Education Opinion

Three Steps Toward Understanding

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 09, 2014 5 min read
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Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right. - Jane Goodall

People say things and do things that offend. It is human nature. But for those in public service, and those who work in service of children, teaching and leading, learning how not to say or do things that offend is essential. There are opportunities for learning how to communicate, how to institute new programs or follow new mandates. Professional development about the use of social media, training from developers of newly adopted programs, and information from the sources of the mandates are all common. Lacking from the list are the skills needed to create and maintain an environment in which the foundation is built upon understanding.

Step 1: Listen
Following the results of the midterm elections, John Boehner announced his intention to lead the Republicans to repeal “Obamacare” and to “likely pass a bunch of bills to carve out some of the most contentious parts such as a tax on medical devices or the individual mandate.” The real legislation, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), is almost a faded memory; it has become known as Obamacare, frequently with distain. Mr. Boehner publically declared that the people of the United States are dissatisfied with it and want it dismantled. There seems to be pretty wide scale agreement that the law isn’t perfect. The Washington Times reported “six in 10 Americans think their member of Congress should work to improve the Affordable Care Act instead of trying to repeal it or replace it with other legislation (35 percent).” On the other hand, President Obama successfully led the passage of the law, requiring over half of the Congress, purportedly representing over half the country.

It appears that there is distorted listening. The POTUS didn’t listen to those who were not in support of PPACA or to those who may have been negatively affected by its passage. It appears that both Boehner and the POTUS are only listening to some, those who are in agreement with them, and not listening to all. True listening gives life to understanding, compassion, and empathy. Wisdom and courage follow. Then political acumen serves all, not some.

Step 2: Listen
A lawsuit was filed against the Pinebush Central Schools in upstate New York accusing them of failing to act when they received claims of anti-Semitic actions against some students. Denying guilt, the district defended itself saying they did, in fact, respond to the inappropriate actions of some students. The district hoped for a dismissal of the case, but in a recent ruling, a judge denied the motion:

Kenneth M. Karas of Federal District Court in White Plains...wrote in an opinion issued on Tuesday that a jury could reasonably find that the children had “suffered severe and discriminatory harassment, that the district had actual knowledge of the harassment, and that the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.” (NY Times).

The judge’s decision raises questions about the district’s claims to have listened. True listening gives life to understanding, compassion, and empathy. Wisdom and courage follow. Then a leader’s power to protect serves all, not some.

Step 3: Listen
During an open house at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, The NY Times reported the principal made the following statement: “if you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to clean your own house.” When parents complained to the Department of Education about this offensive statement, the principal released a statement:

Yesterday at an open house, I made statements, the nature of which was misunderstood, and some attendees were offended. Diversity is an issue that is near and dear to me, and I deeply regret my poor choice of words.

There was no apology here. No one misunderstood what was said. Parents were not complaining about a poor choice of words. In addition to being offended by the sentiment, they should be offended by being accused of not understanding what was said. Their complaints were not listened to by the offending principal, and the response was evidence. True listening gives life to understanding, compassion, and empathy. It allows a leader to hold back the words that should never have been spoken, because words reveal what is hidden, don’t they?

What is Listening?
The political world of John Boehner and President Obama is rife with challenges as is the world of school leadership albeit on a smaller scale. President Lincoln knew how to listen. Here, from the Lincoln Institute is a description of his listening abilities:

Mr. Lincoln was a listener. “Lincoln listened with the same energy that sparked his interest in books,” wrote historian Charles B. Strozier. Massachusetts Republican Henry L. Dawes recalled Lincoln as “as the man open to human and humane influences, pained by the distress and sorrow which filled the land, shedding tears over the terrible sacrifice of life which was the price paid for victories that filled others with exultation.” California Senator Cornelius Cole observed: “His deportment never missed, because it was the expression of his friendly feeling for all. He did not offend because in his heart he felt no animosity for anyone. Always in consultation he was argumentative, but not dictatorial. He was one of the best listeners and was always open to conviction, yet if his own reasons were well founded, and no one had a better reason to offer, he could not be moved. But he was never offensively opinionated.”

We witness polarization, offensive language, and offensive behavior in our world and in our schools. This happens amidst noise of every kind. Perhaps, that noise discourages us from listening well to anything or anyone. Margaret Wheatley observes:

This is a very noisy era. I believe the volume is directly related to our need to be listened to...People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen...We can do our part to begin lowering the volume by our own willingness to listen (p. 90).

Steven Covey’s 5th Habit, “Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood” reminds us that most people want to be understood, first. We tend to want to get our point across.

...And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely.

Listening, with attention and a willing mind and heart, creates space for understanding to grow. Listening is the open door toward finding common ground. But, it takes a bit of humility, the capacity to honor someone else long enough to hear their story. Then maybe, we can really make a difference in the world.

Wheatley, Margaret J. (2002). Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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