On Expansive Listening

Clair Ward
Lately I have been exploring the concept of expansive listening. It involves a variety of cues that coax a heavy talker such as myself into being patient in a conversation. Part of my tendency to talk more and listen less is hardwired into my personality, and part of it is a side effect of my profession. As a Head of School, I can be faced with up to 50 small and large decisions a day—some of which have to be made with little context and each of which may have nothing to do with another.

Expansive listening, while challenging, is a way to remind myself to listen with curiosity, with humility, and with a sense of possibility. I admit, it starts out a bit forced when you slow down in a conversation long enough to ask questions like, “Tell me more about why you feel that way,” or “What other solutions did you consider?” But I have been diligently working on this in my adult conversations. 

Fast forward to a moment that I had last week. I was arriving at lunch at the same time as a group of fourth graders. Typically, fourth graders are more focused on getting an advantageous spot in the lunch line at a moment like this, but on this occasion, one fourth grader spotted me and launched right into a conversation that started with the following:

“Ahhh, I have been wanting to talk to you about something. I have an idea,” she said.

Every educator loves it when a student has an idea. I was eager to hear what she had to say, so as we walked, she began her pitch. “I think Shore should have an eternal food fight.”

I wrote that every educator loves it when a student has an idea, but let me be clear that some student ideas are better than others in the eyes of grown-ups—and I am sure that you do not have to work hard to know in what category an idea like “eternal food fight” should go. But instead of summoning the predictable grown-up response listing the 101 ways an eternal food fight would not be safe, or tidy, or appropriate, or even possible—yours truly decided to practice a bit of expansive listening.

Me: “Tell me more about what you mean by eternal?”
Student: “Well, not eternal, just all day.” (Because to a fourth grader all day is an eternity.)
Me: “How would you see this working?”
Student: “We would just gather all kinds of food and find ways to throw it.”
Me: “Uh-huh,” (you use uh-huh and other strategies in expansive listening when you are trying to buy time), “and why did it occur to you that we should consider doing this?”
Student: “Because I have never, ever been in a food fight.”

This entire exchange took about 60-90 seconds and ended quickly when we arrived in the Servery. But it is still with me because of what I noticed afterwards. If I hadn’t used expansive listening:

  • I wouldn’t have been reminded that a full day in the eyes of a child can feel like an eternity.
  • I would have missed the opportunity to step into this student's world and see things from her perspective.
  • I would have missed the challenge of wondering if there really is a way to entertain something crazy like that here at school.
  • And my most important observation about our exchange? If I had spoken instead of listened, I would have spent the precious time that day listing off rules and limitations, instead of having fun during a whimsical moment of human connection.
I well understand that having a food fight on campus could send the wrong message about waste and disregard for a precious commodity—food. But the story I have shared is not really about a hypothetical food fight, or about me or that student. It is about us, the grown-ups. Life is busy, and we have learned that success and sanity come from efficiency. And if we are being honest, we know that we are at times built more to talk at children than to listen to them.

According to the research, allowing children the time and space to describe the world through their own experiences and perspective gives them agency, voice, and confidence. Additionally, it builds their ability to express themselves and advocate for themselves. A Shore education prepares children academically, but the single most defining behavior that Shore students demonstrate compared to their peers is self-advocacy. Any school can teach children to read, think, and count; but Shore wants them to finish with agency and voice. This can only come from listening to them.
    • Ward listens to a second grader visiting the Head of School's office for a video project.