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The gift of exquisite listening

Dennis

“One social habit that I used to be quite bad at was to truly listen when other people spoke. I sometimes zoned out. I got distracted or my attention started to wander before they were done talking. Or I just waited for my turn to talk again (while thinking about what I should say next). Not very helpful. So things had to change.” —Henrik Edberg

There is no greater gift that one person can give another than sustained, attentive, and nonjudgmental listening.

Being fully heard and deeply understood by another human being is rare and can be life changing.

Because such committed listening also enriches the experience of the listener, it can transform relationships.

In addition, it is an essential ingredient of “deep work” (see previous post).

Henrik Edberg describes the attributes of such listening this way:

“When you listen, just listen.

” Don’t interrupt. Don’t jump in with solutions (this one can be a hard one in my experience).

“Just be present in the moment and listen fully to what the other person has to say and let him or her speak until the entire message is said.

“Sometimes that is also all that’s needed. For someone to truly listen as we vent for a few minutes and figure things out for ourselves.”

“Just listening” requires practice and discipline, however.

Sophia Dembling offers a tool that can help us master this demanding habit:

“Imagine that there is a big arrow hovering over the space between two people engaged in a conversation…. As the listener in this conversation, your goal is to keep the arrow pointing at the other person for as long as possible.

“A devoted listener knows that there is always more to learn about another person, no matter how long you’ve known them.”

What have you learned about the benefits of such listening, and what helps you more consistently offer it to others?

Deep work matters

Dennis

I’ve attended countless meetings during which some variation of the following happens:

Person A makes a point about a topic.

Person B comments on Person A’s statement.

Person C brings up another subject.

Person D returns briefly to person A’s comment and then makes a point on a totally different subject.

And so on as participants skate across the surface of important topics.

This type of “superficial work” is all too common in meetings, even those where important decisions are being made.

Likewise, professional learning can be deep or superficial.

So, too, professional reading and writing can be deep or superficial.

Deep work is obviously essential when decisions are being made and when learning is the goal, either for adults or young people.

While deep work typically takes time, a lack of time is not an adequate excuse for superficiality because there is always time to do what matters.

Deep work requires:

Intentionality. It is essential that we are committed to deep work when we examine our individual and collective beliefs, values, ideas, and practices.

Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, sustained focus over multi-tasking, problem solving over complaining, and meaningful professional learning over “sit and get.”

Protocols that help participants pay attention to both task accomplishment and the quality of relationships.

What other things promote deep work?

Open minds by touching hearts

Dennis

Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart. —Jonathan Haidt

Leaders extend their influence when they speak to the heart as well as the head.

Human beings are motivated at least as much by their emotions as they are by logic and rationality. While research, data, and other forms of evidence have their place in improvement efforts, by themselves they are insufficient.

Emotions elicited through storytelling, poetry, and the use of imagery can inspire and provide a context for the meaningful use of data and professional literature.

Today I will speak to the heart as well as the head in an upcoming interaction with colleagues, students, or parents.

[This “meditation” is one of 180 (one for every day of the traditional school year) provided in Leadership 180: Daily Meditations on School Leadership, my most recent book, published by Solution Tree.]

6 ways to ensure that things don’t change

Dennis

Over the years I’ve written countless articles and posts on how administrators and teacher leaders can affect positive change through school culture, professional development, and the application of emotional intelligence, just to mention a few possible sources of influence.

But I have never approached that challenge from the flip side—what school leaders must stop doing if they want to create a ceaseless flow of positive energy that improves teaching and learning for all students.

So here are 6 ways to ensure low staff motivation:

1. Tell people what to do. Make demands: “I am the boss. Your job is to do what I tell you to do or else.”

2. Explain that what you’re telling others to do is a mandate (a variation of #1): “I don’t like this either, but we have to do it.”

3. Cite research combined with a demand: “Research says, so do it.”

4. Use guilt: “If you are really a professional (or care about your students), you will do this.”

5. Emphasize that you are smarter and/or have better intentions than they do: “If you would just read the research (or analyze the data), you’d see that this is the right thing to do.”

6. Explain that you have their best interests at heart: “Do this for your own good,” or “Trust me because I know what’s good for you.”

What would you add to my list?

What it means to be a skillful teacher

Dennis

While the popular media often portray good teachers as charismatic “sages on the stage,” skillful teaching is a sophisticated cognitive process in an intensely interpersonal environment whose most fundamental activities are less dramatic and often invisible to the casual observer.

Skillful teaching requires:

• designing meaningful lessons that engage and ultimately ensure success for all students;

• developing a highly-nuanced professional judgment informed by both “hard” and “soft” evidence to assess student learning and to determine the most appropriate teaching methods;

• applying emotional intelligence and human relations skills with students, parents, and colleagues in complex and ever-changing circumstances;

• engaging in professional learning and collaboration with colleagues to continuously improve teaching and learning; and

• managing personal energy and time to enable vitality both in school and at home.

What have I missed?

“Don’t smile until Christmas”

Dennis

I remember hearing that advice as a new teacher. The logic behind it was simple—it is easier to loosen up classroom management routines and discipline than to tighten them.

If you didn’t think about it too much it made sense.

But unsmiling teachers give the appearance that they don’t like teaching and don’t even like their students.

And students don’t learn as well from teachers who seem not to like their jobs nor them.

So “Don’t smile until Christmas” is not advice I would want given to a new teacher.

What “truisms” from early in your career turned out not to be so true? And, conversely, what advice were you given that made a positive difference in your work as a teacher or administrator?

Words can injure, or uplift and inspire

Dennis

A hospice patient in her 60s whose life story I was videotaping told a sad story from her childhood about an adult who had said cruel things about her, words that produced a depth of pain that was still sufficiently strong that she felt compelled to talk about it at the end of her life.

“Some people say that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” the patient told future generations of her family. “I want everyone who sees this to remember that that is not true. Words can hurt us.”

Words matter not only because they affect our feelings but because they can alter how we view ourselves—whether we see ourselves as valued or unimportant, respected or disrespected, competent or incompetent, included or excluded.

While words can injure, they can also uplift and inspire. Most of us can recall things that significant adults in our lives said that encouraged and sustained us—the right words at the right time.

The words spoken by teachers, principals, and parents can have a particularly strong resonance across a lifetime, for good or for ill.

Which words encourage and sustain you? Which words disempower?


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