Attention School Leaders: Listening is Essential. Here’s How to Get Better at It.

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A few weeks ago, a friend called me to chat. While our children attend different schools, we often call one another to connect (and sometimes vent) about issues we—or our kids—are experiencing.

“My son is really struggling with his workload,” my friend said. “So I called the division head to talk about how he is feeling and what he is experiencing, but I really didn’t feel like she heard what I was saying.”

After asking her a few more questions about the conversation, she added, “I didn’t necessarily want special treatment or changes to his workload. I just wanted her to understand what my son is going through.” She paused. “I just wanted her to listen.”

In the age of Twitter tweets, instagram posts, emails and texting, means of communication are constantly at our disposal. But the act of listening has become a skill we use less and less and school environments are no exception. Listening allows us insight about each other and about ourselves. When used wisely, thoughtful listening can transform schools and help educators work more collaboratively. And with some deliberate and thoughtful practice, school leaders can improve their listening capacity.

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avi Kluger discuss their research findings around listening in the workplace. Through their research, they observed that employees paired with quality listeners felt, “less anxious, more self-aware, and reported higher clarity about their attitudes on the topics.” In addition, the researchers argue that listening is a practiced skill that requires focus and attention.

Some school leaders may say, “listening is all I do!” Days spent in meetings, on calls and responding to emails and text messages are all ways that school leaders try to listen to other administrators, teachers, parents and students. But technology does not always provide the most productive means for listening. Email and texting, for example, do not facilitate deeper listening in the same way as face-to-face conversation (or even Zoom calls). As a school leader, it is important to provide more than one way for people to get in touch. But once they do, what does good listening look like?

Better listening requires a shift from a reactive frame of mind to one which is more receptive. For school leaders, daily conversations can often be something that requires immediate action. But when moments allow, shifting thinking from, “what is the solution?” to “what is this person saying to me?” or “what emotions is this person displaying?” can provide powerful results.

Focusing attention in the moment is also key. If you find yourself thinking about the hundred other things on your to-do list, you cannot be truly listening. Asking questions and refraining from providing one’s own perspective is a difficult but necessary component of deeper listening.

Questions that seek to understand the speaker’s perspective and emotions are essential not only to clarify their experience, but to acknowledge that they are actually being heard. Comments such as “tell me more about that situation” or “what can I do to support you?” can feel like trivial responses. But in this current climate, genuinely asking these questions—and listening to the responses—can validate the experiences of others and provide emotional support.

Providing a variety of paths to listening may not be enough; a proactive approach is essential. Developing “listening hours” either in person or via Zoom is a great tool to start this work. In these sessions, parents, teachers or even students can meet with school leaders to discuss certain topics. Remember: The purpose of these sessions is to listen not to respond, defend or resolve. These listening sessions also allow opportunities to develop insight into experiences and perspectives that are not your own; a key component in developing empathy.

There is, however, a fine line between providing avenues for thoughtful discussion and letting conversations spiral into gripe sessions. As Itzchakov and Kluger note in their research, supervisors worry that opening up these listening avenues can cause a loss of power in their position and some even fear change that could be a result from more open communication. To avoid this, set certain parameters, such as the number of participants, set time, and appropriate subjects to discuss. With specific rules, stakeholders can release their emotions around topics while moving toward more productive discussions.

There is no doubt that quality listening takes time and effort. It is a skill that takes practice and can, at times, be difficult to implement. But the long term positive effects that active listening will have on school leaders, teachers, parents and students will be well worth the effort.

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