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Listening Is Essential for Community Growth

To truly support a community, we need to listen with our whole selves, not just our ears.

People send out messages all of the time, some directly, some indirectly.

A savvy leader is paying close attention to all of it.

As a colleague and now a mentor and instructional coach, my first important job is to truly assess what people need; I can only do this by listening with all of my senses.

Hearing is the first and most obvious way we listen. But it isn't just the words I listen for, it's the tenor of the conversation, the tonality, and pace in which people share those words. How are they saying what they are saying and with what kind of urgency?

After I listen, I take notes. I repeat what I think I hear and then listen once again with my ears to their clarification. This style of active listening also allows the speaker to know what I'm hearing to ensure no confusion is being shared.

While I'm listening, I'm also watching with my eyes. People communicate a lot while they talk with their hands, their eyes and their body language. So while the person speaks, I try to make eye contact and follow them rather than only write while I listen. The speaker must feel like I'm completely engaged in the process of listening. 

So while I'm watching with my eyes, I'm paying attention to nuance.

  • Does the body language change?

  • What do the changes suggest?

  • Clarification may still be needed once this second process is put into place. Students do this with teachers too and often using devices has taken this piece away.

  • Eye contact while listening is so vital to true understanding.

Smell may not seem obvious but we do need to metaphorically sniff out the issues. Does something smell or taste fishy while you listen? If we're listening closely, we'll be able to pick up on these incongruences that need to be addressed. When a speaker isn't being completely honest it will be evident if we are paying very close attention. 

Never disregard something that doesn't seem right. This is a great opportunity to ask more questions trying not to add in any opinion or judgment. The more neutral the questions, the more likely we'll get the necessary additional information we're looking for. 

When trying to support a community, we must seek to get folks comfortable talking even about, especially about, the uncomfortable stuff. It's what needs to be said and addressed to ensure positive and healthy growth in a community. We simply can't move forward with only surface listening going on.

So once we've listened, watched, smelled, and tasted, we need to touch as well. A handshake or a pat on the back can help make some people feel appreciated. Rather than do something disingenuously, make sure to end communication in a way that is appropriate for the person you are talking with. A hug, a high five, or handshake could go a long way. 

Big change will never happen until a community feels truly heard. Are we being good enough listeners to help make folks ready for change? 

After we've done our job of listening, we must follow up quickly. An email or a text or even a short "drive by" of their classroom later in the day or the next day to ensure that you are working on what you discussed. Follow-through is necessary if you want people to continue to remain open.

What can you do to listen better?

  • Listen with all of your senses 

  • Limit your distractions - no electronic devices should be out

  • Don't speak over the person speaking

  • Sit in close proximity to the person speaking to ensure you hear clearly

  • Make sure there aren't many noise distractions in the space

  • Make sure to go in clear and ready to listen without your own agenda

  • Ask questions and repeat what you hear for clarity

  • Take notes

  • Plan a follow-up meeting

How well do you listen? Please share how you've helped your community by truly hearing your co-workers or students. What challenges do you have with listening?

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in September 2015


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