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Listen more, talk less.

December 20, 2022 - 4 minute read

Listen more, talk less

There are so many lessons to learn as educational leaders, but the most important is always this:

Listen more, talk less.

I had to learn this the hard way. I used to fancy myself as a great debater, someone who loved to finish others' sentences to show I was right there with them. Didn't this demonstrate that I was actively engaged in the conversation?

I also tend to think out loud as I process new ideas and information and synthesize it. This helps me to understand where the new learning fits into my current schema. Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, but knowing when to do it and when not to is key.

In my professional life, listening first is especially important. I first grew my awareness about this as a student of Adaptive Schools and Cognitive Coaching, from the Cognitive Coaching Center. One very astute leader required all of us in Education Services at the County Office level to participate and become skilled in these protocols and processes. It turned out she was incredibly insightful as this training has informed my work ever since.

Here's what hit me first:

Listen to Understand, not to speak.

Yikes!! That one hit me right between the eyes. I asked myself, do I practice that in my work? Or even in my home life? It was a significant moment of reflection for me to consider in all areas of my life.

Interrupting and imposing solutions sends a variety of messages:

  • I’m more important than you are.
  • What I have to say is more important, interesting, or accurate.
  • I don’t have time for your opinion.
  • I don’t really care what you think.

These are all messages none of us intends to send. They are simply the unintended consequences of not listening first to understand what is being said.

It sounds so easy to do, to listen before talking, but it can be challenging in our roles as educational leaders. There is so much to do that we often find ourselves making overly quick decisions and cutting people off. In other words, we do all the talking—we talk too much.

Has this ever happened to you?

Practicing listening has had a huge impact on me as a leader.

As a new site principal, it took some time to put this into practice but greatly improved my leadership. Once I realized that all the decisions, including any not-so-desirable results, were owned only by me, it became clear that I wasn't involving others in decision making. In the interest of time, I made quick decisions without listening to others and often not even asking for their opinions.

Over time, I learned to practice active listening. I let people talk the whole way through their point without interrupting. Giving people the time to share and communicate is truly a gift--one that is greatly appreciated by the person speaking. This is a very effective way to build relationships and to show you care about what the other person has to say.

I learned to paraphrase their words to ensure I understood. Asking thoughtful questions was a much more effective way to communicate that I heard them rather than to jump to conclusions. Listening often generated solutions that were not thoroughly considered.

In my role as a presenter and facilitator, I also found listening to be effective. When I first started presenting, I told stories, shared examples, and totally overtalked.

Once I began to practice listening more, I gave ownership of the conversation and responses to the audience. They talked and shared ideas and learned much more about concepts through thinking and talking it through with partners rather than hearing a long diatribe from me.

Once again, listening more and talking less worked best.

To listen effectively, one really has to pay attention. You need to face the speaker when standing or come out from behind your desk to sit in a neutral space. Speaking across your desk to someone illustrates that you are the authority. While this is sometimes necessary, for one-to-one conversations, try to step out from behind and have a person-to-person conversation.

We also must consider that not everyone talks and thinks at the same speed. If you are like me, you are a quick thinker and have to slow down and allow space for those who process more slowly. They are often your most thoughtful communicators and worthwhile to listen to.

Watch for non-verbal communication as well. What is NOT being said? How is the speaker standing or sitting, is he or she bored or engaged, what is he or she doing with her hands? Is the person communicating via eye contact or looking away? The research is clear that the largest part of the message is non-verbal, so actions while speaking are important to note and will give you strong clues about the feelings of the speaker.

A final tip to showing the speaker you are listening is to paraphrase the feelings you are hearing. Say something like, “So, you’re feeling frustrated or angry, annoyed, upset, or maybe excited.” It is super important to show empathy to build more trusting relationships. Gain more information and solicit deeper thoughts by asking the person to tell you more, or ask, what else? Then ask, “how can I help you with this?” Oftentimes, you will then give a takeaway thought or question to consider rather than an immediate solution or advice.

Active listening will result in big payoffs as you learn more about the people on your team. You gain their trust and build strong, lasting relationships. As a leader, when you do speak, you will have more and better information, make informed decisions, have the trust of your audience, and most importantly, people will listen.

Darlene Messinger has vast experience as an educational leader who serves as a professional consultant with proven success and experience in helping schools and districts in their continuous improvement efforts. Darlene began her career as an elementary school teacher in the Fullerton School District before moving into a career in administration serving as an Assistant Principal, Principal, and Assistant Superintendent in the Laguna Beach Unified School District. Today, Darlene is an active Board Member of ACSA Region 17 and the Director of the ACSA Curriculum and Instruction Academy.

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