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The Power of Listening

Think of a time when you were telling someone something that you really wanted them to ‘hear’. Perhaps you had summoned the courage to approach a leader and discuss a sensitive issue. Perhaps it was a family member or a trusted friend who you wanted to share a painful experience with, or perhaps it was the person next to you at work who had told you in depth about their holiday and you were about to tell them about your holiday. Whatever the situation, the common ground was that the other person did not listen. You just did not feel heard!

How did you react?

Most of us withdraw to some extent, feel disappointed or hurt and are reticent to attempt to share anything meaningful with the person again. This is especially so if the other person has a habit of ‘not really hearing’ what we are saying.

‘The ability to listen effectively is an essential component of leadership’ (Hoppe, 2007, p.11).

In the article ‘Lending an Ear: Why Leaders must Learn to Listen Actively’, Hoppe explains the importance of leaders listening to and hearing what their followers are saying. Hearing what someone is actually saying validates them as a person and grows trust between the two people. This does not mean a leader must agree with the speaker. It means that the leader should listen to understand what the other person is not only saying, but also what they are meaning, and NOT listen to find an advantage or an ‘in’ to the conversation.

Hoppe says that active listening involves six skills:
•    paying attention
•    holding judgement
•    reflecting
•    clarifying
•    summarising and sharing (Hoppe, 2007, pp.11-12).

He explains each of these skills in detail and says that it is only as you gain a clear understanding of the other person’s perspective that you should then introduce your ideas, feelings and suggestions, and address any concerns. It is about firstly hearing others well and earning the right to be listened to.

The role of active listening can seem to contradict the common cultural notions of what a leader is. In a society that values leaders who are action-oriented, charismatic, visionary and directive, the expectation is that leaders should have all the answers, call all the shots and do all the talking (Hoppe, 2007, p.14).

There is, however, a fundamental mismatch between this concept of leadership and a leader taking the ‘followers’ with them as they lead if:
•    the followers are feeling shut down
•    their concerns are unheard or not understood
•    and their trust in the leader has been undermined.

Professor Andrew Alonso is an impressive educational leader in Baltimore. In the fall of 2102, he had much to celebrate about his five-year tenure as CEO of Baltimore Public Schools. High school dropout rates had declined by 55%, graduation rates had increased by more than 10 points, student performance had improved in nearly all subjects and grades, and the district had settled a 28-year-old federal lawsuit over special education services. Alonso also oversaw the approval and implementation of an innovative teachers’ contract with a jointly governed four-tier career pathway and promotion to performance and peer review (PEL – 074, p.70). This had been achieved in a school district with almost 200 schools governed by a few different legal frameworks, 10,800 employees and serving over 84,000 students. Previous administrators had attempted the challenge of reform in this school district but negotiations had failed and resulted in a lack of trust.

So why did Professor Alonso succeed? He knew where he wanted to lead, he had sketched out his plans, but he spent the first 18 months listening carefully to the concerns of leaders, teachers and many others in the district. When a reform failed, he listened again.

Hoppe M. H., 2007. Lending an Ear: Why Leaders Must Learn to Listen Actively, LIA Vol 27, No 4, Sept/October 2007.

Johnson S. M., Kim J. J-H., Marietta C., Faller S. E., & Noonan J., 2013, Career Pathways, Performance Pay, and Peer Review Promotion in Baltimore Public Schools. Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University PEL – 074. Aug 28, 2013.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of EdComm or the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The intent is to promote thinking and discussion.

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