. The old expression “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” reminds us how important it is to connect with the people.  True connection, like clear praise, makes a difference. It can even change a life.