How To Reach High Achievement Through Listening Skills

December 5, 2017

How building up our listening ability can assist us in achieving at high levels in our schools.

“When you listen to someone, it’s the most profound act of human respect.” – William Ury

I remember when I began my work as a professional developer and coach. It was the first time in my daily work where students were not my immediate focus. My interactions on a daily basis were with adults, and I realized that I wasn’t as prepared for this type of communication given my credentialing and my graduate studies.

I had a credential in how to teach students the subject of English, and what became increasingly clear was that I didn’t have a credential in how to work effectively with adults; and certainly didn’t have a background or an intentionally developed skillset on how to be an effective group member.

Listening as a Learned Skill

I worked on the skill of being an effective group member and continue to do so. Many of my consulting colleagues, within their work on coaching, collaborating and teaching focus on listening as a key skill to know inside and outside the classroom.

At the Thinking Collaborative professional developers assist educators daily and intentionally in building this skillset. They speak to a number of collaborative skills that make a group member effective. [More on other skills in future columns.] This column will focus on one of those skill sets, listening.

Much has been written about listening. Listening is discussed and explained in books, in TED talks, on YouTube, and in countless articles in education, business and in health care. Why so many citations? Because we have a tendency to not do it well.

It is a pivotal part of the skill building that we hope students learn. In fact, I have often stated that the Common Core State Standards on Speaking and Listening, such as 11-12 B and C “Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed;” and, “Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives,” actually aren’t lived out in staff meetings that I participate in or witness in the schools in which I work.

3 Types of Listening

Given that the work on active listening could take pages and pages to review, I will mention only the briefest yet, what I feel is one of the most powerful piece of advice on listening that I have received: In order to be more ‘other focused,’ pay attention to your listening ‘set asides.’

Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman (www.miravia.com) speak to the idea of ‘setting aside’ certain stances we often take in communication. Instead of truly being present and hearing the person intently we don’t set aside our needs and these needs get in the way of our communication. Our set asides include:

  • Autobiographical listening: The minute we hear something that connects with our life, we share. We say, “Me too. I remember when…” or “That has happened to me! In fact, just the other day…” When we share these ‘me too’ moments we might believe we are connecting and offering solace, but actually it might just be us taking the focus away from what the person was saying and putting the spotlight on us.
  • ‘Dishing the dirt’ listening: The other person comments on something and you add in a few more tidbits of information. “Did you know she was…” or “That isn’t the first time I have heard that. Joanne says…” There is a time to share background information that will serve the conversation. There is also just ‘dishing’ and that isn’t always a useful piece of information to share.
  • Solution-oriented listening: “You know what you need to do about that?” is something we immediately offer as a response if we are in the space of solution oriented listening. “You need to do this…” or “Have you tried…?” Solutions can be very helpful in some situations but most of the time solutions aren’t empowering, nor do they show the person you are talking to that you feel they’ve ‘got this’ and can handle their own challenges. I am all for solutions and most of the time ask myself if a suggestion might be a better way to offer an idea. The key is to ask yourself, “What are my reasons for saying this?” And “Does this serve my colleague to hear this?”

There are so many other listening skills to develop as well, including:

  • how to paraphrase
  • how to craft a clarifying question
  • how to pay attention to your non-verbals
  • how to add your perspective.

All of these listening skills are valid and critical to effective collaboration.

Building up our listening ability can assist us in achieving at high levels in our schools. (See Hattie’s research on collective efficacy).

This post was originally published as the third in a new column Jennifer writes for eSchool News. In her column on ‘Personal Development’, Jennifer focuses on tangible takeaways, tools and teachings that all those working in schools can use to develop their leadership. Read more about the column and browse past and future content here.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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