As literacy coaches, we want to build relationships, empower teachers, and foster collaborative learning environments.
So why do we often end up listening to respond instead of listening to understand?
One possible reason is that we process verbal information more quickly than we speak. Kate Murphy shares in You’re Not Listening: What You are Missing and Why it Matters (p. 70) that:
- The average person talks at around 120-150 words per minute, which takes up a tiny fraction of our mental bandwidth powered by some eighty-six billion brain cells. So, we wander in our excess cognitive capacity, thinking about a multitude of other things, which keeps us from focusing on the speakers’ narrative.
In other words, our ability to process faster than we speak becomes our listening kryptonite. Since our brains are hardwired to work at such amazing speeds we jump ahead in conversations, make assumptions, quickly connect or disconnect based on personal experiences and beliefs, prepare responses, and wander inside our own minds.
In addition, “the fast pace of our world tends to support the belief that there is a relationship between speed and intelligence. However, complex thinking takes and requires time” (Lipton & Wellman, 2003). This dichotomy, between speed and intelligence leaves us vulnerable as literacy coaches. We want to foster teacher growth and enhance student learning. However, the perceived lack of time in education along with the perceived relationship between speed and intelligence frequently leaves us defaulting to quick-fix responses instead of conversations that build relationships, enhance collaboration, and lead to deeper understanding.
So, what can we do as literacy coaches, to harness our lightning speed processing and become more active listeners who listen to understand the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of others?
Accept that Listening to Understand is Not Easy
Listening takes effort, patience, and a belief that our conversations will bring growth and enhancement to teaching and learning. In order to listen to understand we need to build our listening stamina. Developing the habit of listening with the intention of understanding instead of responding takes time, patience, and practice. Try setting the intention of listening to understand during at least one conversation each day and then, similar to an athlete, add in one more “listening to understand” conversation each day. Don’t forget to celebrate as your listening to understand stamina grows!
Both external and internal distractions can interfere with our ability to listen. Take time to physically and consciously eliminate all distractions before you enter into conversations. Lipton and Wellman share in Mentoring Matters (p. 35) that “ten minutes of our complete and focused attention is worth more, in terms of maintaining a relationship and supporting learning, than thirty minutes with distractions.” So put down your electronic devices, silence your inner dialogue, and set your intention on listening to understand.
After eliminating distractions, work on staying present during conversations. West & Cameron share in Agents of Change (p. 72) that “to listen deeply, coaches need to be present in each coaching conversation, letting go of preconceived agendas, hopes, and fears.” In order to receive both the verbal and nonverbal information that is being shared by others, our ability to stay present is paramount. Try asking and answering the following questions as you enter into coaching conversations:
- What will be the outcome if I do not stay present in this conversation?
- How will eliminating all distractions help me stay present during this conversation?
When you are curious, you enter each conversation with the belief that you will learn something new. Taking an inquiry stance fosters our ability to listen with the intent to understand. It also contributes to our ability to ask genuine questions, clarify understandings, and extend conversations. Roy Bennett in The Light in the Heart suggests that we should:
- Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.
The next time you enter into a coaching conversation with a colleague, what steps might you take to help yourself listen in order to understand what is being communicated?
Bennett, R. (2020). The Light in the Heart: Inspirational Thoughts for Living Your Best Life. Roy Bennett.
Lipton & Wellman (2003). Mentoring Matters: A Practical Guide to Learning-Focused Relationships. Sherman, CT: MiraVia.
Murphy, K (2019). You’re Not Listening: What You are Missing and Why it Matters. New York, NY: Celadon Books.
West & Cameron (2013). Agents of Change: How Content Coaching Transforms Teaching & Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.