Transitioning Into a New Role by Conducting Listening and Learning Sessions

Spring is the season when many educators are taking on new roles for the next school year. There is sense of excitement in the magic of possibilities. And, while there might be a tendency to sit down and begin creating plans, investing time in conducting “Listening and Learning” Sessions at the beginning of the transition period can have profound impact in the immediate and future success.

The design thinking process, which is built on a human-centered approach to change, encourages leaders to allocate time in listening to learn from the people currently in the schools and district – students, staff, and community members. While it feel right to meet with people to share about your beliefs, vision, and goals, it’s critical to first take the time to listen and learn.

The goal in the Listening and Learning Sessions isn’t to manipulate conversations or point conversations into a single direction. Rather, it’s meant to get to know the individual, learn about their background and experiences, and allow them time to share their insights and thoughts. Ensuring there is clarity on the purpose is vital. Often, being the new person with a new role can be intimidating, so providing clear expectations with a purpose and framework is vital.

In everything we do, it’s important that the focus, in addition to the work, is building relationships.

Neil Gupta

Here’s an excerpt of an email I sent to members of a team informing them of the Listening and Learning Sessions:

A foundational goal I have as a leader is building positive relationships.  While I even fight my own urge at times to roll up my sleeves and dig into the work, I realize that our true success needs to be built on a mutual level of trust and relationship.  It will take time and multiple conversations, but I believe that the investment in connecting with you individually will be vital up front and as we continue to provide the best education for each student.

Therefore, I’d like to set up a time to meet individually for one hour.  My hope is to keep the “agenda” loose in getting to know you and your background, family, interests, and what you love about your school and community.  Then, we can engage in some dialogue on any of the questions, or anything you’d like to share.  Here are some guiding questions that you may want to reflect on and address during our time together:

  • What are your hopes, fears, and dreams as I lead and work with you?
  • What do you love about being your role?
  • What is going well this year?
  • What has worked well with your relationship with the previous leader?
  • What are three things I should be aware of specifically from your lens?
  • What do you hope I accomplish in the first six months? in the first year?
  • What are the best ways you like to be communicated with?

We definitely won’t get through all of the questions – and, that’s okay! We will have other times to connect.  My hope is that this is the beginning of a lasting relationship, and that we will continue to have open and honest lines of communication into the future through my transition and beyond.

What you’ll notice about the excerpt is that there’s a framework of an agenda, purpose, and an allotted time. But, it’s also loose with a variety of questions that can’t all be answered in an hour. That was on purpose to truly show the desire for the person to select the questions and direct the conversation.

During these sessions, it’s important to not only engage in listening, but it’s also key to be mindful of your body language and expression to things that may be different from what you’ve experienced in the past. Just because it’s different to you and what you’ve experienced, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Think of your goal as being a detective to learn, probe, and investigate. Asking questions to disrupt your assumptions can also be helpful to uncover a new understanding.

Each session will be different, and it’s okay to be flexible in how they are conducted. In some situations, you may need or want to take notes during the meeting. In others, it may be more beneficial to actively listen (without taking notes) and then summarize notes after the meeting. My advice is to track notes on paper – not on a laptop that could create a barrier in the conversation. Regardless, the goal is to listen, build relationships, and identify themes that can help in preparing for the future work.

To identify themes, you are looking for clues that multiple people might share around a certain topic or experience. The more often something is shared, the more of a “priority” or “focus” it may be. Once you’ve conducted the Listening and Learning Sessions, it’s important to share them with the team for feedback. The goal for this step is to see if it resonates with everyone and allows for another opportunity for feedback as well.

Don’t get too caught up in thinking of this as formal steps that need to be taken in lockstep through a process. Instead, approach this as an opportunity to slow yourself down and be in a posture of open listening and active engagement to build relationship and grow in your own understanding.

I’d love to hear your adaption to your plan and take-aways from the process. Feel free to drop a comment or question to continue the learning!

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