Seven of Eight: Listening to Understand

Being home in Canada for a few days gave me a chance this week to watch all of the D-Day coverage of the Canadian troops seventy-five years ago in World War I.  The ceremony at Juno Beach was beautiful, thought-provoking and, most importantly, all about the veterans who were able to attend.  I took the time to watch it all and to really listen. I learned facts that I didn’t know. I understand now more than I did before, even though I thought I had a good understanding of this very historical, important day to all of us.

One of the things that really has stayed with me was the critical role that communication played in this event, and I am sure, many other important moments during this war.  I found one local story of the women who were located here in eastern Canada and  provided the quiet support as code-breakers during the war. IMG_8244The WRENS listened for hours and intercepted messages from German ships and submarines. In this story, the women describe the focus and intentionality of their work (

In chapter seven of Leading with Intention, Jeanne Spiller and I write about the important role that communication plays in school leadership ( It might not be the life and death situations that the Canadian women were responsible for in World War I but it really is a critical skill set when we think about improving schools. One of the advantages that we have when we communicate, different from the women listening to the codes, is that we can ask clarifying questions.  Good listeners ask clarifying questions to be sure that they understand the speaker fully and correctly.  Similar to paraphrasing, good clarifying questions help resolve areas of confusion or misunderstanding.

In coaching situations with school principals, our time together often leads to discussions about critical conversations; times when honest, authentic discussions are necessary. These conversations depend on a leader’s ability to listen with positive intent and truly seek to understand. One common mistake that often happens in a leader’s busy day is “assuming” understanding instead of being sure.

There are many reasons that we misunderstand or miss important facts. It takes focus and intentionality to work at being a great listener, asking clarifying questions and seeking first to understand.  We know that the women in World War I worked every single second to listen with extreme focus and intentionality.  So many lives depended on their ability to listen.  And to think that their communication was extremely one-sided; they could not ask questions or have information repeated. They had to get it right the first time just by listening… by being great listeners.

Lastly, I don’t want to end this week’s blog without saying that the biggest message communicated this week was the critical importance of all of us remembering the sacrifices made by those who served in times of war.  Hearing the stories and personal reflections truly helps us understand.  I know what I have referenced here also happened in other countries as well.  Great leaders are great communicators.  Winning a war depends on this.  So does leading a school.  Have a great week.


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