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  • jancresswell

Why listening works

‘If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected. Daring leaders must care for and be connected to the people they lead.’ Brené Brown

It matters because it gives you an opportunity to create high levels of engagement by making every member of the community feel valued. This is clearly not just a matter of mince pies at Christmas or even an affirming remark on an annual review, helpful though those things can be. Compassionate leaders are active in giving others the chance to grow, and our starting point is looking for the strengths and the unique viewpoint each individual brings. In simple terms, we want to see the person not the position they hold. Give your team your time, individually as well as collectively: not everyone finds group meetings the best medium for communicating their thoughts and ideas. Getting to know people properly cannot be rushed, but it is this connectedness which builds trust and it is trust which encourages the bold thinking and innovation all organisations need to keep moving forward. When each person in your team knows that they won’t be put down for a radical suggestion, or criticised if their plan doesn’t quite come off as they had hoped, they will be liberated and empowered. Both you and they will benefit from the resulting growth in capability and creativity.

For our teams to become confident in contributing their opinions, they must first become accustomed to hearing their voice. We recognise the critical importance of schools being safe places so that our young people are able to grow and flourish; feeling confident that they will be listened to and that their voice matters is a crucial part of this. And yet when it comes to our staff we often make the mistake of one-way communication, making it all about delivery rather than dialogue. Pretty much any survey we were to conduct in any organisation would rate ‘communication’ as an area of improvement, but we risk missing the message here which is often that we need to listen more, rather than say more!

Schools, especially secondary schools with their departmental and faculty structures, are particularly hierarchical, and it would be entirely possible as a head to go through a whole academic year hearing only the views of heads of department or heads of year (or even only those of our hand-picked SLT) if we did not set time aside to listen more widely. There are lots of ideas about how to do this in other posts here, but speak to any experienced head and they will describe the moment of epiphany when they realised they did not have to have all the ideas - or even the best ideas. Giving space to others also offers you space to reflect. In fact, I would argue that the rewards of the job increase in direct proportion to the time spent listening.


1. Brown, B., ‘Dare to Lead’, 2018

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