I am writing this column mostly for my male principal colleagues, but I hope those principals of the female persuasion will learn something, if not celebrate and concur with the information!
Okay, guys, let’s face it; we have to admit that as men we have some difficulties listening, I mean truly listening, like listening for understanding. And sometimes, even hearing, like my wife likes to affectionately (I hope) call “Man Listening!” You know the drill, we are behind the paper, watching the news or sports channel and our beloved significant other tells us something and we acknowledge with a “Yes, dear, or sure, no problem.” And we have not registered a word that they have said to us. Hereafter known as “man listening.”
This propensity to not be so great at being listeners is compounded further by our male need to solve problems. You know what I am talking about. The instant you listen to a voice mail from a parent or central office administrator or a teacher sends a note and wants to see you, your mind is racing trying to figure out what it is they want to talk to you about and already coming up with solutions to solve the problem. As leaders, one of our jobs is to solve problems and we have to always have “what if “ scenarios prepared in our brain to lead proactively. But, how do we know if the person wants a solution or just needs a listening ear and some empathy? In order to build our relational trust bank while we are meeting with others, practicing good listening, listening to understand and then to be understood is essential! A practice called active listening!
The Chinese have a symbol for active listening that compounds separate symbols that include the need for eye contact, ears open to listen, undivided attention and I like this, heart! In other words, completely there, present and showing withitness.
Michael H. Hoppe, author of Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead, published by the Center for Creative Leadership shares six skills and behaviors of active listening “the willingness and ability to hear and understand” that will help us as leaders to become more effective. He explains that active listening involves paying attention, holding judgment, reflecting, clarifying, summarizing, and sharing.
Pay attention to the details! Create a comfortable relaxed atmosphere, be a listener and a learner, stay in the moment. The intention is to connect and understand and not interrogate. Operate out of respect and empathy. Maintain eye contact, check body posture, give affirmations through head nodding and keep the other person talking. Pay attention to the other person’s non-verbal and verbal behavior.
Keep an open mind. As a listener and a leader one needs to be open to new ideas, perspectives and possibilities. Even with strong views, we must suspend our judgment and tell ourselves: “I’m here to understand how the other person sees the world. It is not time to judge or give my view.” Try and see the other person’s point of view through a different lens. Slow conversational pace and allow the other person to talk and elaborate. Allow for pauses.
This is what we practiced in Education 200 class! Paraphrase the conversation to confirm your understanding of the person’s key points and emotions. “What I’m hearing is . . .” or “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying . . . “ are good reflection statements.
Double-check issues that are unclear by using open-ended and probing questions. These draw people out and encourage the expansion of ideas and uncover hidden agendas. Some examples of open-ended questions:
“What are your thoughts on . . .”
What led you to draw this conclusion?
Some examples of probing questions may be:
“Let me be clear, are you talking about . . .?”
“I missed something, could you repeat that?”
“Can you explain it in another way?”
Throughout the conversation it is important to restate what has enfolded so far. Some examples may be: “It sounds as if your main concern is . . . “ or “These are the main concerns I have heard so far . . .” One may also have the participant summarize by asking these questions: “What have you heard so far?” or “To make sure we are on the same page, please summarize what key points we have agreed upon.” Summarizing doesn’t lead to agreeing to anything but does help everyone be clear on responsibilities and follow-up.
Active listening doesn’t mean that the leader doesn’t get to share their perspective! It just means listening to understand first and then to be understood. After understanding the other person’s point of view, it is time for the leader to share his or her ideas, feelings and concerns. Share your point of view, collaborate on ideas and or set next steps by using these statements: “ “Before our conversation I was feeling . . . now I am feeling or understand . . . “ “Your idea on . . . triggered a thought I had that might . . . “
Hoppe shares further that the expectation of a leader is to be charismatic and have all the answers and that active listening might contradict the image of a strong leader. Research has shown that despite the fact that leaders think they listen more than they talk, they do 80 percent of the talking in their interactions with others. Applying the skills of active listening allows leaders to be empathetic and solution focused.
