“One thing is certain about the role of a school leader – it is people intensive!” (in Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School Culture One Conversation at a Time, by Linda Gross Cheliotes and Marceta A. Reilly). Not only that, but every day as a principal or vice principal is filled with all kinds of conversations with all groups, including students, parents, staff, colleagues, supervisors and community members. The authors see these as opportunities for trust building and change. They believe if we are intentional about conversations, if we listen actively, if we empower others to find their solutions, and if we pratice these consistently, then reflection and powerful changes in thinking can occur.
I want to focus on active listening in this post. I know how important it is to be fully engaged in the conversation. It lets the other person know that I am interested, that I care and that they are heard. It builds trust. It allows others the time to think aloud and work through ideas. That said, I am far from the perfect listener.
It can be so hard to put aside the day to day jobs or look up from the keyboard to really listen to someone else. I have to work to curb the urge to speak and to give my opinions (of which I have many, as anyone who knows me can tell you!). Yet I know that listening shouldn’t be about me. It’s about the other person.
Recently I sat in on a group of eight principals and vice principals talking about an initiative within our district. It was fascinating to observe who spoke and who didn’t. (Mostly those who might be perceived to be more powerful within our district hierarchy spoke. A lot.) It was even more interesting to take note of who seemed to be really listening. Some participants seemed more eager to be the first to state a point. Often, when I find myself in a group situation, I also have to consciously work to listen, pause, and paraphrase. It forces to me take account of what others are saying.
Careful listening also allows me to know our staff, our students, our families and my colleagues better. It leads me to reflect more deeply on my own ideas and preconceptions. It allows me to learn as I think about what was said.
When we listen more than we talk, the payoff can be huge. It’s worth the effort.