8 Ways School Leaders Can Practice Empathy in Listening

By Valerie Brown, JD, MA, ACC
“…when we learn how to listen more deeply to others, we can listen more deeply to ourselves.”
~ Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
Research on listening indicates that the we spend about 80% of our waking hours communicating:

  • Writing 9%
  • Reading 16%
  • Speaking 30%
  • Listening, to people, music, TV, radio, etc. 40-50%

About 75% of that time we are forgetful, pre-occupied or not paying attention. One of the factors influencing this statistic is that the average attention span for an adult in the United States is 22 seconds. It’s no surprise to note the length of television commercials is usually anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds.

School Leaders: Listening & Empathy

This article is an introduction to empathetic and active listening as an essential skill to bolster greater connection, rapport and trust for school leaders. Like you, I’ve attended many “active listening” workshops and professional development trainings, and the basic instructions are something like this:

  • Pay attention
  • Lean forward with interest
  • Make eye contact
  • Affirm the speaker quietly with a head nod or ‘hum’
  • Occasionally restate the speaker’s words or key phrases
  • Repeat

Sometimes this can all be great advice, and other times this approach can feel wooden and mechanical, diminishing understanding and trust.
An important first step in developing empathic listening begins with developing empathy, kindness and acceptance of ourselves as school leaders. Before we are able to build bonds within organizations and teams in stable times or times of transition and change, we must build bonds of support for ourselves. Before we can thoughtfully consider others’ feeling, we must thoughtfully recognize and understand our own feelings.
With empathy, school leaders are in a better position to consider not only others’ emotions, but their needs and values–again, strengthening true connection even across cultural, racial, gender, and ethnic differences.
Empathetic Listening Practice
Expressing genuine interest in another person fosters empathy and connection. This practice is especially well-suited for difficult conversations and for expressing support. Research suggests that using this practice can help others feel understood and can improve relationship satisfaction, supporting outstanding school leadership.
How to Practice Empathetic Listening
Find a quiet place where you can talk without interruption or distraction. Invite a conversation, following these steps. You don’t need to cover every step, but the more you do cover, the more effective this practice is likely to be.

  1. Paraphrase. Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, pause and paraphrase or mirror back what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is…” “It sounds like…” and “If I understand you right….” Be careful to avoid parroting, which can sound phony.
  2. Ask open questions. An open question is a question that you could not possibly know the answer to. Examples of open questions include:  “What did you learn from that experience? How did that shape your opinion?” Open questions move the speaker into a new way of thinking. When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on his or her thoughts and feelings.
  3. Express empathy. If the other person voices strong feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why he or she feels that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in his or her position. You might respond,  “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”
  4. Use engaged body language. Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment, such as checking your phone. Be mindful of your facial expressions: Avoid expressions that might communicate disapproval or disgust.
  5. Avoid judgment. Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it. Try not to interrupt with counter-arguments or mentally prepare a rebuttal while the other person is speaking.
  6. Avoid giving advice. Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard. Offering unsolicited advice is often counterproductive and diminishes connectedness.
  7. Take turns. After the other person has spoken and you have engaged in these active listening steps, pause, and ask if it’s okay for you to share your perspective. When sharing your perspective, express yourself as clearly as possible using “I” statements. It may be helpful, when relevant, to express empathy for the other person’s perspective.
  8. Mindfully observe what happens:
  • Notice when you choose to listen and when you become distracted.
  • Notice what it’s like to give a person your undivided attention without advising, correcting, or fixing.
  • Notice what happens in the communication when you interrupt and what happens when you don’t.
  • Notice what happens when there is a lull in the conversation, and you ask, “Is there more?”
  • Notice what happens when you let go of your agenda, and instead focus on being present.

Real Listening Is Not Easy

Real listening is hard because it is increasingly difficult to focus due to constant distractions and because attention is fractured. Linda Stone, the former Microsoft executive, coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe this phenomenon. In other words, attention is seldom fully focused.
To listen deeply in this way is to recognize our shared humanness, and to discover for ourselves our own propensities, the building blocks of relational trust. We move from positioning ourselves to allow another person to speak to extend welcome and hospitality even where we disagree, feel triggered or challenged. Parker J. Palmer, educator and  founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, has asked a vitally important question:  “What does it take to build relational trust? It takes people who are explorers of their own inner lives…”
Valerie Brown is Principal of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC. Follow her on Twitter: @ValerieBrown951.
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