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What it means to listen.

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

I want you to think back to the last conversation you had, and then think about your last argument. How did you listen? No really, think about how you participated in the conversation, especially in the times when you were expected to be the listener.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did I have an answer ready to give back?

  2. Could I repeat back what the other person said to me?

  3. What was I thinking about when the other person was talking?

If you are like most people, you answered yes to the first question, and no to the second question. That means perhaps you could have done a better job at listening, but another thing to think about is this: What do you think the other person was doing when you were talking? What do you think their answers would be?

Now, try to think of a time when you or the other person in a conversation answered in a way you felt heard, perhaps there were brief (or lengthy) pauses in the conversation. When we truly listen to each other and feel heard, the outcomes are usually different on an emotional level, and it has to do with the ability of someone to truly listen to the other person. When we really listen, and the other person feels heard, the speed of the conversation slows down. In these conversations, and maybe arguments, we are less likely to say something we'll regret later. It’s like that old saying: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It sounds so simple, but there is very little of that happening in homes, in schools, and especially on social media. We need to practice this skill - it honestly doesn’t come naturally, and we are not seeing many good examples of visible leaders doing this right now.

When there is fear in the conversation, listening happens even less, and the leaders in our schools are certainly experiencing fear. What if I make the wrong choice? Will someone die, will my community see me as a failure, or as the cause of all the problems? As a teacher, I do not envy our administrators, but it also seems like they are not listening right now, and that could be due to the fears I expressed above.

There is more to listening than just the words that are being said. When we listen, we have to be aware of the whole picture. Body language is a big part of the conversation, and sometimes the things that are not said are just as important as the things that are said.

Student leaders play a big role in being allies to their peers, and if they are good listeners they may be able to be the first responder in times of mental health. By really listening and being present with their peers, they might notice a change in a young person far sooner than busy parents, or teachers who are managing a large number of students. What better resource to empower. They may also be able to assess the impact of something that may not look like bullying to the casual observer, but a good listener may be able to see that there is an impact on the other student, and intervene before a young person displays the more obvious signs of bullying. What about a casual mention of abuse at home, a student leader who is a good listener may also hear or observe something not heard otherwise.

I am not suggesting that we TRAIN students to see these signs, but if you are a good listener for others, you may also be a good listener for yourself. And typically, when your spidey sense tells you something doesn't feel right - you usually follow up and ask a trusted adult. There are just so many benefits to being a good listener, this is just one. It has been my experience that when people feel heard they feel connected, and when people feel connected they feel less alone. When we don’t feel alone we know we have a place where we are wanted, and there is no better solution to the problems above then feeling like someone cares about us.

How can we practice better listening?

  • An easy thing to do is try and repeat back what you think you heard the other person say.

  • Taking a mindful moment - pause and think about what you heard before you respond. Usually the other person in the conversation will not fill the space, but if that is something you are worried about, you can tell them ahead of time, “I am going to really try and listen right now, so I might take a moment to respond.” My guess is that they will reflect on their own listening skills, and maybe even try to do the same as you.

  • A fun activity you can do, or do with your students to help them practice listening is to pair students up, so they can have a conversation, but when they respond, they have to respond with the last word the other person used. It will probably be a fun exercise and lead to some hilarious conversations, but the point is to work on listening, not speaking.

If this activity sounds like something you want to do, I encourage you to try it, and tell someone else. If you really think the ideas I am sharing could be useful in a training session for you or your school - please contact me today for a discovery conversation to see if we are a good fit. I really want to spread the world with strong, confident leaders. I can work with teachers, students, or your own children - there is really nothing we can’t try.

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