Dr. Nancy Colflesh has shared a wonderful document from an ISD staff meeting with Jack Pyle in April of 1995 entitled First Steps to Listening for Results
Pyle says that first you must show that you C.A.R.E.
· Good listeners pay attention to much more than just the words
· What is the CONTEXT of the person talking to you?
· Listen and look for:
1. Mood of the person-what are their feelings?
2. Vocal speed
3. Vocal volume
4. Key words or phrases
Ask yourself two questions
1. How is the person feeling?
2. What is the main idea being communicated?
Respond to the feelings
· Feedback the feelings: say what you believe they are feeling, especially when people have strong feelings about something
Explain what you heard
· Paraphrase: explain the main idea you heard
We discourage talking according to Pyle when we show lack of attention by looking around, allowing distractions and having closed and uninvolved posture. Making judgments, asking non-clarifying questions that lead to taking over conversation allow for no encouragement to talk. Finally, giving advice telling the participant what to do and blaming and criticizing are a sure way to kill our ability to be good listeners.
As they say, practice makes perfect. I got a lot better at conversation with others over the years. But, I failed to be a good listener on several occasions and it usually was when I tried to respond in the moment. Remember to give yourself time to plan a conversation and pick the right location and time to hold it. When people are upset and are demanding an answer, we must be consistent in our response in showing empathy, but setting our own agenda. “You are really upset about that, let’s talk about this in my office, when can you meet?” “I will think about what you said, and get back with you.” “Now is not a good time for me to address your concern with my full attention. Let’s meet in my office or in your room . . ..”
I believe our intention is always to listen with our heart; it is just that our head gets in the way at times!
Tip of the week:
Before you know it, progress reports will be due and Parent-Teacher Conferences scheduled. It is important to take care of a few issues right now before conferences occur. Here are some things to think about:
· Make sure you are scheduling a ½ day at the minimum, with your new teachers and their mentors to review progress report procedures and parent-teacher conference tips. Make sure your new teachers feel comfortable holding these conversations and know how to communicate positively. Remind them that parents want to know two things: “Do you love my child and do you know what you are doing?”
· Have you tried one of the online scheduling programs like schoolbookings.net? These programs are fairly inexpensive and allow for parents to schedule their own conferences online. Gone is all the paperwork, phone calling, sibling conference meetings, and reminder notes to be sent home. Even those parents without Internet access can come to school to schedule or have the teacher schedule by phone.
· Parent-teacher conference time is a great opportunity to receive feedback. Invite your parents to the computer lab to take a Survey Monkey type perspective survey about your school. Have the coffee brewing and cookies available (as well as a technology assistant, if you can) to ensure good completion. Paper and pencil works just fine, too! Have collection boxes decorated and placed at each door and have your teachers pass out the survey after the conference is over. You can learn a lot through simple written comments to statements like: What ONE thing do you love about our school and should never change? What is ONE thing you would change about our school?
· NAESP puts out wonderful parent/school communication documents that can be shared in newsletters, in blogs, online, etc. You receive these as part of your membership. If you missed it, here is the most recent publication about parent expectations for conferences: Parent/Teacher Conference Expectations
· Don’t sit in your office during conference time, but be visible in the hallways and spend time talking with parents and finding out how the conference about their child went and any celebrations or concerns that may have surfaced. These conversations are priceless in building our trust relationships, help develop strong perception about being an active leader and give us great information about parent perceptions about our school.
· Read your walls! Stay tuned for my next column! I am focusing on writing for a purpose and will be sharing information from Regie Routman about our need to walk our hallways and find out how the written word is displayed for the public. Is it simplistic? For a purpose? What message are we sending regarding the importance of writing at our schools? Oh, yes, we will talk about the signs placed at every school door inviting parents to check in at the office. She definitely has something to say about that!
Have you signed up for the December conference? I hope to meet many of you in Traverse City! Until we meet again, happy trails to you!