Any successful collaborative relationship is grounded in effective communication. Whether your goal in a school is to enact positive change in lunchrooms, strengthen wellness and nutrition programs, or engage in any other cooperative project, it is essential to first establish a foundation of respectful, open communication and partnership with key stakeholders within the school. Depending on the nature of the intervention, these stakeholders could include the school food service leadership, school administration, custodial staff, teaching and support staff, parent organizations, or select students. When making contact and planning projects with representatives from any of these groups, use reflective listening strategies (also called “active listening”) to establish trust and communicate your interest in their perspective. This will help you understand their experiences, goals, project ideas, and concerns. Your appreciation of their point of view will then enable you to develop a shared vision that addresses those concerns, giving them a sense of ownership and investment in the outcome. Ultimately, this “buy-in” will establish positive partnerships and help ensure that the chosen course of action is implemented and supported in your absence.
As such, reflective listening is a valuable communication skill. It takes time and practice to master, but pays huge dividends. Here’s how to do it.
Reflective listening focuses on listening to understand, rather than listening to respond. Using reflective listening demonstrates that you respect your conversation partner and are interested in learning their ideas. It helps put them at ease, especially when there may be an age gap that reflects differences in life experience and thus might hinder them from otherwise sharing ideas openly. Reflective listening requires you to shift the focus of conversation away from yourself, in order to make the most out of initial meetings with stakeholders.
When you are first meeting with a stakeholder such as a food service leader, keep your talking to a minimum, and use the words you do say to encourage them to share further. Always encourage your partner to continue their train of thought rather than inserting your own ideas. They should be speaking 80-90% of the time, not 50-50%–you already know your own ideas; your goal is to understand theirs. Constantly switching the focus on the conversation back and forth to get an “even” split of time can be extremely distracting or intimidating to people who are uncomfortable with public speaking and need some extra time to develop their thoughts. Instead, let them know you are interested in hearing their side all at once, and you can share your responses at the end once you comprehend their point of view. This will also help you focus fully on what they are saying, versus dividing your attention by simultaneously composing your own responses, so you will remember their words better afterward.
Encourage them to share with these four techniques: restating, summarizing, reflecting, and offering minimal encouragers. Restating means repeating their specific ideas in your own words to ensure that you are fully understanding their thought process. For example, you could say, “Let me make sure I’ve understood the issues/goals you’ve described so far,” and then rehash what they’ve explained so far; this will ensure you are on the same page and to give them a chance to correct any misunderstandings. Summarizing is a similar technique, when you paraphrase their main ideas. For example, you could say, “If I’m understanding correctly, the most important change you’d like to see is…” This way, they have a chance to clarify what their own biggest concerns or most critical visions are, even if they didn’t initially describe them explicitly as such. Reflecting is acknowledging how important the information they are sharing is to them, for example by saying, “That award was well-deserved” or “That feedback must have been difficult to hear.” Minimal encouragers are little words that subtly prompt them to keep going and give more detail, such as “Ah, I see. And? Then?” The accompanying worksheet gives examples of each of these techniques.
When practicing the reflective listening strategies, avoid these communication blockers. Quick reassurances, while seemingly harmless, only work to invalidate someone’s concerns. Instead of saying, “Don’t worry about that,” acknowledge that an issue worries your partner and make note to address it later. Additionally, advising and preaching can both be disempowering to your partner, as you could come off as overbearing or divert their train of thought. Interrupting signals that you are not invested in what your conversation partner is saying. One way to prevent yourself from inadvertently interrupting is to take a full breath after they’ve finished speaking. This can help you confirm that they have finished a thought and are not simply pausing.
Reflective listening takes practice, and therefore it can be helpful to exercise with a partner. Work with a colleague, giving each person a turn to speak for one minute while the other practices active listening. Respond to questions such as “Which aspect of your job makes you most proud?” and “If you could change anything about your job, what would it be?” Then switch roles. Make sure to convey positive body language while both speaking and listening: maintain eye contact, a relaxed but attentive expression, good posture, and calm hands. This can put your conversation partner at ease, which will encourage them to share.
Becoming an active listener will help you establish and develop more productive, constructive relationships that can play a vital role in your efforts to enact change. Refer to the attached tip sheet and reflective listing communication training exercise for more information and guided practice in this important professional skill.
Katie Kuhl, Social Media Coordinator, Smarter Lunchrooms Movement National Office
Erin Sharp, MS, MAT, Curriculum Designer, Smarter Lunchrooms Movement National Office