Listening is pivotal to learn and lead for principals

March 23, 2018
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

We all have them and, when given a choice, we prefer to avoid them. When they go well, we give a sigh of relief. When they go poorly, we replay them again and again in our head. Regardless, challenging conversations are a reality of being a principal today.

To some, they are courageous, critical or crucial conversations. To others, they are powerful conversations and simply difficult conversations. Most principals agree that difficult conversations take a degree of courage. Yet they are quick to add that addressing a critical issue in a timely manner is crucial to their leadership and the school environment.

Whether the goal is to reinforce a dress code to a student, remind a teacher about expectations for student supervision, or explain to a community member about the importance of tolerance and acceptance on the playground, research tells us that two elements are critical to a successful conversation: thoughtful planning and authentic listening.

Planning is second nature to teachers and principals. When preparing for any conversation, let alone a high-stakes one, clarifying the purpose and intended outcome as well as the approach, timing and followup is important.

Yet, listening is not-so-second nature to teachers and principals. A number of studies highlight that listening is an overlooked skill amongst leaders today. One study in particular found that listeners only remember half of what they hear. This can pose a problem when participating in a difficult conversation.

Difficult conversations can be emotionally charged. The authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (2012) tell us that when the listener assumes a sincere and curious approach, he or she is more likely to remain calm and in control of the conversation. This is important.

Listening is hard work. Genuine listening means setting your cellphone aside or closing your laptop. Genuine listening means focusing on what and how something is being expressed. More importantly, genuine listening means paying attention to what is unspoken but very important to hear. As the listener, pay attention to common cues of non-verbal communication: facial expressions, body language, breathing patterns, physical space, voice and tone.

First thing we’d climb a tree
And maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently
And listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday
Cast in a golden light
No dress rehearsal
This is our life

– The Tragically Hip (1996),

Ahead by a Century

The other day I came across some new research about listening and school leadership. The author submits that a school leader’s act of listening offers a significant influence within the school community. When dealing with complex issues where different points of view or values are in play, the influence of a listening leader is profound.

Profound influence means more than paying attention with your ears and eyes. It means adopting a listening, as opposed to a telling, mindset. It signifies that we care for the speaker.

Profound influence also means understanding that discourse represents our beliefs, values and perceptions. Paying attention to the discourse means listening to uncover underlying issues or to identify the root causes of a problem. As listening leaders, principals send the message that people are valued–even when they make mistakes.

The bad news is without the right mindset, difficult conversations can go sideways. Being attentive to combative attitudes, emotional hijacks, word games, yeah, buts and red herrings is critical. Regardless of the issue at hand, successful principals work hard to show regard to what the speaker is saying. One principal shared his belief that the best way to reinforce high expectations is to deliberately and actively listen to what students or teachers are saying. When preparing for a challenging conversation, that’s worth remembering.

Difficult conversations are just that. Yet without them, would people know what we stand for? Michael Fullan (2017) and Andy Hargreaves (2004) write that principals today need moral courage as well as personal purpose. When principals take the time to plan for difficult conversations and focus on genuine listening during the conversation, their actions send a powerful message about their courage and their purpose.

In today’s world, that’s an important message to send.