Are you a good listener? Or do you just *think you are a good listener? Listening is an act that is so important to the relationships that matter to us. Teachers spend the majority of their day being listened to. It seems logical that so many of us are bad at JUST LISTENING to the people we work with. I made a specific and consistent effort to cultivate my skills as a listener this last year. I wanted the people that I work with to feel valued and trust that I feel that they are important.
Chances are that you are guilty of one or all of these unproductive listening patterns. I know I am! Even after a full school year of practicing, I STILL find myself doing all four of the patterns that you will read about below. Read on for examples and what you can do to promote good listening on your team, at meetings, and in all interactions at school. Being a teacher is stressful enough. These unproductive listening patterns can add unnecessary stress, wasted time, and hurt feelings to your school life.
Who knows?! If you make an effort to refrain from them and other bad listening habits (looking at your phone or computer while someone is talking to you) others in your school will follow and you will feel respected as a speaker. More about how you can spread good listening around your building below.
While these listening patterns are directly related to Instructional Coaching, if you are a classroom teacher, an administrator, or anyone who works with other people and not in a deep dark cave all by yourself, read on. I am sure you will find that the school examples could translate to many other venues.
The story or situation that the speaker shares sparks an association in the listeners brain. The dangers of this unproductive pattern are that the listener's attention is now focused on their own recollection, that the listener's personal experience can influence them into judgment, and that the listener is now comparing their own experience instead of being immersed in listening to the speaker.
You are sharing a frustrating or wonderful classroom experience with colleagues. Your friend and mentor takes an opportunity to share a similar experience, taking the focus off of you. You are left to either find a way to bring the attention back to you or leave your story unfinished. Taking the focus off of the speaker sends the message that your story is more important, entertaining, or informative. The speaker can feel disrespected or undervalued.
Your teammate comes in for advice about a student. As she is sharing, you think of a similar student and then find that you have missed what she was saying. You were lost in your own thoughts. You have to either go off of only what you heard or ask her to repeat herself. Not giving your full attention to the speaker can leave them feeling disconnected with you.
Your friend is venting a frustrating situation with your administrator to you. The situation connects to a negative interaction that you previously had with the same administrator. You launch into that story. Your positive or negative emotions associated with your experiences can skew your perspective and lead you to take your focus from the person you are listening to.
I am not saying to never share a story, but keep in mind that some of the above circumstances are real possibilities. Ask yourself, is this the right time and context to share this story? I can remember a year that a teammate of mine was very frustrated at being "trumped" by a colleague whenever she began to share. After I was paying attention, I noticed that she was, in fact, often cut off. She was hurt and I could see why. I am certain that the colleague wasn't intentionally falling into a autobiographical listening pattern.
I often find that sharing a story is something that is warranted during "bonding time" in a classroom after school while others are unwinding and sharing as well. I might not share a story if my role as listener, rather than speaker, is obvious.
Solution listening is often intended to be helpful in nature. When someone shares with us, they are not always looking for ideas or solutions to their problems. Many times, we jump in with the solutions to a problem because we are eager to share and help. This can be a problem when the speaker isn't looking for ideas or in our haste to provide a "fix" we impair the higher-level thinking of the speaker.
You go to your principal to share a problem in your class regarding a writing unit. The provided curriculum that you used with students last year fell short of your expectations and you would like to try a different strategy that your teammate has had previous success with. Before you can get to the idea, your principal starts sharing a list of possible solutions to your writing unit. Not wanting to sound as if you disagree, you go back to your classroom and try to work out what just happened.
Your teammate is crying in her room. She has had a rough day in regards to classroom management and can't understand why the class is not listening. You start sharing ideas about how you think she could get the attention of the class. She could try some of the callbacks you use. She could make sure that the class knows the consequences of not complying. Instead of thinking about WHY her students are not listening herself, she tries your ideas the next day, fumbling through the strategies in turn, none of them quite hitting the mark.
Consider: Sometimes we are so eager to solve all of the problems of the world, we forget that listening can be exactly the solution that is needed. Our colleagues often just need an ear to vent frustrations. They might need someone to ask a question that helps them take the next step themselves.
This sums it up for me! Others might not want us to solve the problems for them...even if all of their sweaters are snagged.
Judgment and criticism both focus on the flaws in what the speaker is saying. Criticism is likely to stop a discussion before it can really start. Judgment implies that the speaker has the right answers.
You make a suggestion to help a student with organizational difficulties by providing them few materials to manage. Your teammate say that she has tried that with a previous student and it didn't work. The fact that she tried it and it failed implies criticism and that the idea is inferior, regardless of context.
As you are in a meeting discussing possible school-wide incentive programs, your assistant principal says that she likes Carol's idea. The message is sent that her judgment regarding the ideas shared is most important and is damaging to the self-confidence of others who shared ideas. Trust to share ideas freely can be lost.
As you share with your teacher friend about a behavior issue in your classroom, she replies, "Why did you do that?" Using "why" questions can be negative and imply that the speaker should be defensive of her actions.
Judgement and Criticism Listening has a place. The problem is that when one becomes a PATTERN. Always poo-pooing ideas or saying that a strategy wouldn't work can be a sign that the listener is against trying new ideas before they are shared.
Using one person's idea over another's is inevitable. The key in this situation is to front-load what you like about each approach, or even better, gain buy-in from all members of the group, rather than stating "like" of one which could send the message that you dislike others.
Try using phrases that show your curiosity without the negative connotation of "why" questions. You could substitute a phrase like, "Tell me more about ______." One exception of using "why" questions could be using the 5 WHYs strategy in meetings. Watch this video to see more about it.
Curiosity can be a good thing, but it can also kill the cat... In the same way, asking questions that detract from the important part of what another is sharing can kill the share completely. Inquisitive listening is what happens when asking questions about details can take away from the main idea the speaker is trying to get across.
You are sharing with your teammate about a negative parent conversation. All you want to do it get the situation off of your chest and out of your head, but she keeps interrupting with questions about the behavior incident that you were calling the parents about. When did it happen? What consequence did the student have? What was the name of the other student who was involved? You leave feeling unsatisfied and unheard.
Are you guilty? Know someone else who is?
Where can you go from here?
Start small. Choose one of the above listening patterns and create a goal. Share your goal with one person. Ask them to help you reach your goal by holding you accountable. As you are an example and you work on your goal, share it with others. Maybe your team or a colleague that you regularly interact with. Want to go big? Share your goal and these unproductive listening patterns with your administrator. The more good listeners in your building, the merrier!
Remember! Practicing good listening behaviors promotes trust and respect.
The book, Coaching Conversations, is an excellent resource to help you have growth conversations in your school.