Listening Is a Superpower Listening Is a Superpower

Listening Is a Superpower

by Casey Thompson
Casey Thompson Casey Thompson Web & Digital Media Manager
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Just as learning is much more than memorization, listening takes much more than being near someone talking. How do we polish our listening skills? Let’s break down some components of active listening. 


Listen to learn, not to form a rebuttal 

If your ears are only perked to catch the main points and your brain is focused on what your mouth will say next, chances are you might be hooked but not listening.  
Even in the most emotionally charged conversations, an active listener is taking in all of what the speaker is saying. This extends to the speaker’s body language and facial expressions, too. It takes a lot of energy to sit quietly and listen! Once the switch is flipped to forecast what your response will be, your attention is pulled away from truly listening. Instead, give your full focus to what’s being said (even take a few notes if it’s a lot) and then begin to form a response. A hasty answer can take up even more time in clarification than taking time to respond carefully. 


Full attention, with managed expectations 

Contrary to a lot of the instant communication we rely on these days, it is okay to owe someone a response and deliver it in a few hours (or days). In the same vein, it is acceptable to recognize that a spur-of-the-moment conversation during dismissal duty just isn’t going to cut it. Rather than tearing your attention between two important things, admit to the speaker that you aren’t able to listen at your full capacity, and schedule a time to meet in the very near future. When you’re both calm and able to speak and listen with your full attention, the conversation will be more productive. 


Confidentiality and trauma-informed listening 

While often opportunities to listen come to you, there are instances in which you are called to listen to someone unwilling or unable to share openly. Educators are of course compelled to report abuse. But as an active listener, taking a trauma-informed route can result in the speaker sharing more, feeling heard, and feeling safe. 

This requires the listener to adjust their own expectations and role in the conversation. As leaders, it can be second nature to quite literally forge ahead and keep others moving along too. When a person who is asked to share their trauma is rushed and prodded along, the effects are devastating. Instead, honor the person with patience, validation, and space to process.  Explain the process of reporting abuse carefully, while assuring the speaker their private information will remain confidential to peers and anyone not involved in healing.  


Open-ended questions 

Another unwilling speaker (take your pick: a dour staff member, a disruptive student, or a disgruntled parent) is across from you and stonewalling like a president in South Dakota. You might be able to crack the façade by choosing open-ended questions. Even starting with a more neutral or unrelated topic could ease the speaker into finally opening up. “I statements” can help relieve the pressure of a tough conversation, while “you statements” tend to fuel tension. It’s the de-escalation difference between “I’m hearing your frustration,” and “You are out of control.” 


A listening ear vs. advice sessions 

Leaders are used to giving advice. Their accomplishments and interests are often wide-ranging. Plus, you don’t navigate decades of teaching students without picking up a thing or two worth knowing and sharing. Your advice is worth its weight in gold, but gold might be dead weight to someone struggling to stay afloat. Sometimes a listening ear is worth much more. How to tell which is needed? Ask. Offering options, “Would you prefer I listen or would you like some feedback?” gives the speaker an opportunity to steer the conversation. 


Excruciating pause or comfortable silence? 

Both are exceedingly useful at times. The dead air of the Zoom classroom when no one dares to go off mute and potentially interrupt another person’s answer? It’s normal. We just don’t notice that moment of thoughtful silence when we can enjoy each other’s presence and read body language, knowing when someone is planning to dive into an answer. Embrace the pause. 

Silence for some is as grating as nails on a chalkboard, a sonic spotlight waiting for someone to fill it. It might help those folks to give a time frame for silent work, and to speak fondly of the mental space silence offers. Being quiet together is not the absence of an answer, but rather the path to finding one.  


A word of thanks 

In parting, as much as possible, thank the speaker. Regardless of the content and spirit of the conversation (with the exception of inappropriate words and abuse), the speaker’s feedback has probably unearthed an opportunity to improve, taught something new, or even lifted a weight off their own spirit.  

Active listening takes practice, but the results can change lives and leaders for the better. 


Follow-up resource: Leaders are the life-blood of schools

Find resources to help as you turn challenges into opportunities. 


Casey Thompson Casey Thompson Web & Digital Media Manager
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