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The Most Underrated Skill We Need to Grow Relationships

Abraham Lincoln was a great speaker.

He told stories that endeared people to him.

His speeches from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the Gettysburg Address impacted millions of people during his lifetime and beyond.

But as good of a speaker as he was, he was an equally effective listener.

Lincoln maintained an open-door policy with the soldiers fighting to preserve the Union during the Civil War. He made a concerted effort to allow the soldiers to tell their stories and voice their concerns whether he was in the White House, visiting the soldiers’ hospital, or making an appearance on the front lines of battle.

The strength of his listening skills was also displayed when he selected his cabinet members to form his “team of rivals.” This was not an attempt to manipulate these men, but rather an attempt to truly learn more by listening to people who held different principles and values.

Lincoln is credited with saying, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” Well, in order to get to know people better and improve relationships we must be able to listen and be empathetic.

The Challenge

So here’s a challenge for ourselves as teachers and coaches:

Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 on the skill of LISTENING and being EMPATHETIC. How can becoming a better listener help more people hear what you have to say? How can listening to others help them find their greatness?

This challenge comes from our fundamental of success of Growing Character Skills.

Listening and Empathy

One of the best ways we can strengthen our relationships with our students is by understanding they want to be authentically seen and heard.

And two of the character skills which can help us accomplish this are listening and empathy.

These are definitely two distinct character skills yet, they are closely connected. In order to have empathy, we most definitely need to be able to listen to other people and hear their stories. And while there are many reasons to listen to people, perhaps the most important reason is so we can have an appreciation and respect for others.

Education has definitely changed in the last few decades. One of the ways I believe it has changed for the good is by moving toward a more student-centered focus.

If we want to put the students first, we must be able to listen to them.

In order to differentiate instruction to meet them where they’re at and in the best way for the student, we need to listen to them.

If our goal is to serve students, we have to be able to know them on a personal level and understand their stories. This means we must listen to them.

Listening to someone doesn’t mean we automatically have to agree with everything they say. It doesn’t mean we have to believe everything they say. And it doesn’t mean we can’t enforce boundaries and apply consequences.

Thinking and Listening Gray

One of the tools we can use to listen well comes from Steven Sample’s book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. The tool is thinking gray, which is gathering information and not making a decision until a decision is required. Part of being able to think gray requires us to listen gray as well. This means we are able to listen without giving an immediate response.

Has this ever happened to you? You have reacted to something a student says or does and would have wished you would have taken the time to listen gray and think gray before responding and making a decision?

Thinking gray requires us to gather as much information as possible through listening before we make our decision. Then, we can use empathy to make a decision that includes the stories of all involved. Ultimately, this decision should be what we believe is best for everyone involved and one which follows our integrity.

Show We Care

There’s an old expression often used in education: “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

One of the best ways to show we care about someone is to listen to them. When we take the initiative to listen, it will open up doors and allow us to mentor our students and lead them more effectively.

Finally, using listening and empathy as leaders allows us to help others find their own greatness.

Really, this is our job as educators.

Sure, we may be teaching science or history. We may be teaching them the skills of a sport. But in the end, we are teaching them how to navigate the world and find their own greatness so they can share it with the world and make a positive impact.

We are helping them write their own stories.

So how about you?

How would you rate your current level of both listening and empathy? How can being a better listener help other people hear what you have to say as a mentor and leader? How can listening to others help them find their own greatness?

When we talk about writing our own story, it may sound like a selfish thing. It is actually about searching for the purpose we were created for and the gift we were born with to share with the rest of the world.

By learning, growing, and changing into a better version of ourselves and by strengthening our character skills, we are able to expand our capacity to provide value to the people in our lives.

However, our gift does not always have to be something we produce or a job we do.

Sometimes our gift can simply be WHO we are and how we interact with people…like being a great listener and using empathy in our relationships to help others step into their own greatness.

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Jon Barth

Jon Barth

Teacher - Coach - Mentor

I love to share stories, tools, and resources to help students become leaders who make a difference in the world by giving away their gifts and abilities.

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