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Become a great listener

Eight ways school leaders can improve their listening skills.

7 min read


Become a great listener


Editor’s note: This is the final post in a three-part series on school leadership. Read part 1 about soft skills that leaders should have and part 2, about how to handle change at your site.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” — Mark Twain.

Early in my tenure as principal, I was heavily criticized for rushing into decisions without getting sufficient input and feedback. I was under the impression that certain changes needed to be made quickly in order to gain the trust of the board that had hired me. I also heard from many teachers and parents who were eager to see improvements in various areas of school function. However, in my haste to be a change agent, I acted too quickly too often and soon developed a reputation for being a unilateral decision maker. It was a moniker that I would continue to deal with, even as I took great pains to become more open and collaborative.   

Principals must be proactive, skilled listeners. Making yourself available for conversation and listening regularly will keep you informed on what’s happening in your workplace. You will better understand others’ opinions and attitudes and will be able to take this information into consideration when making decisions.

There are other benefits to listening well. One is building trust. Effective listening tells people that you care about their thoughts, opinions and concerns. You will also build stronger loyalty and commitment among the members your school community; people will see that you care about them personally and how they fit within the organization.

What can you do to become better listener and gain the feedback, confidence, support and buy-in that you need? Here are some suggestions.

See eye to eye. One crucial element of good listening is making strong eye contact. We discussed the importance of this when we detailed how to make a positive first impression. By fixing your eyes on the speaker you will avoid becoming distracted while also showing genuine attention. Eye contact is an important element of all face-to-face communication, even if you know the speaker well.

Use receptive body language. Without saying a word, our bodies communicate much about attitudes and feelings. We need to be aware of this in any conversation that we have. If seated, lean slightly forward to communicate attention. Nod or use other gestures or words to signal attention and to encourage the speaker to continue. Visibly put away possible distractors such as your phone. This communicates that there is nothing more important to you right now than this conversation.

Always be careful to maintain an appropriate distance between you and the speaker. Being too close may communicate pushiness or lack of respect. If you remain distant, you may be seen as cold or disinterested. Body postures matter too in most cultures. The crossing of one’s arms or legs often conveys close-mindedness.

Stop talking and start listening. This is the most basic listening principle and oftentimes the hardest to abide by. When somebody else is talking it can be very tempting to jump in with a question or comment. This is particularly true when we seek to sound informed, insightful or if we start to feel defensive due to the speaker’s criticisms. Be mindful that a pause, even a long one, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished. Let the speaker continue in their own time; sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Never interrupt or finish a sentence for someone. Patient listening demonstrates that you respect others, which is the first step in building trust and rapport. Remember, if you desire to be listened to, then give others the courtesy of listening to them first.

I remember once listening to a talk on communication. The speaker, who we’ll call Mr. S., was a well-known life coach and communication expert. Mr. S. recalled his early days on the job as a program coordinator for a large educational organization that required that he meet often with school principals.

Mr. S. met with two men in short succession. One gentleman was gracious and well meaning. He allowed for a lengthy conversation but was continually interrupted by phone calls and other matters. Though they spent an hour together, the meeting felt short and unproductive. In the next school, he had to wait for a while and was given but a few minutes with the principal. The man apologized for his lateness and brevity, but made sure that during their time together Mr. S’s agenda was fully heard and responded to. It goes without saying that Mr. S. felt significantly more validated by the second man, despite the wait and their short time together.

Take on their point of view. Approach each conversation from the vantage point of the speaker (his role, past perspectives, etc.) Be empathetic and seek to objectively consider their position. Don’t be dismissive, regardless of their rank. Be humble enough to listen carefully, even if you disagree with what is being said. Remember that those that confront and challenge you are ultimately the ones who help you stretch and develop most. True wisdom doesn’t see opposition, only opportunity.

Summarize and clarify. When the other person has finished talking take a moment to restate and clarify what you have heard. Use language like, “so, to summarize…” End by asking whether you heard correctly, which will encourage immediate feedback. Not only will this ensure the clearest takeaway on your end, but it will help the speaker feel genuinely heard and valued.  A strategically placed pause at some point in the feedback can be used to signal that you are carefully considering the message that was just shared.

Leave the door open. Keep open the possibility of additional communication after this conversation has ended. You never know when new insights or concerns may emerge.

Thank them for approaching you. Do not take any conversation for granted. For many employees, requesting a meeting requires that they must summon much courage and rehearse their message time and again. Moreover, you probably learned something useful and meaningful during your talk, information or ideas that may help you as the leader. Few things go as far in building good will as expressing appreciation.

Create a listening culture. While all of the above strategies can help leaders make the most of listening opportunities, leaders also need to take steps to create a broader culture in which listening (and therefore communicating) is valued and desired. Cultures typically do not evolve. They are the product of conscious decisions and behaviors that over time become part of the fabric of communal and organizational life. Leaders who actively encourage others to speak, at meetings, by setting up one-to-one meetings, etc. will not only be more likely to really know what people are thinking but will improve morale and increase worker motivation.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”


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