Listening with Both Hands on the Wheel

By Mike Pinto, IPLI Mentor & Principal at James Cole Elementary

On a trip this summer coming home from Alabama, the car sped north on I-65 through Alabama between Montgomery and Birmingham.  My left elbow rested comfortably on the inside door panel with the hand perched at 12 o’clock on the wheel. Up ahead the typical mid-Friday afternoon traffic provided a path to follow as my wife and I proceeded on our journey.  Then a sprinkle hit the windshield, then another, and soon, like splatters from a pan of bacon, the windshield began to become dotted with precipitation. The windshield wiper went from occasional use to low and before too much longer rain pelted the windshield in a furious torrent. At this point, my posture straightened in the driver’s seat, my elbow moved off the door panel to my side with the accompanying hand moving to the 10 o’clock position and my right arm, which was resting comfortably at my side, raised to the 2 o’clock hand position on the wheel. For about 10 miles, while the windshield wiper ratcheted back and forth at a fever pace, both hands were firmly on the wheel and my eyes, ears, body, and brain were focused on the road ahead. The current conditions demanded more attention than what the drive thus far had demanded.

As a new school year begins, it is important to remember that educators are in the people business. Our success is built on the bedrock of relationships, and the load of our everyday rests on the strength of our ability to listen.  Educators have hundreds of conversations in the course of their day. Most of these are fast-paced and require little thought or attention. However, within the first week of school, a different conversation will most likely occur for most educators. These are the conversations where a parent, patron, or colleague asks you to talk and requires your undivided and full listening attention. Listening with both hands on the wheel requires empathy. It requires one to put the other person before himself/herself and to attend deeply with great presence and attention.

You know that kind of conversation. It’s the one when someone walks in your room or office, shuts the door, sits down, and their face tells the story of stress or concern. It’s the one that might begin with a phone call, email, or text message with medical or personal news that is scary or concerning. It the one we educators have often, and they require both hands to be squarely gripping the steering wheel.

Recently someone close to me shared some medical news with friends. A variety of responses were sent back ranging from, “How scary! You know I have this situation with me that is going on and…” to “My wife and I are thinking of you. We will do whatever you need. I am so sorry for your uncertainty.”

Notice the difference in responses: One was listening with one hand on the steering wheel – hearing the words, offering words of encouragement, then bringing the conversation full circle back to themselves. This approach is often referred to as conversation narcissism. The listener listens but hears only words and frames the conversation back toward himself/herself.  The other response offers a model of empathy.  While it is impossible to crawl inside the skin of the person sharing the news, all attempts were made to do just that. There were no empty reassurances that things were going to be okay. Instead, the listener offered kindness and tried to validate where the person with the news was coming from — A place of uncertainty.

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks suggests that in moments of crisis, sensitive people “Just show up.” They provide a ministry of presence. They offer their presence as a shoulder to cry on and a person to call on if needed. They don’t compare – The sensitive person understands that each person’s ordeal is unique and should not be compared to anyone else’s. They do the practical things – making lunch, dusting the room, washing the towels.  They don’t provide grandiose offerings; they just try to lighten loads. They don’t try to minimize what is going on. They don’t attempt to reassure with false statements. They don’t say that the pain is all for the best. They don’t search for the silver lining. They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma. They practice passive presence. The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of his/​her own process because each person’s process is unique to them.

​Think about your conversations in times like this. Are you listening with your ears, your eyes, your body, and your brain? Psychologist Michele Borba speaks widely on the topic of empathy. One technique that she offers is to look for the eye color of the other person you are speaking with. When you look that closely, you are attentive. You are present. You are in the moment. You are driving with both hands on the steering wheel.There is an expression coined by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book Thanks for the Feedback called “Leaky Face.” Who can see your face? Everyone?  Who can’t see your face? You. It is important during difficult conversations that your nonverbal cues are also offering full attention and caring. Your eyes are dead giveaways – glancing at the clock, checking your phone, or eye rolling can be construed negatively. Squaring your body to the person, sidling up next to that person, even leaning into their words offer another level of support. The face leaks so much about you in conversations and your daily interactions. It’s important to keep tabs on yourself and your nonverbals.

My superintendent shares with his administrative team to practice the acronym ART when having a conversation with someone bringing a concern. ART includes:

A – Acknowledge the emotions and feelings of the person sharing the information or news with you.

R – Reassure the person you believe that what is being shared has great importance to them.

T – Thank the person for reaching out, for sharing their concerns, for including you in the conversation.

As educators, our job is interruptions. It involves beginning a task and having something or someone break your stride with the most important thing in their world at the time. Many of these conversations will be quick and require only one hand on the steering wheel. However, when the current situation requires more attention because the topic is difficult, sad, or intense, remember to put both hands on the steering wheel and truly listen. Remember your “leaky face” and look for the other person’s eye color.  Offer support and empathy in your response and be fully present. The person sharing with you will appreciate your offering and in the end, your relationships and effectiveness will be strengthened.