We talk a lot about listening to children in education. And I have always thought the best early years workers and teachers are those that have excellent observation skills. Whenever I am in a setting or school I observe visual and audible listening skills that can anticipate the individual needs of children and families.
It is these skills that typify great leaders as well. If you notice what is being said and done, or what isn’t being said or done, and consider how people are saying things and doing things, and how they are feeling, you have all the tools you need to connect with children, families, and the people you lead. These tools help you to help them flourish.
Maya Angelou is often quoted, she said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. This is good advice for any leader. It reminds me of the big difference between leadership and management. Leaders inspire people to have confidence and take action themselves. Managers too often tell people what to do, how and when. And this can damage confidence, motivation, and individual responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, we need both in every organisation. Often it is the same person. It could be you, and if it is, this is your juggling challenge that makes every work day different.
The vast majority of people who come to our leadership and management training courses are surprised to find themselves in their positions. Most have never undertaken any such training before. And have learned their leadership skills through a painful process of trial and error. Like most leaders, their route to the top is often because they are great talkers. But once there, the best advice is to shut up! If you are too busy talking at people, or seeking to demonstrate and assert your position constantly, you will not connect with them. They will quickly learn not to talk themselves, which results in you becoming uninformed and out of touch with what is happening and how people feel.
Here are a few thoughts on how to listen really well – my shortlist of personal tried and tested favourites.
- Don’t listen when you’ve finished all your planning and are simply presenting your final ideas
- Involve people early, and listen at the early stages of thinking or developing ideas
- Be open-minded by not assuming what people are going to say before they say it
- Listen to everyone, not just those that you know will agree, and be prepared for different views
- Be patient, give people time to think first and talk later, not everyone likes being the first to speak or thinks on their feet
- Allow people the time to finish their talking – don’t interrupt
- Repeat what you think people have said so you get your listening right first time
- Listen without power – support people to be honest and answer and not just in ways they think you want
- Ask open questions, e.g. what do you think?
In short, the worst leaders talk, the best leaders listen. If you want to find out more, there are lots of books and online resources that support good listening skills. You can apply your best early years or education practice in your people management too.