Active Listening Is a Critical Tool for Educators. Here’s How to Sharpen It!

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

“You’re not listening to me!” Sadly, I’ve been told that more often than I’d like to admit. And, each time I swear I’ll do better in the future. I’m still trying, but it’s not easy!

Active listening is a skill that I’ll work on until the day I take my last breath. Like exercise, it is a learned skill. It’s also easy to slack off and not be as intentional, like I’m tempted to do when contemplating walking in 90-degree weather or a chilly wind!

The ABPC Blog features a lot of articles about listening because it’s a critical skill for teachers, administrators, coaches, parents…well, everyone! And, just like developing any craft, active listening requires intentionality and turning off that inner “here’s what I know” voice that seems to be ever present in our mind!

Recently, I listened to a short podcast about listening by Ximena Vengoechea, author of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. Vengoechea is a writer and “user researcher” for some of the top social media sites including Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

During the podcast, Vengoechea mentioned five big ideas worth considering for those who want to improve their listening.

Big Idea One: Most of us are really not listening

During a conversation, have you ever caught yourself miles away from the conversation thinking about something else? It’s an uncomfortable feeling when you realize you’ve lost the thread of the conversation. Vengoechea calls this “surface listening,” when our attention easily drifts away.

To prevent surface listening, she suggests using empathetic listening. Begin by approaching the conversation with humility, curiosity, and empathy. To me, listening with humility means that I believe my conversant has something of value to share. When I’m curious, I’m fully engaged in the conversation and likely to ask questions and exhibit affirming body language. And I’m empathetic when I try to recognize what that person is feeling and respond accordingly.

Big Idea Two: Conversations contain hidden needs

I’m still pondering this big idea. Connecting with someone because we have hidden needs sounds somewhat manipulative. Yet might a hidden need actually be positive? What if the hidden need is to reconnect, or offer help, or show our thanks for something that they did?

Vengoechea’s point is that the listener should look for our hidden need to make the conversation better

“You know listening is one of the best ways to learn and connect, but how much time have you actually spent analyzing your style and skills? (Vengoechea’s) book is full of revealing, instantly applicable ideas for leveraging your strengths and overcoming your weaknesses.” — Adam Grant, author of Think Again and Originals, and host of the TED podcast WorkLife

Big Idea Three: Each of us has a filter we tend to listen through

In the book, the author describes 11 different filters, two of which are the problem-solver and the identifier.

The problem-solver is ready to help the person address/solve whatever issue or problem they are describing. The down side? Not every conversation requires problem-solving, and oftentimes the last thing the person wants is for you to “solve” their problem! One risks being viewed as bossy or micromanaging when trying to “fix” the person’s problem or issue.

The identifier tries to find commonalities between the speaker and listener and often “hijacks” the conversation by shifting the discussion from what the speaker is saying to a time when they experienced something similar. If you’re like me (smile), this will sound very familiar.

Big Idea Four: Asking the right question deepens the conversation

My friend and colleague Jackie Walsh, author of several books about quality questioning, would add a big “amen” to this big idea! I think she would appreciate Vengoechea’s suggestion that as we listen and respond we avoid questions beginning with “do,” “is,” or “are,” because they tend to suggest closed answers like “yes” or “no.” Instead, the author suggests using “how,” “what,” or phrases like “say more about that” or “what else?”

Big Idea Five: Empathetic listening requires self-awareness

If you know that you are easily distracted during a conversation, work on that challenge and try to stay focused on the speaker. The same advice goes for people who tend to interrupt or “hijack” conversations. Being aware of and addressing those tendencies will make you a better listener. I’ll be working on this!

I’ve written these five big ideas on an index card that I’ve taped to the wall near my computer to remind me to practice active listening. This can be very positive and fulfilling work. Listening is a gift we can give to friends, colleagues, and family. It’s also a technique we can employ in professional situations where we are interacting with individuals who are angry, untrusting, even antagonistic.

For some of us, it doesn’t come easily. Paying attention to these tips will not only improve your listening skills, but it will also demonstrate your respect and regard for others.


10 Actions Principals Can Take to Navigate Dissent

This article by authors Ron Williamson and Barbara Blackburn was featured in the ASCD SmartBrief this week. Notice how often they zero in on “listening” as a critical skill for school leaders in challenging times when parent and community dissent is commonplace.