Lend Me Your Ears: Listening and Leadership

If you search for quotes about listening, you will find there is a profusion of them out there. It seems that absolutely everyone recognises the importance of listening carefully and that being quiet when someone else speaks is not enough. The irony that so many people rush to say something about the power of being quiet and really listening is not lost on me. There is often a lot of noise in the world and not all of it is useful.

Perhaps my favourite quote about listening is from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in relation to the character of Slim. Despite his ultimately poor leadership by the end (if he was ever really empowered to lead) it says, ‘his ear heard more than was said to him’. Slim was presented as thoughtful. He spent time reading between the lines, looking into the silences and really hearing what people wanted to communicate. It is no accident that Steinbeck focuses on this and I think that there is a lot we can take away from this idea when we are working in our own contexts.

 We are all ridiculously busy, but we need to make time to ‘be more Slim’. Marc Rowland, when discussing the learning and barriers young people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, often talks about ‘assessment not assumption’. If we want to provide the best for our students and get the best from them, we need to really understand what the issues are. I think this is just as true for the staff we work with too and honing our listening skills is really important for this.

Sometimes we are quick to make assumptions about what staff think, know and feel and frequently this does not end well. A while back, having decided to have a heart to heart with someone who I had struggled to form a positive working relationship with, I discovered they had many assumptions about me that simply weren’t true. Most significantly, somehow, they had concluded I would rather not talk things through. I always want to talk things through, so much so it can actually be a weakness as I can spend years dissecting something, but somehow this assumption was made and then every other interaction which followed this was based on this. We all do it. We make quick judgements all the time, but an effective leader will take the time to challenge themselves on this. They will, just as Marc suggests, undertake a bit of an assessment, of their own assumptions and ensure they really know their team. This can be hard and can be time consuming. Sam Strickland, author of Education Exposed recently tweeted about one to one meetings between staff to get to understand the issues that people are facing, especially at the moment.

Nimish Lad has taken a similar system in his school as part of their development, exploring ideas with staff on a personal level, something which seems to have been very successful in making some significant improvements in his school. Coaching is increasingly becoming part of the landscape too. Of course, in order for this to work the culture needs to be right and motives understood. In the right environment a new leader could walk straight in and begin these conversations. However, where a culture of trust has not been built or people are still unsure of motivation these conversations would be unlikely to yield useful information. Building trust and timing the conversations correctly will make this conversations richer, more honest and more reflective.

When these conversations happen, it goes without saying that you need to really listen. I mean, not just being quiet when others talk, but really listen. You aren’t just waiting your turn, you are thinking and considering what they are trying to convey. Even with our wealth of language communication can be difficult to decipher sometimes, so check those assumptions as you go and clarify where possible. We also need to be careful not to put defensive up. When people are talking sometimes, we can feel the need to defend the choices we have made as a leader and this can act as a barrier. You need to decide if you really want to hear it or if you only want to hear things which don’t challenge you and your perceptions. Great leaders know how to do this well. That doesn’t mean they never explain their choice or challenge back; it is a dialogue you are building. But again, it might be thinking about when and how that happens.

It is not only the big conversations that matter; it is those day to day interactions which are going to make a difference. I once worked with someone who would ask me how I was in the morning or if I had a nice weekend but would walk off before I had even got the first sentence out. I get they were busy, we all are, but I can’t say I felt especially valued each time that happened. It was actually worse than if they hadn’t asked. If you ask, ask because you want to know. If you want to know, then listen. If you can’t listen to the answer now or if it looks like there is something more intricate going on, put a place holder on it, let them know you want to hear more, but will have to pop back later. It goes without saying, pop back later. Every conversation, especially now, can really matter and give you some valuable. It can also show that you value the people around you.

This returns me to Steinbeck’s Slim though. He is clearly presented as this incredible leader, god like, prince of the ranch and filled with a benevolence which can’t be ignored, even offering kind words to Curley’s wife. However, he may well be listening and learning about those around him, but what does he do with that information at the end? George confides in him about Lennie’s previous behaviours, yet Slim didn’t really see the warning signs. It is one things to listen, but if we don’t then step up and act it could all be for nothing. Hear what is being said and listen carefully for what is not being said. Keep your eyes and ears open for what people are really trying to communicate. Then think about what that means for your setting and the individuals within it and, if needed take action.  

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent schools with The Education People. Her first book, Generative Learning in Action is available now.

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