Being a Good Listener: 5 Tips for Special Education Administrators

September 26, 2014 BY Linda Huseby, SHRM-SCP

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”
Mark Twain

Employees are settled, schedules are set, and the school year is humming right along. Even so, it may become apparent to your employees that certain situations aren’t working as well as they could be. As their immediate supervisor, you are likely the first one to hear about an issue. My years in Human Resources have taught me that the way you listen to an employee’s issues matters, and that simply listening the “right way” can solve what previously seemed like insurmountable problems.

Good Listener

Here are my top 5 tips to help you boost your listening skills:

1. Establish Contact First

This step actually happens before any issues arise, but is key in creating an environment in which lines of communication are open and a person feels safe talking to you. Send a quick email to check-in, and offer to come by for a quick chat. An email as simple as, “Hey Judy, I was just looking at your numbers and it sure looks like you’ve got a full plate this year! How are things going? Let me know if you’d like to talk about anything. Thanks for all you do!” can make all the difference in the world by building a collaborative (vs. adversarial) relationship with your staff.

2. Be Fully Present

When you do find yourself in a meeting with an employee, do everything you can to give them all of your attention for the time they’re with you. This might mean putting your computer to sleep and ignoring the buzz of your phone, but it also means facing the speaker, maintaining eye contact, and keeping your thoughts on the conversation at hand. Some people find that taking notes helps them stay focused, while others find it a distraction. What is most important is that your brain is devoted to the person in front of you and not to the grocery list!

3. Maintain an Open Mind

Commit yourself to not forming any opinions on the situation. This is hard work! But your goal is to understand your employee’s point of view, and that is quite a difficult task when you have already formed an opinion. Reminding yourself to focus on empathy and validation can be helpful.

4. Be (Mostly) Quiet

This means no sentence finishing, no interrupting, no bombarding the employee with questions. Use non-verbal communication and little words like, “yes,” and “I see,” to signal that you’re listening. Listen for what is being implied as well as what is being said. When there is a natural pause in the conversation, make sure that you are understanding by paraphrasing what has been said (“What I hear you saying is . . . ”). If you are truly confused, ask questions such as “What do you mean when you say . . . ?” and “Can you tell me more about…? ” 

5. Offer Ongoing Support 

When you both feel like you have a mutual understanding of the issue, ask your employee what they would like to happen next. Often, the act of sharing acts as a solution in and of itself and there is no other action needed. If this is the case, re-assure your employee that you will check back in with them in a month to see how things are going, then set a reminder to do so on your calendar while you are both still sitting there. If the employee has other solutions, make an action plan with a timeline. Again, make sure you both write down what each of you will be doing, when you will do it, and how you will assess progress.

Being a good listener is a skill, and just like any other skill, practice makes perfect. But creating a safe place for your employees to both voice their concerns and create their own solutions is something that will improve your life and those of your employees. Everybody wins!

(Post update 7/6/18)

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