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Head of School Blog: Talk Less. Listen More.

Matt Green
On Friday, my family and I had the opportunity to enjoy The Scandalous Truth, a play conceived, co-authored, cast, blocked, set, and performed by a terrific company of middle school students.  I was struck by the comfort level and stage presence of our performers; they were not merely reciting the lines they had memorized, as is typical of a middle school production. Instead, without an ounce of self-consciousness, they inhabited their characters in voice, body, gesture, and motivation.  And, even more importantly, they listened to one another.  

Having been part of a lot of school plays, both as a performer and as a member of the audience, it’s clear to me that what separates good from great is when actors stop taking turns...when they stop waiting patiently while someone else delivers lines until the phrase that cues them to start their own... and they start listening and responding to one another.  I suspect that is why when I wander into a Falmouth Academy drama elective class, Ms. Ledwell or Ms. Prosser and our students are often in the midst of improvisation exercises. Improv removes the safety blanket of scripted lines and forces its participants to truly listen to each other, a habit of mind, a skill, which in today’s society is in increasingly rare supply.  

Think about it.  Falmouth Academy has an entire course devoted to the art of rhetoric, of speaking compellingly and convincingly, but I would contend that the art of listening is equally important to professional and personal endeavors alike.  Former C.I.A. agent and author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, Kate Murphy asks, “When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion?”  

Falmouth Academy’s “No Back Rows” commitment to Harkness-informed education- in-the-round certainly encourages everyone to contribute, but it also requires its students to practice their listening skills.  I was speaking with my wonderful middle school English teachers about the Touchstones discussion format that is introduced to our students each spring.  Described as “a highly structured program designed to build fundamental learning skills, including improved listening, speaking, reasoning, comprehension, collaborative problem solving, and shared leadership in students of all ages and backgrounds,” Touchstones lessons specifically require students to “listen actively and read closely to glean intended rather than expected meaning and consider the implications.”

Murphy would no doubt be a fan of such pedagogy, as she contends that, “listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say.  It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they can do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates with you.”  

Perhaps that’s why the school counselor at my former school, my previous Ms. DiFalco, used to insist on refresher courses for advisors on how to listen, particularly how to listen to adolescents.  Among her suggestions: radiate interest- maintain eye contact, smile, nod your head, be open, not judging. Remaining open and curious about your advisees’ thoughts and feelings will deepen those relationships. Remember; kids are hypersensitive to our judgments.  Start with open-ended questions that encourage your advisee to talk and make it clear you don’t have an agenda. Some examples include, “What might be going on, do you think?” “How does that affect you?” “Can you tell me more about that?” “Here’s what I heard you say.” or two simple words, “Go on.”

This fall, Ms. DiFalco and Mr. Earley conducted similar training with our Peer Mentors, upper schoolers who have agreed to meet monthly with eighth-graders to advise them on and more importantly, listen to the ups and downs of life as a middle schooler.  “Such peer to peer connections and relationship building,” says Ms. DiFalco, “comes from being present in the moment, and actively listening to one another.  The value of active listening lies not just for the person being heard, but also for the person holding themselves in the moment, without pressure to hurry on, staying with their partner's pace.”

I can hear my children now.  Our dad, writing about how to listen?  Physician, heal thyself! But they’ve gotten good at calling me out when I’m drifting. “Dad,” they’ll say, “you’re doing that thing again; you know, when you rephrase the last thing I said as a question before commenting?”  What they are really pointing out is the difference between hearing and listening.  

The title of Murphy’s essay in the New York Times is good advice for us all, so good I stole some of it for the title of this post: Talk Less.  Listen More.  Here’s How.