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Listening – the lost skill.

Back in the ’90s, I managed a plastics manufacturing company. We had a great staff, and we were always looking for ways to improve our team. Recently, over the holidays, I was throwing out some old files from that part of my life and ran across notes from a workshop called “Effective Communication – The Importance of Listening.”

A few comments from that presentation…

  • “I had never thought of listening as an important part of the business process. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on me listening to someone or on someone else listening to me.”

  • “I’ve been thinking back about things that have gone wrong over the past couple of years, and I suddenly realized that the biggest problems resulted from someone not hearing something or getting it in a distorted way.”

  • “It’s interesting to me that we have worked hard on improving communication in the company but have inadvertently overlooked listening. I think it’s the most important link in the company’s communications, and the weakest one.”

Business is tied together by its systems of communication. After working with schools for the past 20 years, I’ve found the same is true in education.

But where, when, and how do we learn how to listen?

Most of the elementary school experience seems to be focused on learning how to read. During those years, little emphasis is placed on speaking, and almost no attention is given to the skill of listening – other than teachers telling students, “Listen-up!”

Certainly, our teachers understand the need for students to be good listeners, but how are those skills taught? By the time those students enter college, lectures become the primary mode for delivering instruction, and listening becomes even more important.

And what happens when those students graduate and join the workforce? Chances are high that they will have to listen many multiples of times as much as they read. But listening is hard. Part of the problem comes from the fact that we think much faster than we talk.

After a quick Google search, I found the average rate of speech for most Americans is around 150 words per minute. But how fast do we think? Apparently, it depends on how we think and if we think in words, images, and/or emotions. Nevertheless, estimates range from 5,000 up to 50,000 words per minute.

So, what are our brains doing with the extra time when trying to listen to another person speak? Probably getting distracted, thinking about what’s for dinner, checking Facebook, playing with our phones… but probably not listening. One of my goals for 2022 is to become a better listener.

Let them know they’ve been heard.

The same listening pitfalls occur when schools conduct surveys. Effective school districts see the survey not as the main event but as part of a school improvement process.

Here are five steps to improve your post-survey listening process:

  1. Say thank you for taking the time to respond and let respondents know that they’ve been heard.

  2. If you don’t know what you are going to do or change yet, communicate the timeline and process that you’ll be using to make decisions.

  3. Take an inventory of your deeply rooted beliefs and convictions. Temporarily withhold evaluation and suspend judgments. Instead of mentally rebutting the data, think deeply. Then, think again. Because this requires more self-control than most individuals can muster, explore potential root causes with others.

  4. Hunt for negative evidence. When we listen to feedback, it’s only human to go on a search for data to prove us right. Seldom do we search for evidence to prove ourselves wrong. If we make up our minds to seek out the ideas that might prove us wrong, as well as those that might prove us right, we are less in danger of missing what people have to say.

  5. When you start making changes to policies, procedures, and/or practices, let your stakeholders know the decisions are a result of their survey feedback.

The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Bill Foster, President and Founder.


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