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Effective School Administrators Know How to Listen

Effective school communication begins with leadership examples

Image of two people communicating

Take note, today’s staff members want to be asked for feedback and to be heard. I think we also recognize that in addition to more frequent communication, how we communicate can mean the difference in how effective we are as leaders. This means better listening skills. What does that look like?

Maintain Eye Contact

If you take a look at great leaders, you will find that the majority are also great listeners. One of the first rules of being a good listener is making and keeping eye contact. When I’ve been especially impressed with someone I’ve spoken to, I have to admit that those who stayed in my memory were those who made me feel like they were interested in what I had to say. I believed they were really listening.

Have you ever talked to someone who keeps glancing over your shoulder as if he is looking for someone who might be more interesting or more important, right? Sometimes people just glance around the room, instead of staying focused on the speaker—either way, it leaves a very negative impression. So, keep your gaze on the person you are speaking with. This will also help you stay focused on what they are saying instead of concentrating instead on what you are going to say next.

Ask Questions

Asking questions will make others feel that you care about their opinions (don’t interrupt when they are answering either). For example, if someone asks you a question answer and then ask them a question in response, even if it only to ask them how they are doing, as long as you are genuinely interested you will show respect and caring. Both are wonderful traits in a leader. Once you start really listening (and not discounting opinions before the speaker has completed speaking) you will find you will receive some great idea and many of them will be worthwhile. Also, the more often you ask for opinions, the more likely people around you will feel in sharing their ideas.

Implement Feedback

When you sincerely ask questions, you will get feedback (especially once you have established trust so that your staff and co-workers know you are sincere). Your next step, after listening carefully for understanding, is to take action on that feedback whenever possible. Sometimes it won’t be possible, but you can always acknowledge the input and thank them for it.

In our company, some very useful feedback from our contractors has helped us to improve our services—all because we have always made it a habit of asking for feedback and encouraging suggestions. We always take that input seriously, and if, after serious consideration we find we are to incorporate someone’s suggestion, we get back with them and thank them for their suggestion and let them know why it isn’t something we are able to implement at this time. This acknowledges the input and encourages them to continue to give us suggestions. We actually have an area on our company Intranet called “Inspiration Station” where anyone can send us suggestions or feedback on any aspect of our services or processes. We definitely listen—even if it is from an electronic conversion via email, instant message, or webinar meeting.

Consider adding similar functionality to both your staff Intranet as well as your school websites. If you allow anonymous feedback, you may find that you get more honest and open comments. While you may also receive suggestions and feedback on your school social media, since that isn't anonymous it may not be quite as honest. Also, if you get suggestions that you can act on, be sure you acknowledge those suggestions and let them know you appreciate the great input and describe how you were able to implement those (as well as results, if any). This will encourage more positive suggestions and will provide proof that you are listening and open to feedback.

Let every conversation be like a first date

Basically, much of our success as leaders (and teachers, parents, friends) will come from how well we listen. Our failure or success will be determined before we do anything at all. As a leader, this one skill will separate you from the crowd and take you to the next level. We’ve all been good listeners at some point, and it is often during a courtship or early in a relationship or when we are conversing with someone who is important to us (our boss, someone we admire). We listen and are highly invested in hearing exactly what is being said. Make your conversations like that—just pretend you are on a first date and your highly capable listening skills will be in top form!

Nicholas V. Luppa has said, “Just being available and attentive is a great way to use listening as a management tool. Some employees will come in, talk for twenty minutes, and leave having solved their problems entirely by themselves.”  My husband has perfected this skill—that is how he has helped me brainstorm solutions for 42 years. He’s the best listener I know–often without ever saying a word.

Make "Active Listening" part of staff training

Whether you provide training as part of staff development or include it in school-wide customer service training (which would improve your school brand and have a positive impact on your school marketing efforts as well), be sure active listening is part of that training. This can be done as an explanation followed by role-playing and become a fun and effective exercise. 

Imagine how effective listening skills can improve teacher-parent relationships and help school office staff to provide better customer service to parents and prospective enrollees! School leaders need to set the example, so begin with yourself and see what a difference it can make in your own life first. Then, implementing training for others will be easy because you'll have set the example.

Practice these steps to get started:

Pay attention:

  • If the conversation is face-to-face, look at the speaker directly.
  • Put aside those distracting thoughts. (Even if this means repeating in your mind the words being spoken to force you to stay in the moment.)
  • Don’t mentally prepare your response.
  • Don’t let other environmental factors distract you (don’t check your phone or computer, for example).

Show that you're listening:

  • If face-to-face (including video conferences) nod occasionally, include smiles and other facial expressions, note that your posture is open and inviting.
  • Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like "yes" and "uh huh."

Provide feedback:

  • Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “So, it sounds like you are saying…” or “I understand you to mean…” or “Let me be sure I understand. What I’m hearing is…” are great ways to paraphrase what you heard and give the speaker a chance to clarify.
  • Ask questions on points that need clarification, “What do you mean when you say…” or “Is this what you mean?”
  • Periodically summarize the speaker’s comments.

Defer judgment:

  • Don’t interrupt. It is a waste of time. It will frustrate the speaker and keep you from understanding the message.
  • Let the speaker finish each point before you begin to ask questions. (If you are afraid you’ll forget your questions, make a few notes to ask when they finish).

Respond appropriately:

  • Active listening helps you gain information and perspective. It is a model for respect and understanding—so it is worth the effort to perfect.
  • Be candid, honest, and kind in your responses.
  • Treat the speaker in the way you think he or she would want to be treated (failing knowing that, treat him or her how you would like to be treated).

For more articles on school leadership tips, check out the following blog posts:


Some great quotes on listening:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stephen R. Covey

“Instead of listening to what is being said to them, many managers are already listening to what they are going to say.” Anonymous

“At the bottom of things, most people want to be understood and appreciated.” The Buddha