This past year, Lorri Palko has taught several sections of One Schoolhouse’s online course, Building Trust With Faculty. In this course, Lorri advises leaders on how to build professional relationships that support healthy communities of trust. As she prepares to teach the summer sessions of the course, Lorri talked to Sarah Hanawald, One Schoolhouse’s Assistant Head for Professional Development and New Programs, to reflect on what she’s discovered about independent school leadership in the past year.
Academic Leaders have been under tremendous pressure for the entire year. They felt like they needed to perceive what needed to be done, make a judgment call on the action to be taken, and follow through accordingly--and to do all this quickly. This year, there were so many issues that school leaders had to react to and act on quickly that they didn’t realize their fast actions had imperiled some of their relationships with teachers on campus.
In a lot of cases, that happened because leaders didn’t have empathy skills that were adequate for the challenges they faced. Let me be clear--these are kind, caring individuals. Academic Leaders are drawn to their work because they care intensely about their communities and the people in them. But empathy doesn’t mean being understanding and warmhearted. Empathy is our ability to understand what someone else is experiencing, and to put aside our own judgment and perspective. When leaders move fast, especially under stress, it’s all too easy to overlook the way that our unconscious biases and beliefs can get in the way of our ability to really see things from someone else’s perspective.
One challenge for leaders was that many fell into the trap of listening to others with what I call a “Me Focus.” With this focus, the listener isn’t seeking to understand, but is instead focused on their own thoughts, feelings, and judgments. This leads to statements like “I know just how you feel.” The listener thinks they’re making a connection, but the speaker feels unrecognized and unvalued.
Another missed opportunity to build trust is when leaders view a conversation as a problem to be solved rather than an authentic connection with another person. If a leader is focused on constructing a response, they’re not really listening to what the other person is saying. Shifting that focus to asking questions and following another’s lead is what it takes to begin to build empathy.
Effective leaders cultivate self-awareness. Self-awareness is the gateway to being a leader who inspires trust and confidence from others. We cultivate self-awareness by allowing ourselves to recognize and name our emotions. Self-awareness allows us to quiet the inner critic who says, “You’re not good enough, you can’t do this.” When we save space and time for wisdom and intuition to come forward, we give ourselves permission to choose a higher thought and take inspired action.
Self-awareness allows us to access the highest expression of empathetic conversation, which is holistic listening, when you use all your senses and your intuition to truly understand what the other person may be saying, or not saying, but still revealing. When leaders are self-aware, they can bring all of themselves to a conversation--and they can recognize, acknowledge, and honor the complexity and vulnerability of another person’s experience. When a leader can listen this way, then real professional trust can be earned and rebuilt.
Join Lorri for Building Trust With Faculty June 14 - 25, 2021 or July 12 - 23, and learn how to better support teachers who are facing change, disruption, or challenges professionally and in their lives. Participants will learn how to lead affirming coaching conversations that foster healthy, trusting relationships, so that the resulting professional culture provides support for faculty members that mirrors the schools’ concern for and support of students.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)