Transforming Instruction

by Sandra Herbst

I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation.  Not mediation, negotiation, problem solving, debate, or public meetings.  Simple truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.  We have the opportunity many times a day, every day, to be the one who listens to others, curious rather than certain.

Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future by Margaret Wheatley, 2002

In my recent travels and as I connect with teachers, administrators, and support staff across the country, people often ‘open up’ about issues or challenges that they are facing.  It may be because we enjoy a certain anonymity.  It may be because they know that confidentiality is a basis of my work.  It may even be that I am flying off the next day and that we would have very few acquaintances in common.

Regardless of the reason, I recently found myself in a familiar situation.  While in conversation with a teacher, she began to tell me about something in her work life that she was finding difficult to deal with.  She framed some of the details and went on at some length to express her feelings.  I did not know her well and was not familiar with her context.  However, I knew that it was important to let her know that I was listening to what she was saying.  Offering advice or telling her a story that would match or rival hers are not hallmarks of active listening. So I did the only thing that would make sense in this situation.  I paraphrased.

My first paraphrase was one of emotion.  I simply said, “So for you, this is a very frustrating situation.”  She sat up straighter and leaned closely into me and said, “Yes, it is very frustrating.”  She continued and when there was a break in the conversation, I paraphrased the content of what she had just said.  She nodded and corrected me when I did not get it totally right. This then framed the rhythm of the next 15 minutes. She would say something and I would paraphrase.

At the end of the time together, she thanked me for helping her.  But in truth, I did nothing of the sort.  I did not suggest a course of action, I did not relate a similar story, and, in truth, I did not even ask her a question.  I had simply and fully listened.  And for many people, it is powerful to have someone listen and to be in complete rapport.

When we paraphrase, we are indicating to the person with whom we are talking that we are walking alongside them.  We care enough to let the conversation be totally theirs.  And when we paraphrase, we don’t begin with the well-worn phrase, “So what I hear you saying is…”.  Instead, we carefully choose our words to either acknowledge the emotion or the content of what was said.

For me, I often begin my paraphrases with this stem, “So for you…”  This reminds me that it is about them and not about me.  Some examples related to emotion might include “So this is an anxious time for you” or “So right now you are excited about the possibilities.”  Other examples related to content might be “So you have been working hard on that aspect of your job.” or “So this has been a busy time for you and you are wondering how you can keep up this pace.” or “Working with others and giving of your time and talents is a way that you contribute to your community.”

A paraphrase is always shorter than what was originally said and highlights the message. And believe me, if you do not get it right, the person with whom you are speaking is definitely going to correct you or add to what you said.

The skills of paraphrasing are ones that I learned from colleagues like Diane Phillips and John Dyer.  They were Cognitive Coaching Associates and their modelling and teaching certainly contributed to my leadership ‘tool kit’.

I focus on this topic because I have had many conversations like this since the beginning of the school year.  Teachers work hard on behalf of their students and communities every day.  And every day we encounter joys and challenges.  These joys and often the challenges form the basis of conversations with each other.  Time and time again in my work with educators, I am reminded of the power of the paraphrase.  My goal is to engage in a genuine and authentic way that leaves others knowing that I care about them, that I understood (even though I may not know any details of their situation), and that I am “with them” 100%.