How to Listen Your Way to Better Leadership

Nicole Bevilacqua

New Year Image

I’m not a schmoozer. It’s not in my nature to chit chat idly or drum up conversation where there is none. I have to work intentionally to connect with people.

Because of this, I’ve paid attention to what works and have found one of the fastest ways to connect and build trust with almost anyone is by listening. Lately I’ve been challenged by people around me who don’t listen all that well. They aren’t interested in what I know or think and that’s made very clear through their communication. Here are a few shared qualities of not-so-great listeners:

  • Talking too much.
  • Asking too few questions.
  • Limiting avenues for feedback.
  • Failing to see or understand multiple perspectives.

Listen to Lead

Why is this important? Because real leaders understand: To lead, you must have someone willing to follow.

People follow leaders who speak their language. When you tap into the hopes, fears, dreams, and pains that are most relevant to them and acknowledge their reality using their own words, people will feel heard. 

Tell me what’s important to me and tell me what you’re going to do to help me achieve what’s important to me, and I’ll listen to and follow you.

But tell me what’s important to you and tell me what you’re going to do to achieve what’s important to you, and I couldn't care less.

For instance, you start the school year by telling your staff:

“Last year teachers struggled and students struggled for a number of reasons but it’s your job to be accountable to your students and each other. We believe all students can and will learn. I like to think of us as a family. We take care of each other and our students. It’s a great time to be the leader of this school and I know you all will do a great job and our student scores will improve because of your hard work!”

Great stuff, right? Well, sort of.

I’m sure you noticed the “I” statements and the general tone of telling rather than inspiring.

To get traction with your message, wrap it in the language of your staff. 
  • If staff are complaining that parents don’t trust them or that students don’t want to learn, it would serve you well to acknowledge those sentiments. 
  • If departments are saying that members are competitive rather than collaborative or that they feel undervalued, it works in your favor to repeat that back to them, even if you don’t see it that way. 
  • When staff tell you they want the school to feel like a family that looks out for each other and supports one another, use those words to inspire them. 
Listen to what your staff members are saying about their challenges, problems, and hopes for the school and build that language into your message.

Something like this:

“Last year was a tough year. You had parents who challenged your professional knowledge and experience, students who acted like they didn’t want to learn, and some of you were on teams where the competition was cut-throat rather than collaborative. Some of you feel unappreciated and undervalued. You give your heart and soul to your work and you want me to do the same for you. You want this to feel less like a competition and more like a family. We need to support one another, we need to look out for each other and all of our students. We need to put the needs of others and our kids before ourselves. We are going to improve our school this year by caring about each other like a family. We will fight and we will forgive, we will challenge and we will encourage, we will learn to be vulnerable and grow stronger together and we will be a united and unstoppable force of learning and support for our students and parents.”

That puts a different spin on things, doesn't it? 

Lead with Listening

Examine yourself for a minute. Are there areas of your personal or professional life where you’re struggling with communication? Could it have to do with how well you’re listening? Identify one area of your life where you could listen more fully and set a goal for yourself to build the relationship and trust by listening on purpose.

  1. Ask open-ended questions. If your question can be answered with a simple yes or no, then it's not open-ended. Try starting your questions with how, why, or what do you think... to get a listen-worthy response.
    • What aspects of your job are you thankful for?
    • What was the most challenging part of your job over the past year?
    • Why do you think parents _______?
    • Why do you think students_______?
    • How does it feel when you work with other members in your department? Why?
    • How would you improve your experience if you were in charge?
  2. Be silent and listen. Silence can feel awkward, especially when you've just put a question out there or someone has just finished a sentence and paused. The true beauty of silence is that it allows space for the brain to continue processing. By choosing not to interrupt the silence, your speaker will often generate more to say and open up more fully to you after a period of brief silence. Try allowing 15 seconds of silence to pass before speaking again.
  3. Provide an avenue for feedback and accept it without defense or judgment.  Ask someone to tell you what they think about how you handled a situation or solved a problem. What would they have done differently or how might they have improved the solution?
  4. Listen for and use the language that identifies their dreams and pains, hopes and fears. Take note of the words used by the person or group you are listening to when they describe how they feel, what they think about, what they hope for, or what worries them. Incorporate their own words into your language. Repeat back to them their concerns, their dreams, and their ideas. When you speak the same language, it's easy to move forward quickly.
Generate a list of open-ended questions you can ask staff, students, and parents to identify their hopes, dreams, fears, and pains for the school. Take note of what you hear and consider how you will incorporate their perspective into your message to build a true following.


Nicole is a co-writer of the Advancing Educational Leadership (AEL)  3-day training. She worked at Region 13 Education Service Center in Austin, Texas and blogs at, where a version of this blog was previously published.  

Thursday, June 30, 2016