Listening is Leading

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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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.

ON LIBRARIES – Build Your Listening Skills

Are you a good listener?  I am much better than I used to be, but it’s a skill I know I need to keep improving.  To be a successful leader you must be a good listener, hearing what is said – and not said and become an active listener. Active Listening contributes directly to building strong relationships.  As a quick review, Employee Development Systems Inc. gives these 6 Elements of Active Listening for Improved Personal Effectiveness:

  1. Letting others finish what they’re saying without interrupting them
  2. Asking questions to gain understanding
  3. Paying attention to what others are saying by maintaining comfortable eye contact
  4. Remaining open-minded about others have the right to their opinion
  5. Using feedback and paraphrasing skills
  6. Observing non-verbal signals such as the speaker’s facial expressions and body language

I have finally managed to do #1 most of the time. I do the others as well, but #5 is the one I’m still working on developing.

Click the image to go to the article

Another way to look at how we can change the way we listen is offered by C. Otto Scharmer in an article entitled How Are You Listening as a Leader?  He lists four types of listening.  By categorizing which one you need when, and knowing how to use all four, you will improve your leadership and develop better relationships.

He calls the first one Downloading.  At this level, what you are hearing is information you already know.  It reminds me of so many faculty meetings.  You can tune in with one ear while you plan the tasks you need to do once you leave the building.  Of course, if this is how you are listening when a teacher or student is speaking to you, you will not connect the way you should so downloading should only be used when appropriate and not as the first one.

The second level is Factual Listening. The focus here is on data transmittal, and we are listening for where what we are hearing confirms or goes against our expectations.  In education, this kind of listening is likely to occur when the focus is on changes in scheduling and other areas during testing situations. Scharmer cautions that this is where we need an open mind and to not make judgments.  For example, you may (rightfully) become angry at what will happen to your program during the days devoted to testing.  Rather than be resentful, contemplate how you can make it work for your program (as long as you aren’t proctoring) and offer it as a suggestion to your administrator.

Empathic Listening is when we reach out to another’s person’s feelings.  It’s at this level that relationships are built and your colleagues, student, and administrators come to trust you as a leader. By understanding and recognizing what is motivating another person, you are better able to understand their point of view.  While you don’t have to agree with the view offered, this knowledge puts you in a better position to respond in a way they can hear you.

Finally, there is Generative Listening. When you are at this level, you and others are creating.  This is where innovation begins. You are ready to consider what is possible while giving others the space to come aboard and join with you.  You are not enforcing your will or ideas, but rather collaborating as the best from each participant is allowed to be heard allowing the result to be far greater than you could have imagined.  In the end, everyone has contributed to a project or program’s creation and success.

Click image to go to the article

Why do we have so much trouble listening? Dan Rockwell in his Leadership Freak blog post in March suggests the following reasons for “shallow listening.”

  1. Desire. Listening is such a bother.
  2. Ignorance. You might listen if you knew how.
  3. Time. Hurry up. The clock’s ticking.
  4. Energy. You don’t have the energy to listen deeply.
  5. Discipline. On a list of “hard things to do,” listening is near the top.

I am discounting #2 because I am sure you have heard much about Active Listening besides what I have just discussed.  For most of us, #3 is probably the main reason.  And after a long day, #4 takes over.

We change our habits when we recognize that making the change is worth the time and effort. Then it becomes a priority.  Listening is a leadership quality. Scharmer says, “Listening is probably the most underrated leadership skill. How you listen can be life-changing; not just business- or industry-changing.”

You can see what a difference it can make in your program and the individuals you come in contact with, where so much of what we can achieve rests on our ability to build relationships.  Listening and continually improving our listening skills deserves to be a priority. It changes our ability to be effective and impactful leaders.