This is the third in a three-part series on communicating effectively during crisis developed by The Holdsworth Center. Click to read the first two installments: Go from panic to control in four steps and Be the kind of leader who shares, not hoards.
When people come in to talk with Principal Mandy Land at Doerre Intermediate in Klein ISD, they don’t sit in front of a desk. Instead, there’s a small conference table with chairs, some tissues and a box of toys in case there are little ones in tow.
The tissues have been disappearing quickly this year. It’s not easy to sit with other people’s frustration and fear, but Mandy believes it’s an important part of her job as a leader.
“Right now, my role is more a therapist,” she said. “When it feels like I have nothing left in my cup, I still have to reach in and find compassion because that’s what my staff need. What we are asking educators to do is not easy.”
Being able to listen to people in a way that makes them feel valued is maybe the single most powerful thing a leader can do to elevate their communication, especially when stress levels are peaking.
But what does it mean to be a good listener?
Below are four key behaviors that can help you be the kind of listener your staff and coworkers need.
How many times have you sat listening to your spouse or your coworker thinking, “I can’t forget about that appointment tomorrow,” or “I wonder if that text I sent made my mother mad…”
All the time, right? And in the new Zoom universe, our habit of checking email or multi-tasking during meetings has only gotten worse.
If you are truly present in a conversation, you are not doing anything else.
Many leaders talk about having an “open door policy.” But when you appear impatient or regularly interrupt conversations to take calls or return texts, you send a signal to the person in front of you that they’re not that important. Think of the last time you tried to have a serious conversation with someone who was looking at their phone or computer. How did that make you feel?
So let’s just be honest with ourselves. We are not fully present in a conversation in which our mind is wandering or we’re reading our emails. There’s no such thing as being able to multi-task when listening, even if you can repeat back what was just said.
If you are truly present in a conversation, you are not doing anything else. You are focused on the other person and you are listening with your whole body.
“I’m very task-oriented and always ticking off all the stuff I have to get done in my head,” Mandy admitted. “It’s taken me a long time to understand that I need to be present when I am listening to people in order to make them feel valued and heard. If they don’t feel that way, they will get frustrated and find work elsewhere. And when that happens, it makes it really hard to serve our children and families.”
Here a few ways Mandy sets herself up to be a good listener:
- Find the right setting – Because I want to give people my undivided attention, I try to make sure I’m in the right environment and frame of mind to listen. If I’m running around dealing with an urgent situation and someone approaches to talk, I might say “Can we set up an appointment to talk later?” If I’m not in the middle of something urgent I’ll ask, “Can we walk and talk?” If it’s anything more than a quick question or comment, I try to push the conversations into my office because that’s where I can listen best without being distracted.
- Remove distractions – When someone comes into my office, I shut the door, close my laptop and turn the ringer off on my phone. I invite them to sit with me at a small table, which is more welcoming than me sitting behind a desk.
- Listen with your whole body – Once we settle into the conversation, I let them know with my body language that I am listening. I look them in the eye, nod my head or echo back to them what I’m hearing to make sure the message I’m receiving is the one they were hoping to send.
- Take notes – Taking notes often helps me stay grounded in the moment, and also to reflect on what was said. To make people feel comfortable, I ask if they mind if I jot down some notes to help me remember. I don’t want to make it feel as though I’m documenting them. And if the conversation gets emotional, I set aside my notes.
Focus on compassion
In her book “Radical Candor,” Kim Scott talks about how as emotion gets more intense in a conversation, the listener’s level of compassion should go up in relation.
That’s not always our first response, especially if we’re having a hard time relating to the person’s reaction. And frankly, it can be uncomfortable when people cry, which tends to happen when emotion is running high.
I never view these conversations as wasted time. Every one of them is important.
To move past feelings of irritation or awkwardness, shift your focus to the person in front of you. Put yourself in their position. No one likes to cry in front of their boss. If they do, it says something about the depth of their struggle. Very likely, there’s more going on than what they are sharing with you.
“In those instances, I have to remind myself that just because I don’t feel it doesn’t mean it’s not valid,” Mandy said. “If I dismiss someone’s feelings, that can really damage relationships. I have to take care of my people first and foremost. I never view these conversations as wasted time. Every one of them is important.”
