Want to Know What People Really Think? Put Down the Bullhorn and Listen

Gerland Shoot-023-Edit_largePick five traits that define the best educators you know; I’m willing to bet communications skills are high on that list.

I don’t care if you’re a school district superintendent presenting before your  board, or an AP English teacher explaining the finer points of Hamlet to a room full of teenagers, standing in front of groups is what we do — and the best among us do this with magnificent aplomb.

But there’s a difference between a powerful presenter — someone who knows how to get her message out — and a skilled communicator. Expressing your point of view is the easy part; cultivating the patience to listen is where masterful leaders separate from the pack.

Hard work
I know what you’re thinking: Listening is easy. You just have to learn to let people talk.

This is the kind of misunderstanding that gets schools into trouble.

The ability to sit still and receive information is not the same as the ability to listen. Authentic listening requires a depth of understanding. Expert listeners assemble information from different sources and use data to instill confidence, win people over, and make better, more informed decisions.

Deep listening is not a passive exercise. It demands more work and energy than talking. Deep listeners connect with stakeholders to make them feel heard. Deep listeners treat each and every voice with fairness and equal weight. Deep listeners respond to their communities, leveraging the information collected during the conversation to openly explain their decisions and build support.

As technology evolves, social media and other tools create more opportunities for parents, community members and others to voice opinions about our schools. The biggest mistake an educator can make is to ignore these critical voices and move blindly forward.

Every insight needs to be carefully considered and addressed. Taking time to listen and respond ensures the benefit of patient, unhurried decisions. And that doesn’t go just for the superintendent. The most effective school districts foster a culture of deep listening that stretches from one end of the school system to the other. These changes don’t happen overnight. They take time and careful planning. Every person who works for the district, from teachers to support staff, must embrace the importance of listening and use it to improve the educational experience.

These changes might sound daunting. What’s ironic is that the very same tools that empower people to sound off about school decision-making enable district leaders to listen to what their communities are saying, all without a significant investment in time or money. Know what phone calls are coming in. Read your email. Use Twitter, Facebook and other social channels to keep one ear to the ground at all times.

You won’t always like what you hear. Where schools are concerned, there’s no such thing as a unanimous decision. A good listener doesn’t blame the opposition for getting in the way; he listens harder, gathering the opinions of a broader cross-section of the school community to justify his decisions and explain his rationale.

A listener’s true talent lies in the ability to balance the negative and the positive to form consensus. Master that, and progress is just a matter of time.

Want to talk more about what it means to be an authentic listener? I want to hear from you. Drop me a line at the email address below.

Dr. Gerald Dawkins
Senior Vice President for Superintendent and District Relations, K12 Insight
 (gdawkins@K12Insight.com)

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