The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Amy Marsh

Why adults need to be taught how to listen

Active listening is a fundamental skill that many adults struggle with. Amy Marsh discusses how genuine listening can transform classroom dynamics and empower students to engage constructively.

I have previously written about the importance of identity, self-awareness, and culture. These all support creating a culture of inclusion and equity in schools, where relational trust can be built, and everybody feels valued and a sense of belonging. 

However, at the core of all relational work lies the ability to listen. While listening may seem like a fundamental skill possessed by all adults, the reality is that many people are very poor at listening.

The need for active listening 

When trying to create a positive culture and improve a school, leaders have several areas they may need to contend with. Grissom et al (2021) describe in detail the impact of school principals and their effect on student outcomes. As part of their conclusion, they highlight the significance of the importance of relationships and building relational trust, as well as pursuing equity and prioritising the most marginalised students.

Hearing something that provokes a reaction can shut down a conversation and prevent a positive resolution

Both require deep, active listening. With many leadership guides highlighting the importance of building trust and school climate, it is well-known by leadership teams that they need to build trust. This is multi-faceted, and one area which may be taken for granted is the competency of staff to actively listen. 

Active listening involves rephrasing and paraphrasing back; checking for understanding. You can encourage staff to be vulnerable, share concerns, and promote a culture of psychological safety but if they aren’t being genuinely listened to it won’t stick. This is of course the same for students. 

Take a book such as Difficult Conversations, which offers valuable guidance on addressing challenging topics. Surprisingly, a significant portion of the book focuses on listening rather than talking. While preparation for a difficult conversation is crucial, its success hinges on genuine engagement and ensuring each person feels heard.

Understanding emotions and non-verbal cues

Active listening includes trying to read emotions and understanding the motivation of the other person. Another type of listening which is important for educators is resilient listening. Quaisar Abdullah articulates this idea clearly and describes: 

  • staying present when listening to something you disagree with or are reacting to 
  • being cognizant of your non-verbals 
  • how your words are affecting the other person.

When faced with disagreeable opinions, people often respond defensively or disengage from the conversation, heightening the disagreement. Ideally, individuals should be aware of their physical reactions and interpret them. Recognizing personal reactions allows for conscious modification, reducing the likelihood of negative conflicts and enabling both parties to feel heard.

Some people can do this easily, but many people aren’t. They may feel uncomfortable but not be able to connect that physical feeling to a particular emotion or may not be able to describe at all how they feel when hearing something difficult. 

Once you can recognize your reactions, you can start to look for the way your physical response is impacting the person who is speaking (who may get defensive, argumentative, or give up on the conversation themself). The first step to changing behaviour is to recognise it in yourself and others, and then you can consciously modify it. This can reduce the chance of a negative conflict and instead allow both parties to feel heard.  

Applying listening skills in the classroom

Putting this in the context of a classroom, if students feel they aren’t listened to or understood, their emotions rise, and they may give up on connecting with the adults around them. It is a common trope that teenagers feel misunderstood. By genuinely listening, checking for understanding, and questioning to further understand their perspective, you can help to change this in your classes and school. 

This doesn’t mean that you then must agree with the other person or allow inappropriate behaviour to go unchecked. The purpose of genuine listening is to seek to understand another perspective and allow the other person to feel listened to. You can then go on to ask questions which will help them to consider other views or express your perspective and ask that they listen to you.

A topical example is the concern around controversial social media figures who gather large followers of teenagers while expressing deeply unpleasant and disrespectful opinions about whole demographics of the population.

When working with children, it is more important than ever that we can model positive relationships

How do the adults in your school approach this with students? Do they explain how those views are not in line with school values and shut down the conversation? 

The danger of doing this is leaving students with the view that - again - adults don’t understand them, don’t listen to them, and the conversation moves to another space away from adults. 

The warm demander framework

A useful framework for these conversations is the warm demander framework. Instead of shutting down the conversation, get grounded in your values and resilient listening to hear the student. Then ask questions to get them thinking about views in the context of their values and experiences. 

People don’t change their minds because somebody else tells them they are wrong or expresses a negative judgement about their opinion. They might reconsider, however, if you positively engage with them and give them the space to see other perspectives. You can then constructively challenge those views and offer them a choice about who they want to be. 

Graphic created by Etienne Visser.

This free webinar will help you learn more about the warm demander framework, if you are interested. 

Engaging in constructive conversations 

Listening is a skill. It is a skill that can be learnt and improved. And it is the basis of social interaction, including building trust.

Instead of assuming that adults will be well-equipped to listen to each other and students, there is plenty of evidence that many people are not good listeners. Hearing something that provokes a reaction can shut down a conversation and prevent a positive resolution, as well as erode trust. 

When working with children, it is more important than ever that we can model positive relationships and support them in developing the skill of listening and engaging with others constructively. 

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