Like many leaders, Mandy also has moments where she struggles with compassion fatigue. When she starts feeling tapped out, she disconnects by exercising or spending time with family so that she can recharge and return with a reservoir of patience and compassion.
Talk less, listen more
“Listen, listen, listen! Virtually a lost art in America. Learn how to be a powerful listener. Practice talking 10% – 20% of the time in most conversations and listening 80% – 90% of the time unless you’re making a presentation or in a teaching mode.”
– Charles Butt, Chairman of H-E-B and founder of The Holdsworth Center
Culturally, the way Americans engage in conversation is an exchange of verbal volleys akin to a tennis match. If it slows, someone rushes in to fill the silence. If a thought or a comparable experience pops into someone’s head, they feel compelled to share it.
It takes practice to break these reflexive habits. Instead of a tennis match, try thinking of your next conversation as an interview. You are a detective trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that sits in front of you.
As a criminal justice major in college, Mandy took a semester-long course on interviewing. In her job as a principal, she uses the techniques she learned daily.
- Mirroring –Echoing back what people say helps them feel validated, even if you can’t agree or relate. I say things like, “I hear you are feeling a lot of fear about being here on campus.”
- Ask clarifying questions – When you’re not able to relate to the person’s feelings, you might not be getting the whole story. I ask clarifying questions to dig deeper and provoke reflection. What exactly do you mean by that? Why do you feel that way? Why is that important to you?
- Guide toward solutions – When they are finished sharing the problem, instead of me saying, “OK here’s how I am going to solve it,” I continue with questions like “What do you think we could do moving forward to make you feel safer?” or “I understand it’s really frustrating to work in this blended learning environment, what do you think would make it more manageable?” Often, people will solve their own problems if you allow the space for them to do most of the talking.
Many times, you will be able to solve the mystery and fix somebody’s problem. But often, there is no fixable problem and people just want you to listen. That can be challenging for leaders who are wired to home in on gaps and find solutions.
In these situations, a helpful practice is “sunset listening.” When you look at a sunset, you don’t judge its shortcomings or find ways it could be better – it’s beautiful the way it is. A conversation can be the same. If you know there’s nothing you can do to change the situation, sit back and listen without judging. Your body language will shift correspondingly, and the person will leave feeling as if they were truly heard.
When everything seems like a pressing priority, following up on questions or conversations may feel low on your list of to-dos.
It shouldn’t be. People are expecting a response, and if they don’t get it quickly, it can impact the relationships and personal brand you are building as a leader. In some cases, staff may even have trouble focusing on their work until they hear back from you.
Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University and chair of Holdsworth’s board of directors, established early on that she would make her email address available to everyone, and that she would build time into her schedule to answer promptly when people took the time to write.
“Many of the people who work with me are notoriously delinquent in answering people’s queries. And I think that engenders a certain problem with leadership,” Ruth said. “I recommend that people weigh carefully how important it is to be responsive. It’s an easy way to demonstrate as a leader that you care. Sometimes my answer is, ‘I really can’t answer you now, but I probably will be able to get back to you within a day.’ Whatever it is, it’s still an answer.”
All leaders are juggling too many balls, but some of them are glass and some are plastic, Mandy said. If you need to let something drop, make sure it’s a plastic ball that won’t break. Often, we assume the needs of adults (as opposed to students) are plastic balls that will bounce back. That’s not always the case. To the person anxiously awaiting the leader’s response, it could be a glass ball that will shatter when dropped.
“People are our most valuable resource and when you don’t respond to their feedback or concerns in a timely way, it makes them feel discouraged and unimportant,” Mandy said.
To ensure she doesn’t drop any balls, Mandy builds responsiveness into her daily practice.
- Follow up immediately on conversations – I send a follow-up email after every meeting. I thank them for coming in to talk to me and if there are actions steps, I outline them.
- Set time limits – If there is a question I could not answer or something I needed more time to investigate, I usually give myself 24 hours to get back to them.
- Notate loose ends – Any loose ends go onto the next day’s to-do list so that I don’t unintentionally let something drop.
After reading these tips on listening, are there any areas where you could improve your practice? Make a list. In your next conversation, try sunset listening and reflect on the results. Did it feel different? Were you able to let go of judgments? How do you think it made the other person feel?