Nicole Furlonge is perhaps the best at helping us forget what we think we know about listening and leadership. A professor and director of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, Furlonge’s work focuses on becoming a better listener and, by extension, a better leader.
Listening to leadership is not a simple default, and it should not be confused with silence. It is a genuine, multi-layered repertoire that can be applied by leaders who wish to serve others, build communities, and address uncertainty.
Listening leaders proceed with humility, integrity and precision – just what we need at a time when schools are back in business, but certainly not in the clear in terms of everything we have dealt with during the year 2020 -2021. A solid year of good listening should be on every leader’s agenda. Furlonge is an essential guide and resource.
Earlier this year, we talked about the deep background of Furlonge’s work with what you call “listening leadership”. In this follow-up conversation, we explore the practical applications, limitations and future of listening in adjacent schools and organizations.
Listening is an active practice for school leaders
Furlonge: Listening is a priority skill and ability. It places leaders in the grip of what it means to center the investigation in their practice, what it means to tune in to all the constituents for which they are responsible. And then filter, make sense and make decisions with that information. As a listening leader, we are reminded that we must tune in to the growth margins of others, their ability, their effectiveness.
Whenever we start this work with a cohort at the Klingenstein Center, the students say, “Oh yes, we know … you don’t come in and change everything, you wait.” This is a misconception about listening. True, you do not go in and demolish everything for your goals. But listening is actually a very active practice. The very act of listening signals to other people how you are entering that space and gives you a way to be actively alive in that space while making sense of things, while connecting with others.
The repertoire of the listening leader
Furlonge: Listening is a dynamic repertoire of practices in contrast to a type of skill that we always practice in the same way. For example, active listening is wonderful when it helps people ask, “How do I tend to a moment?” or “How am I careful?” But it can also become a kind of performative.
If we were to stick with the usual descriptors, active listening is part of the listening practice, but so is reactive listening. This is the responsiveness of being in a moment and being aware enough to think about questions like:
- What are the different dynamics that are happening here?
- How do I allow myself the space to make sense of them?
- How can I check in with people so I don’t assume what they just said but make sure I understand the implications?
- How am I in my own way while listening?
There are layers to this practice that involve more than just one way of listening. There are listening practices that make us more aware of the dynamics we are encountering and the filters we carry in every situation by virtue of the fact that we are human and interact with the world through the filters.
The key is: how can we become more aware of those filters in order to mitigate bias or be open to a conversation that may be challenging for us or are we willing to give feedback to people in ways they can hear? These are practical spaces in which listening could manifest itself.
Listening as a way to grasp everything more fully
Furlonge: We often filter based on convenience or ease, but a filter can also be our questions, the ones that allow us to analyze. The point is to strive to disaggregate, to make a deeper sense to find a different way of thinking and, ultimately, the truth.
This is part of what I appreciate about the writers I have edited in my book “Race Sounds”. In Toni Morrison’s “Jazz,” for example, his narrator tells the story of the book for the entire novel, and in the end he says, “I did a terrible job. I created these characters because I had assumptions about them and I got it all wrong. “
For me the position of not knowing is vital in listening because there is always something else to pay attention to. More often we can say to ourselves, “I have noticed this, I have tuned in to this area. But if I’m tuning in here, there’s a lower frequency that I might be missing. “Or” I don’t always understand everything and I need other listeners with me to make a fuller sense of the whole. “
I think culturally we tend to downplay the listener. We have this notion that it is the passive place to be, or if you are listening you are not really participating or acting. What I want emerging leaders to understand is that, to truly lead, one must be tuned into the space they are called to lead in. Otherwise, you don’t know what you are driving or who you are driving or who you are driving for.
During the pandemic, I started working with museums. These institutions still existed, but no one could access them. The really interesting thing about museums at the time is that they started asking questions like, “What does it mean to be an institution when the very people you serve can’t come to you?” and “How do you still serve and what’s your public face at a time like that?”
