January 22nd, 2021

Active listening with empathy

By Submitted Article on February 26, 2020.

Last week I had the opportunity to present and share some ideas with a group of students from our four Westwind high schools at our second of three annual student engagement committee meetings. This committee includes a sampling of students from our four high schools, a few of their teachers and four of our board of trustees.

Student engagement meetings are among my most favourite of the dozens I attend during each school year. During these meetings, I have the opportunity to share, listen and learn collaboratively alongside students on a wide range of topics. The dialogue is fun, applicable and directed by the student’s voice.

During our most recent meeting, I decided to open a discussion based on one of my favourite leadership books, “The Servant,” by James Hunter. Throughout the book, Hunter describes many essential components of servant leadership in story format, and we discussed two elements in particular at length: active listening and empathy. Our students shared great insights and understanding of these topics, and we had a thought-provoking and enjoyable discussion.

Hunter describes general listening by saying that “many people wrongly assume that listening is a passive process of being silent while another person speaks. We may even believe that we are good listeners, but what we are often doing is listening selectively, making judgments about what is being said, and thinking of ways to end the conversation or redirect the conversation in ways more pleasing to ourselves. We can all think about four times faster than others can speak. Consequently, there is generally a lot of noise – internal conversation – going on up in our heads as we’re listening.” How accurate this description is for most of us.

The concept of “active listening” is listening with personal actions. Hunter explains that “the work of ‘active listening’ takes place up in your headÉ active listening requires a disciplined effort to silence all that internal conversation while we’re attempting to listen to another human being. It requires sacrifice, an extension of ourselves, to block out the noise and truly enter another person’s worldÉ active listening is attempting to see things as the speaker sees them and attempting to feel things as the speaker feels them. This identification with the speaker is referred to as empathy and requires a great deal of effort.”

Our students discussed how active listening is taking all the distraction, peripheral noise, cellphones and internal conversation in our head, out of the conversation in order to do as Steven Covey suggests, “seek to understand and then be understood.” Empathy, perhaps one of our most significant human emotions, is described by Hunter as “being fully present with the personÉ this means physically, mentally, and emotionallyÉ it’s not easy to do when there are so many distractions around youÉ when we set aside distractions, even mental distractions, it sends a very powerful message to the speaker that you care. That he or she is an important person. Listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them.”

My interaction with our student engagement committee reminded me that our students, your children, have lots of good things to say, share and teach us. They are smart, intelligent, kind and often just want to be listened to and heard. I encourage all parents to practise active, empathetic listening with your child, and I have no doubt you’ll be smiling with delight as you witness the strength and wisdom of this fun school-aged generation of up-and-coming societal leaders.

Darren Mazutinec is the Superintendent of Westwind School Division.

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