Some time ago, I wrote the first blog in a series on How to Coach for Equity. I suggested that there are five components to an equity-centered coaching approach: 1) There’s what you see in schools 2) and where you look when you’re in classrooms and schools 3) And then there’s who you listen to and how you listen; 4) cultivating your self-awareness is an essential element of coaching for equity, and finally, 5) there’s what you say about what you see and hear.
In this blog, I’ll describe steps three and four: who you listen to and how you listen, and the kind of self-awareness that a coach for equity needs to develop.
Listening As A Tool for Transformation
A coach for equity needs to listen to all kinds of people and needs to listen in specific ways. You’ll need to listen to students, to their families and caregivers, to colleagues, administrators, and so on. You’ll need to do a lot of listening to understand as best as possible how others experience and make sense of their current reality.
Here’s a simple suggestion: Listen to children first. Listen to children more than you listen to adults. Their voices are heard less and are more frequently dismissed. Listen to the children who don’t speak as much. Listen to those who are alienated, who don’t have many friends, who are kicked out of class and sent to the office. And then listen to their families–to whomever you can get talking–an older sibling, a grandparent, an uncle.
Start with an invitation and remember that your tone of voice carries a great deal of meaning:
- I want to hear your story. I want to know about your experience in our school. Would you be willing to tell me your story?
And then just listen and listen and listen. You can say:
- Tell me more about that…
- I want to better understand–can you explain?
- What do you appreciate about our school? What could we do better? What do you need?
- What’s one thing you wish would change at our school? Who is one person who you feel knows and cares about you here?
- How do you feel when you come to school?
Ways of Listening
In order to listen deeply, we need to learn how to manage our own thoughts and feelings. The first thing we might notice when we begin listening with an intent to interrupt inequities is that we experience a barrage of feelings, many of which might be uncomfortable. We might feel sad. We might feel overwhelmed. Responsible. Complicit. Despairing.
As you listen, notice your feelings. By simply noticing them you can lessen their intensity. Say to yourself, “I notice sadness. I notice anger.” You don’t have to do anything about them in the moment, but see if you can bring enough awareness to them so that they don’t shut you down from listening. Stay in the conversation, in the listening, with your feelings.
Listening for understanding implies accepting what you hear. You accept that the speaker’s truth is their truth, their experience is their reality. This is hard for many of us–we’re inclined to debate, argue, press and challenge, but as a coach for equity, our job is to listen for understanding. Listen until you feel like you are inside the speaker’s mind and heart, until you feel as if you are looking out through their eyes. It’s not going to be comfortable and in fact it might be painful, but this is your job as a coach for equity.
The Talmud says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” And so if everything we see, hear and experience is filtered through our history, identity, beliefs and feelings–then we have a responsibility to know what those are.
Self-awareness encompasses an expansive range of domains. We need to understand how our gender, socio-economic class, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age/generation, and religious traditions affect how we experience the world. This is not easy work, which is why I relentlessly insist that transformational coaches who work for equity need time and community in which to do this kind of learning. We must start by accepting this truth–that in order to interrupt inequities, we need to know who we are and how we see.
You can start this reflection by journaling, talking with others and reading about this suggestion that who you are defines how you see things.
Coaching for equity implies a great deal of self-awareness, of skill building in areas that you might not have considered a part of this work–such as listening and managing emotions. In my Part 3 of this series I’ll offer some thoughts about what a coach for equity says and does.