I am not a very good listener, or at least I didn’t used to be. You may not have noticed. I nodded my head, said uh huh at the appropriate times, and answered your question. In fact, I loved the answers! While you were talking I was composing my answer, constructing a response, waiting for you to stop talking so I could start talking. This mostly sort of worked. When teachers wanted help on a unit- I had a working solution ready to propose at the end of their request. When students came looking for a good book- I was ready with favorites, mine and those of other students. Deep down I knew I was hearing, but not really attending.
So what changed? Two separate but related practices allowed me to improve my listening skills. Collaborative Practices and Courage & Renewal offered me the space to deliberately practice and value listening and it is this deliberate practice that has changed who I am as a listener.
I was trained in Collaborative Practices by School Reform Initiative (SRI) facilitators. SRI “creates transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.” The love of this work (Transformational learning! Equity! Excellence! Community! How could I not love it!) led to participation in an intentional learning community (ILC).
Each ILC creates norms that push us towards the behaviors we wish we had all of the time, norms that are aspirational. One of the norms that gently pushes me towards better behavior is “stand up and make room”- it asks us to speak our piece, but also to make sure that others have the space to speak their piece as well. Early in this work I spent a good bit of time with my hand over my mouth to hold in all of the words that wanted to come out. This was the first step for me to reach another norm that pushes me: “practice deep listening.”
Another way collaborative work pushes me to be a better listener is through protocols. Protocols structure conversations so a presenter can get meaningful, useful feedback. Different protocols call for different kinds of feedback: descriptive feedback, interpretation, ideas, suggestions, or probing questions. They structure dialogue using rounds, time limits, and other constraints, making space for all participants to have access to the conversation. Participating in protocols has forced me to listen in order to contribute meaningfully, and has shown me the payoff of slowing down and fully understanding an issue or problem before jumping to evaluation or problem solving.
Time for reflection is an essential component of collaborative practices work. Every protocol provides time to debrief the experience: the facilitation, the protocol itself, what worked and what didn’t work, and our own participation. This crucial step allows me to pause and consider: “how did I do, was I listening actively?”
Courage & Renewal, inspired by the work of Parker Palmer, has many parallels to collaborative practices. In a Courage Circle touchstones serve as norms and the two touchstones that guide me as a listener are: “no fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting people straight” and “learn to respond to others with honest, open questions.” These two guidelines ask me to slow down my reactive brain and encourage me to listen more fully, to listen for understanding. Being listened to in this way is rare and countercultural and profound; it inspires me to give others the gift of deep listening.
Facilitators at Courage & Renewal ask us to interrogate what it really means to listen, to deconstruct what active listening looks like. Sometimes we do this with a “third thing”- a piece of writing or a poem or some other artifact that gives us a point of focus. One of my favorite third things comes from the book Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilly:
Those of you who grew up in the country know that cows are good listeners… We don’t need fixing, most of us, as much as we need a warm space and a good cow. Cows cock their big brown eyes at you and twitch their ears when you talk…
When I hear my brain whirring- formulating solutions and answers and comebacks- I try to channel my inner cow. I dig deep and remember how profound it is to be really listened to and I try to give that same gift to the speaker.
So how do I know I’m a better listener now than I was before? How do I know that all of this practice has paid off? The quality and character of my interactions with others has changed. When a teacher comes to me now I listen, I ask clarifying questions, I probe further until I fully understand his learning goals for his students. Only then do I begin to think of ideas and solutions. When a student comes looking for a good book I start with questions. What was the last book you loved? What did you like about it? What was the last book you read that you didn’t like? Why didn’t you like it? Mostly I know I’m a better listener because now, instead of loving the answers, I love the questions.
Jeanie Phillips is the librarian at Green Mountain High School in Chester, Vermont. A trained collaborative practices facilitator, she believes in the power of collaboration to foster deep learning. As a 2014/2015 Rowland Fellow, Jeanie is designing opportunities to increase student engagement and personalize learning in her library learning commons and in her school.
School Reform Initiative: http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/
Courage & Renewal: http://www.couragerenewal.org/