“True listening requires a setting aside of oneself.”
Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

As an educator, facilitator, and coach, one of the things I appreciate most about working with NSRF protocols is how this work requires us to listen deeply to one another and opens the space for us to learn how to do it and experience the power of it.

We know that listening, listening deeply, is challenging. We may believe that we are being attentive, when, in fact, our mind is busy formulating a response to what is being said or looking for our point of entry into the conversation. We may be analyzing and interpreting what we hear or making judgments. By breaking up our usual patterns of conversing, protocols can disrupt our tendency to relate whatever we hear to ourselves and help us shift to a more open, receptive stance where our own thoughts and opinions don’t get in the way.

When we set agreements such as “be as fully present as possible” and “share the air” or “step up and step back” we make explicit the need to set aside our own concerns for the time being and to be open to others. We set our intention for how we will interact.

To be present as fully as possible invites us to set aside all distractions so we can pay full attention to what is happening in the protocol. We often think of this in terms of mental distractions. I have learned through training and experience as a coach that it can be very helpful to begin by checking in with myself physically, becoming aware of how my body is feeling in the moment, checking my breath, relaxing or softening around any tension, and finding a comfortable and open position to sit (or stand) in. This need only take a moment or two. But as I calm my body, my mind calms too and thoughts or worries tend to recede.

The agreement to share airtime encourages us to self-regulate and stay aware of how and when we contribute. For those of us who are often eager to add our thoughts, the challenge of resisting jumping in may feel uncomfortable initially. If we pay attention without immediately acting on this impulse, we may come to realize that we do not always have to say something. This not only opens up the space for others to speak, but it may well take our listening deeper.  

The protocols themselves clearly demarcate times for listening, for speaking, and for reflecting. In doing so, the structures remind us that we are not engaged in unregulated discussion. Those protocols that do allow for more organic discussion indicate this clearly, and this, too, has a way of reminding us that such discussion is not the norm and has its own time and place.

As the structure of the protocol constrains spontaneous responses it becomes easier to set aside our thoughts, open to the words and work of others, and our listening deepens. It can be a relief to not have to respond and we can listen without obstruction. If we do this often enough, our listening changes even when we’re not participating in protocols and we realize we have much to learn from one another. One teacher I work with described how participating in protocols has affected her:

I know it’s very hard for me sometimes, I just get so excited and I feel like I have to say something. Really taking a moment to listen and hear how that has happened for somebody else or affected that person – sometimes it really surprises me because it is a totally different perspective, like I would never have thought of that. It is nice to hear that instead of always hearing myself talk because I am more than happy to talk about something and let people know how I’m feeling. It’s great to hear things you didn’t think you would hear. It broadens your perspective.

This kind of deep listening has implications well beyond education. Author and radio host Celeste Headlee warns that we are not listening to each other. We have lost the balance between listening and talking and that is contributing to a world where views are polarized and we are losing the opportunity to truly learn from each other. Much of the advice in her TED Talk 10 Ways to have a better conversation can apply to work with protocols.

If as educators we are to truly understand what our students are learning, if as colleagues we are to collaborate effectively with our peers, if as individuals we are to understand and deal constructively with issues and conflicts, then listening, listening deeply, without the intent to respond, without analyzing, interpreting and judging, is crucial. Protocols offer the scaffolding to allow such listening to happen and give us an opportunity to practice and refine this art.

In the silence between there is music;
In the spaces between there is story.

Pay attention:
We are listening each other into being.

from “Tell Me” by Sally Atkins.

About this guest post:  Winifred Hunsburger is Acting Vice Principal of Curriculum at The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Ontario. She has been a certified CFG Coach since 2012 and is co-author of an often-read article in NSRF Connections,  Critical Friends Group work and NSRF protocols help transform The Bishop Strachan School culture. In her spare time, she also consults as a professional coach. She is currently interning to become certified as a NSRF National Facilitator.