Listen More Than You Talk

“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.

Photo Credit: highersights via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: highersights via Compfight cc

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.


5 Responses to “Listen More Than You Talk”

  1. Kristi bishop Avatar
    Kristi bishop

    Very good advice, Sue. It’s true for those in leadership, not only for the benefits you mention but also to model for teachers how active listening in the classroom TO the students needs to happen more often as well. Your observation of more powerful people doing more talking is interesting…in classrooms or learning teams where power & responsibility is more shared I wonder if there would be a more equitable balance? In the meantime, I’ll try to keep quiet too! Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Your point about listening to students in the classroom is a good one. It’s hard for us to change our old school ways and truly invite a student voice.

  2. I love this post, and I love Kristi’s comment as well. I find myself constantly reflecting on how much I talk versus how much I listen. A while ago, Royan Lee wrote a blog post about videotaping yourself to reflect on your teaching, and it’s actually as I videotape or audio record my lessons more that I’m constantly thinking, “Hey, I didn’t really need to say that.” Sometimes I wish that I could think that before I speak, but hopefully in time, that will happen! 🙂

    Your post got me thinking because I find that the more that I’m around a computer, an iPad, or a similar device, the more difficult it is to truly “listen.” I’ve noticed the same thing with my students, so I’ve been trying something in the classroom that I’ve been trying on my own as well. When it’s time to listen to something, desks are cleared off. With nothing in front of the students, and their eyes on the speaker, the students listen better. When someone comes to talk to me, I turn away from my computer or put away my device, and then I can pay more attention to the speaker too. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s helping.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about how I can continue to become a better listener!

  3. anon. Avatar

    Just because someone is choosing not to speak in a group setting does not mean they are not participating in the conversation. You mentioned that during your principal meeting you observed only certain people sharing their opinions or thoughts with the group, perhaps this was due to perceived power differences, or perhaps it is because the people who were silent were processing the information and using the opinions of others to reflect on their own thinking. You state ” I have to work to curb the urge to speak and to give my opinions” but this can be a benefit to the other person as well. Active listening is important,but when the purpose of the conversation is problem-solving it is also important for the listener to share their opinions. Providing a differing opinion or new idea can help the individual to confirm their own thinking or to allow for them to reflect and consider another perspective on the issue. You not speaking your opinions may allow some to think aloud and problem-solve aloud in the moment, but you speaking your opinions can also allow some to take away your opinion to reflect on, mull over ideas, compare and contract against their thinking and arrive at their own conclusions.

    1. Ellen, thank you for your thoughtful contributions to the conversation. I agree that there is a time for listening and coaching and at time to share opinions. The key for me is balance. A conversation or opinion monopoly is one to avoid. I also believe that through powerful questioning, pausing and paraphrasing, many people discover the answers within themselves.

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