Lately, I have been reflecting on the power of listening. Good listening is a spiritual effort. It sounds a bit extreme – and I am far from the listener I aim to be. Yet my limits shouldn’t define aspirations.
As we think about what could have happened if the police officers in the George Floyd case had listened – to his choked whisper of I can’t breathe. If they had listened to the shouts of other individuals around the circle, they would have heard the outcry. If they had listened, George Floyd would be alive today.
In this time where people across the country are somewhere on the spectrum – from striving to be anti-racist, to comfortably and overtly being racist (and somewhere in between) three of the most encouraging and hopeful words I have people say is, I am listening.
In a time where we want and need bold action to build a better, more just country, listening can sound empty and unexciting. The reality is, if those who say they are listening do truly listen, the impact will be powerful.
- Listening is sacrificial. When you are listening, you are giving literal air time to someone other than you. You are making space for the words and experiences of someone else. If those who say they are listening begin actually creating space for the words and experiences of others, that will over time have a profound impact.
- Listening is learning. As a mom I spend a good amount of time just getting my kids to listen. Listening is a necessary pre-step to them learning. Sometimes they want to let me know what they know – which is nice. But sometimes what they know or think they know is wrong. And until I can get them to listen, I’m not able to share with them the new information that could help them be right.
- Listening is a gift. When you listen – not only are you able to learn, but the person is able to learn as well. We often talk in education about how students learn when they teach other students. Through the process of explaining a concept you learn about it yourself. Therefore, when you are listening, you are giving that person the gift of learning, while you are also learning at the same time.
- Listening is coming in touch with our imperfection. So often when we listen to someone else, we come in touch with imperfection. Sometimes that person is sharing feedback (we may have made a mistake), sometimes that person is sharing a new perspective (meaning we had limited ones before), sometimes that person is sharing new information (which means we were lacking some previously). Sometimes that person is sharing a need – that we may not be able to fulfill. Part of what is hard about listening, particularly in times like this, is by its nature when we are listening to someone else we are likely coming in touch with our imperfection.
- Listening is de-centering ourselves. When we listen to someone else we center not only them, but their perspective. We assume that what they have to share is at least as valuable as what we have to say. In that moment we are centering them, not us.
There are times I have regretted talking. There are times I have regretted not speaking up. But there are not times I have regretted listening.
Listening is so important – and in this time more important than ever. And sometimes when we don’t listen to the whispers, people have to scream.
Sometimes people talk politely and safely first. If you don’t listen to their gentle nudge, they may not choose to share with you again.
Or they may choose to share louder.
Or they may choose to stop talking and take a different action altogether.
People who aren’t used to talking are even more vulnerable to shutting down or going quiet if they aren’t listened to and heard the first time.
Remember, listening doesn’t have to mean agreeing. Here are a few ways to listen.
- Practice listening – and practice doing it with a diversity of people. In order to get good at listening, you need to practice doing it. Practice listening with a diversity of people – and check yourself. Are there certain people or types of people you listen to better than others? While that’s normal, it isn’t the ideal or best outcome. So it is also important to reflect and improve.
- Create a structure for listening. Human nature is…we want to talk. I am a guilty party to talking more than I listen. But with structures, it is easy for us to comply and listen. In team meetings that may be having parts of the meeting that doesn’t allow people to respond (for example structured brainstorming). For Possip, that is creating a routine way for parents or staff to share feedback, without educational leaders feeling like they need to respond.
- Identify what you are feeling. At times when you are listening and feeling urgent about responding, you are having a feeling. Before responding TO the feeling, respond WITH the feeling. Responding to the feeling will often lead to shutting down a conversation. For example, if someone is sharing a perspective you disagree with, what you may be quick to say is “You’re wrong.” Instead, if you share “I’m feeling confused” or “I’m struggling because I’m feeling guilty” you can keep the conversation open. Identifying what you are feeling can help keep the conversation open – or even go deeper.
- Get comfortable with not having to respond. Part of what makes listening hard is people feel like they need to have a response to the person talking. Get comfortable with not having a response, and with letting people know you may not respond. That could look like a response of “Thank you. I hear you and want to learn more.” Or “This is new to me so I am still learning about this. Thank you for sharing.”
- Ask follow up questions. Sometimes when we don’t understand or agree our first step is to articulate our disagreement or why the other person is wrong. This is a good time to invite further understanding. A great way to do that is to ask follow up questions. If you don’t have a well-formed question, a favorite catch-all is “say more” or “tell me more” or “can you walk me through that?”
As we prepare for an unprecedented school year and continue in an unprecedented year of life, it is more urgent than ever that organizations, schools, and districts push forth systems of routinely listening to your families, staff, and community.