Sunday, 24 November 2013

Taking the Time: Listening, Caring and Collaborating Our Way Forward

Life often has a funny way of communicating. Its often fascinated me as to how unrelated events seem to combine in just the right way to send a message. Last week, like most weeks, was a blur of activity with many issues to be dealt with; all of them urgent, and all of them requiring information to be directed to the appropriate recipients. On top of the emergent issues, the pressing long term challenges and the daily operational demands there were travel schedules and meetings in other cities to attend. A bit overwhelmed, I wondered if I could stay ahead of the curve or it was just going to run me down.

The American humorist Will Rogers once said "When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole its best to stop digging". Being still can help clear one's mind. It also allows one to hear the messaging going on around them. Last week, I attended the BC School Superintendent's Association Fall Conference. Its theme: "Transforming, Reforming, and Innovating: Leading and Learning Together. Once I got over feeling I was way too busy to be there, I was struck by two recurring messages that all  the presentations seemed to be sending straight to me.  Real communication has more to to with listening than with telling, and relationships based on care and cooperation trump those based on authority every time.

"Nature has given us two ears but only one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak" is a quote attributed to many sources but regardless of who we hear it from, its wisdom is indisputable. I attended a workshop hosted by alternate students from Chilliwack who were discussing things that helped and hindered their connectedness to school. The title of the their workshop was "Nothing About Us Without Us" and their point was it was senseless to try and deal with student engagement issues without talking to the students themselves. One student pointed out that asking staff why students drop out was like asking the chef why his diners didn't like the food. Another pointed out that just repeating a message over and over, or slower and louder, didn't make it any more understandable for those who didn't understand it the first time. "Its like yelling in the face of a deaf person" the student related, "Frustrating for the person yelling and insulting to the person being yelled at".  In our efforts to get the message out efficiently and effectively, we sometimes miss the obvious opportunities for dialogue. And in not listening, the chance of generating a lose lose experience is virtually guaranteed.

The other message was that without relationship there can be no honest communication. Persons in authority have the power to deliver the message, but unless they are genuinely connected to those they work with, the message may be moot. Listening and considering the input of those affected by decisions is critical to to ensuring meaningful collaboration and cooperation.  Cooperation cannot be coerced. While people can and often do rise to the occasion in times of crises, the future of cooperative learning arises out of a feeling of being in something together, not from a sense of being told they must. The implementation of the BC Ed Plan is a case in point. Full of impressive and exciting opportunities for change and innovation, the plan must be implemented in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation or it will face tremendous suspicion and objections. Where a community genuinely cares about and for all its members, and really has each others best interests at heart, coming together and developing a sense of trust is easier to achieve. Simply telling people that they must often instigates resentment. resistance, passivity or inertia.

Returning to my district this week, the challenges I left behind are still there. In fact, I have no doubt some have multiplied and invited a few more to join the pile. However, reminded and inspired by the messages of the past few days, I'll be be listening more, caring lots and seeking out dialogue with those most affected, before I pick up my shovel and start digging again. By doing so there's a better chance I won't find my self alone at the bottom of a hole, but rather working side by side with others to develop new solutions that work for all.


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