They then began to listen to their constituents, and in that world as well, to begin to discover what it means to be a patron of the arts and how this is accessible or not, in perception or in reality.
And so some museums, like some schools, have started to think and reimagine how they then show themselves in the world they find themselves in instead of stating who they are against the world they are in or despite the world they are in.
On the importance of separating silence from listening in post-George Floyd school and society
Furlonge: After George Floyd’s murder, there is this incredible request to speak. If you don’t speak, your silence speaks differently. What I want to clarify is that listening is different from the figure of silence that appears in this speech.
You have to be quiet to listen. But listening is not silence. Listening is not absence. Listening to finish with a voice, as a leader, as an institution that resonates with the challenges of this moment, is what is important. Instead of saying what comes up first, I suggest taking stock of what the job actually is so that your voice is even more robust than it otherwise would be.
After George Floyd, we have seen people and institutions make their first statements, and this was important. But then, how does the work sound afterwards? When we just make one statement, and then we go back to work as usual, and then something else happens, and we make another statement, and then we go back to work as usual, this is an unbalanced approach because we are not taking ours. statements, our aspirations for systemic change and put them into practice.
We can think of this as a system of involvement that goes back to the idea of logos, the balance of speaking and listening. We need the voice. We also need listening to continue to make sure we are not only facing the same problems we have now, but also listening forward for what could be a more equitable and inclusive future.
At the limits of listening
Furlonge: I am quite an optimistic person, even in difficult times. But I also know that listening discovers the improbable, the impossible, the seemingly intractable challenges we encounter.
Listening is not Pollyanna. It discovers what is possible, but it also helps us recognize that in the world we want to change, there are places that will not move or that will be immensely difficult to move.
Listening as a practice is obviously what I would like it to be dynamic. We must also recognize that being included in a listening practice involves recognizing the moments when you need to turn to something else or to listen to someone else rather than your own.
On the importance of tuning in to times and systems
Furlonge: Part of attuning to people as a leader – as a listening leader – is being aware that different timelines are happening. We speak of “faculties” as if there were only one homogeneous group. Instead, we have faculty. Everyone in each room, in their own place, enters a meeting with a different attitude, a different propensity, a different willingness to want to be there. Tired, not tired, children at home or in another room, on Zoom.
I appreciate that schools want to improve hiring, for example. There are some quick improvements a school may be able to make in the short term. But what about hiring an immediate need to hire? How would this lower the room temperature a bit, allow us to gather some data, say, about our past three or five years of hiring practices? Because the thing we say we are trying to change may not even be the area we need to change.
If we think of schools as ecosystems, they have different modes of development, growth, germination; they have different seasons, too. And so how can we become more aware of those ebbs and flows, the currents, the movements through the ecosystem and what needs to be strived now versus later?
Moving from English Class to Educational Leadership and its Future
Furlonge: When I first came to my role at the Klingenstein Center, part of my consideration was leaving the English classroom. This is my world. I make sense of the world through books and writing. I really felt a deep connection with the amazing students saying, “You’re not just scanning the page, you’re listening to it; you are bringing your full experience into this text. “I was wondering if I would ever be able to talk about literature and listen again. Not,” How am I going to do it? “but” How could this be a genuine space of inquiry for the leaders? ”
Being in the space of education and leadership allowed me to think about how this could happen. I also started teaching a listening class at Columbia’s Medical School. Their students take narrative medicine literature courses to learn how to be better doctors, in an interesting enough way.
In these spaces, I was able to think about what it means to authentically engage in this work – through literature, through culture, through music – to make people ask themselves: “What could be the value of listening practices for my leadership practice? To my being in the world? “
It was a wonderful experience to be able to hear the work I was doing in a space in a way that allowed me to see the possibilities, at least, and how they might play out in school management. We’ll see where it goes from here. Let’s hear how this work begins to show up in schools.