When I was a young principal, every day ended with late bus. It was a small town in a very rural district, so many of our students rode buses that carried K-12. My K-8th grade group had to wait on long wooden benches that lined the perimeter of the gym for the buses to come from the high school with their big siblings. It was a noisy assignment but a fun time to chat with the kids. We are all in a good mood when we’re headed home.
One winter afternoon, after the last child had exited the gym to 9th Street and boarded a high school bus, I headed to my car. A car pulled in along the curb in front of mine and one of my parents got out. She indicated that her daughter came home without her coat and thought it might have been left in the gym. I pointed to the gym door, advised her that it was open for basketball practice and she was free to enter and look for it. Then I got in my car and drove away.
The next day Dr. Lannan, the superintendent, called me to let me know that he got a call from that lady, quite displeased with my lack of interest in her problem. I thought that I understood her problem and addressed it efficiently. She wanted to look for her daughter’s coat and I showed her where to look. He explained that it would have taken me 2 minutes to walk back into the gym to help her and had I invested that 2 minutes, she might have left happy. Instead, she felt dismissed and left alone and so she called him.
I had heard her, but I didn’t listen. Dr. Lannan didn’t like getting calls like that and he set an expectation that he would get no more. I didn’t let him down.
That was the first of many experiences that shaped me into a better listener.
This week, our administrators spent a few days in training - learning new skills and polishing existing ones. Three of our principals led an excellent session on communication. As always, in any communications activity, the importance of listening comes up.
In my work, I have to listen to a lot of people. Some of the time they are upset about something that happened at the school level and their sole source of information is their child. Often they have not even talked to the teacher or school principal. I could shut them down and tell them I won’t talk with them unless they talk to that person first. Instead, I will often give them the time they need to get if all off their chest. I find once they are out of wind, then they are open to hear some guidance on going back to the school. I affirm that I hear them, advise them of any policies that may come into play, how decisions are made and how we urge following the chain of command to resolve problems at the lowest possible level. And when they do sit down to the table to talk with the teacher, they often hear that there was more to the story. Problem solved.
Why? Because they were ready to listen.
Two ears, one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk.
First seek to understand, then to be understood.
If you are thinking of your reply when someone is talking, then you are not listening to understand.