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Leaders: Are You Listening or Hearing? It Makes a Difference.

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About this time of year, the 2014 - 2015 school year ends. Some have already had graduations; others are kicking into high gear for the last month. Regardless, the last month shares some common elements. The traditions of public schools weigh heavily as we speed toward banquets, concerts, proms, final grades, and graduations. These are the moments of lifelong memories; most of them are joyful even if flavored with a touch of sadness. The end of every year is a marker for students and teachers alike.

As the year comes to closure, teachers feel pressure to "finish the curriculum." Students feel pressure to complete the work yet unfinished and to prepare for year-end tests. The challenge to keep the youngsters engaged in learning as their minds wander and their bodies yearn to be outside grows. Administrators struggle to finish year-end evaluations and create memorable and safe culminating experiences for students. Meetings are scheduled for parents who may have to be informed their child might not complete the class or grade because of retention policies in place. Hard things happen at the end of each school year. The life cycle of schools make it such that the year is coming to an end and the emotional life of those living within it is stressful.

A Time for Deep Listening
It is difficult enough to truly hear what we are being told. We can turn to the Chinese symbol for listening to remember that deep listening involves eyes, ears, and heart.

Chinese - Listen.gif

Pressures and stresses provoke a lot of negative feelings. Those negative feelings can easily be dismissed as "typical" end of year complaints. They well may be the same typical end of year complaints that have arisen year after year.  Perhaps no one was listening.  Or, perhaps the deep listeners understood but failed to plan for corrective actions for the long term.

Listening with an open mind, open eyes, open ears, and open heart is a challenge. Too often we listen with a filter, for things that we are familiar with, things that support our belief system, or things that oppose our belief system.  But leading an organization requires deeper listening. At MindTools they call this "active listening."

The way to improve your listening skills is to practice "active listening." This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent...In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully.

You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you'll make when the other person stops speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored, and lose focus on what the other person is saying.

Suggestions for Leader Reflection
Summer has always offered the opportunity for space. Teachers and students are free from the school year schedule. Therefore, leaders, too, can breathe at a different, slower pace. It isn't vacation but it is less urgent, without the intensity of the other ten months. So, now and then this summer, we're going to pull a theme from our blog over the year, and pose a reflection question or two. We assert that listening is an underdeveloped communication skill for leaders, maybe for all of us. We invite you to bring your openness and honesty as you consider these questions:

  • What was the most difficult thing for me to hear this past year? Why was it so hard?
  • In what moment of the last year, did I listen well? To whom was I listening? What was the result?
  • If I set a listening goal for next year, what will it be? Who is it I want to hear more clearly? 

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