The Power of Listening

By Zoe Rosenberg

The Power of Listening

I teach art in a public elementary school in New York City. I recently had an experience in which listening led to transformation.

One day, I was contacted by Mrs. Perez,* the mom of one of my students. She was upset and deeply concerned about what her child was learning in class, and whether his assignments were appropriate and aligned with her values. She asked to have a conference by phone with me, my assistant principal, and her son’s homeroom teacher about her concerns. When I arrived for the meeting, I sat down between my assistant principal and my other colleague. We were all slightly tense, and were bracing ourselves, having silently formed an agreement that this would be an uncomfortable conversation. I found myself sitting forward in my seat, mentally rehearsing responses for possible outcomes: “If she says this, then I’ll say that…”.

When Mrs. Perez answered the phone, we each greeted her politely, and introduced ourselves and our roles in the school. She was clearly very agitated, and as she began detailing her concerns, my mind came up with a list of replies: explanations for why my assignments were perfectly appropriate, arguments for how they were a normal part of the curriculum… and so on.

Suddenly, I realized that I was being “right” about my point of view and my posture was defensive. As Mrs. Perez spoke, I had been actively justifying my lesson plans in my mind instead of listening. I took a breath, and the muscles around my jaw and forehead relaxed. My assistant principal followed suit and took a deep breath too, and then my other colleague leaned back in her seat, lowering her shoulders.

I started listening to the woman on the other end of the line. I began to see the mother, and the human being, who was speaking… my strategy of defense dissolved and I was immersed in what she had to say, really listening. I heard notes of anger in her voice, and underneath the anger, genuine fear. I kept listening and I also heard her deep well of love for her son, and her dedication to his well being. The more I listened, the more I felt my heart open.

A funny thing happened… as I started to genuinely listen, the tone of her voice softened, her words slowed down as though she wasn’t rushing to force her point of view in between my silent rebuttals. Her argument wound down and she did something extraordinary: she apologized. Once I actually started listening to Mrs. Perez, she was able to relax, and she realized her reaction had been extreme. As she apologized for her agitation, she stressed the fact that she just wanted the best for her son. I replied that I appreciated how much she loves her son, and assured her that although our perspectives on certain topics might be different, we both have his well being and success at heart.

As I spoke my truth, unrehearsed and unplanned, I felt her listening to me on the other end of the line, too… really listening.

In the end, there was no problem we needed to solve. We became a team supporting this child, rather than combatants. Listening to each other healed her fears as well as my knee-jerk desire to defend my actions. Listening returned us to our humanity.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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I LOVE your story, dear Zoe? I felt I was in the room with you when I read it? So, so lovely?

Thank you for sharing, Zoë! Great example for what listening can resolve! ?

What a great story! Thank you for sharing, Zoe!

Wonderful, many thanks for sharing !?

Thank you for the sweet comments, thank you Ariel and Shya for the opportunity to share and thank you to this whole community for showing me the possibility of listening ?

Thanks so much, Zoe! I got immersed in your words, and noticed how I leant back, too, shoulders, jaw, and forehead relaxed, taking a deep breath. You’re a wonderful person and a wonderful teacher.
Love you, love transformation!!