Now is the time to rediscover the lost art of Listening

Posted: May 19, 2020 Filed under:

As schools and academies start to return from the Covid 19 lockdown Gary Edwards highlights the importance of equipping leaders and managers with deep listening skills and strategies to enable staff to share their personal experiences, explore their worries and process their emotions.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

“The earth has music for those who listen”


The first morning for a school returning to reopen after the Covid 19 lockdown is likely to feel like a September Inset day where every single staff member has had the worst possible summer break imaginable. Using Shakespeare’s metaphor (above) the music could well resemble a discordant cacophony. The same atmosphere could equally apply not just to all schools and academies but to every other organisation and business, public and private sector that has had to close through the lockdown.

Everyone will have been affected in some way, many will have had very difficult personal experiences. Some will have had the sad loss of a close family member or friend, some may be worried about colleagues who cannot return yet because they are shielding. Some may feel guilty, perhaps from ‘enjoying’ the lockdown or even from surviving it when others haven’t. Most, if not all will be thinking, possibly worried about how to adapt to the ‘new normal’ at work and in everyday life.

Everyone will have stories, many will need to tell their stories, possibly just to offload the underlying hurt or trauma and they will need people willing and able to listen. For schools, staff just won’t be in the right place to even think about timetables, PHSE, new pupils/students, curriculum, new policies etc let alone get into planning lessons or interventions or the million and one other actions so necessary to reopen. Again, this will be very true for every other organisation and business.

Kate Murphy in her brilliant book, ‘You’re Not Listening’ (2020) talks about the lost art of listening. This loss is partly because we are human and take for granted such an everyday, natural activity, especially one that we all believe we do well. It is also due to the frenetic, noisy pace of modern life and also partly arising from other factors such as the constant distractions from technology. Consequently, Murphy observes we “tune things out or listen selectively” so that we only partially hear the message and we miss important cues.

Yet now is exactly the time when people will need to be listened to and in a way that really helps them to process their thoughts, feelings and worries so that they feel fully understood and supported. Murphy says that this is something we all crave, “to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention.”

Julie Starr (The Coaching Manual, 2011) talks about deep, active listening where you are fully engaged and focused in listening to the other person. Your attention is fully on this person and you are able to push out all distractions. You are listening not just to what but also how they are saying what they do, to the point that you are getting a real sense of who they are. Gill Hasson (Brilliant Communication Skills, 2015) refers to this as ‘mindful listening’ which gives the process a rich, fully two-way perspective when considering the skill of listening within a mindfulness framework.

Raquel Welch famously commented, “You can’t fake listening. It shows!” This depth of listening is a high level skill and one, like any skill that will benefit from practice and probably from training as well in the same way as the popular story of someone when asked how to get to Carnegie Hall replied, “just practise, practise, practise!”

Here are two simple activities that can help you and others to practise and to rediscover the “lost art” in readiness to listen deeply to the stories and worries your staff will need to tell. Firstly, on an occasion when you are out somewhere, take the opportunity to really focus on your listening to the sounds and noises around you. This may be when you are out on your daily exercise, when queuing to shop or at any time or place that feels right for you.

Conscientiously focus on the listening. Listen out for sounds that are far away and hold your listening out there. Try to scan that horizon with your listening. What do you notice that you have not noticed before? After a while, bring your listening much closer to the sounds immediately around you. This may be the sound of footsteps on the ground or rustle of clothes. Try to push out the noise from further afield. This is a good exercise to train your mind and ears to listen to things that are not immediately apparent.

Make a few notes of what you noticed. What helped or hindered your listening?

Next, quietly somewhere reflect on a time when you felt truly listened to. Who was the listener? What did they do or say that made you feel truly listened to? What was the environment like that enabled you to talk as you did? How did you feel at the time? How did you feel afterwards? Make some notes of this as well.

You can, if you wish, then think about the flip experience, a time when you felt that someone wasn’t listening to you and what they did here and how you felt.

So, what does all this tell you about what you need to do so that, when the time comes and someone really wants to tell you their Covid 19 story you will be ready, willing, and able to listen deeply?

But this is a skill that goes way beyond the current situation. Honing high level listening skills will empower leaders and managers to deal with the challenges arising from the wide and evolving scope of their roles. We need sound information to make important decisions. By not listening deeply we may miss much that is crucial to making the right decisions.

Kate Murphy tells a great anecdote that demonstrates another critical reason for talking less and listening more. Murphy tells of a Texan tycoon, Dick Bass, who spends the entire cross-country  plane journey to Nepal telling the person next to him all about his passion for mountain climbing and the incredible times he’s had, including near death experience in the Himalayas. As they were about to land, Bass realises he hasn’t properly introduced himself and apologised. The other man simply replied, “That’s OK. I’m Neil Armstrong. Nice to meet you”

So, if you are not in the right position to listen, not be able or be open to listening deeply then what crucial information, messages or golden opportunities could you be missing out on?

We can provide a range of support to enable schools and academies in their preparations for the post Covid 19 world. This can include team coaching for the SLT to ensure all key issues are covered, one to one leadership coaching or relevant training, for example our programme to enhance mindful Deep-Listening skills and strategies for leaders and managers:

or contact: Gary Edwards on 07933 220 193 or

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