I was recently coaching a college student through some anxiety she was feeling. As she shared her struggles, it became evident that she did not feel heard, understood, or valued in key relationships. I was reminded of the importance of truly listening to the young people in our lives. As we head into the holiday season, where we are interacting with family and friends, it is a good time to refresh our listening skills.
I wish I could say I am really good at listening, but it is one of those skills I am constantly having to practice and hone. While it seems simple, it may be one of the most difficult leadership skills to develop and practice because it requires us to set aside our own perspectives, interests, and need to be heard to focus on another person and what they are thinking and feeling.
Today, with the constant noise and distractions of social media, news feeds, YouTube, and the busy world around us, we often give things our partial attention. This can become a habit that inhibits our ability to listen fully to those with whom we are interacting.
Active listening requires that the listener move from passively hearing to actively engaging with the speaker. This type of listening uses both verbal and non-verbal communication methods and shows the speaker you are interested. So, let’s reflect on some skills that are important for active listening.
I have missed seeing many of you in person this year as face-to-face events have been canceled and schedules have changed. Like many public speakers, my calendar looked strangely different after travel restrictions began to take effect in March. In this unique season, I have often found myself, like so many leaders, pondering what the future holds and how to navigate it. Amid all the uncertainty and change, I have been encouraged and challenged by the following reminders and questions:
During two decades of teaching in both K-12 and college contexts, I have had to adapt a lot of my teaching strategies to the many changes we are seeing in technology and students today. I have taught online courses for several different schools and developed a deep appreciation for the opportunities that exist in virtual classrooms. I believe virtual learning can provide opportunities that are unique to the online setting. As you engage students online, here are a few keys that I find essential to effective online education:
Key 1: Allow for Choice
When we have some choice in a situation, we tend to feel more motivated. As a result, I often give options for assignments. For example, sometimes students can choose between participating in a written online forum discussion (introverts tend to prefer this!) or a live virtual discussion (verbal processors love this!). On some activities, I allow submissions to be either written or a recorded video. They can often choose between a paper or a project. I also like to give some freedom, when possible, for students to choose topics or applications to explore in course assignments.
Key 2: Encourage Student Ownership
Sometimes students prefer that instructors do the hard work of teaching and providing feedback but engaging them in these processes ensures better learning. I like using peer reviews, student-led presentations, and group activities to maximize student ownership in learning.
Key 3: Get Feedback!
The greatest contribution to my learning as an online educator has been student feedback. I do at least one mid-course feedback survey/form with open-ended questions, in addition to final course evaluations, in every class I am teaching. I ask the following: what is working, what is not, what would improve your learning experience? I immediately respond to areas of concern and make changes to the course based on helpful student input. Students value that I listen to them and care about their learning experience.
Key 4: Learn from Colleagues
I have found solutions to so many of my challenges in online teaching by connecting with and learning from colleagues. I also regularly take courses or watch webinars that help me learn new tools and methods. It can be easy to get into a routine, so adding some new tech tools regularly helps keep our online teaching sharp!
I hope you find these tips helpful and encouraging as you engage students in online learning! For more on this topic, check out the most recent episodes of The Leading Tomorrow podcast.
The classic tale by Hans Christian Anderson of the emperor without any clothes illustrates a powerful lesson on the need for honest feedback in the life of a leader. The emperor in the story is duped by two garment makers who claim to make him a robe that is invisible to those who are stupid or unfit to rule. Of course, the robe does not exist. The garment makers simply go through the motions of dressing the emperor and he, along with his subjects, are too insecure or embarrassed to admit they do not see it. Not until a young child, unencumbered by his ego or social pressures, calls out that the emperor is naked does anyone acknowledge the fact.
As leaders, especially in intergenerational contexts, it is critical that we remain honest and transparent with our teams and colleagues. Just as the emperor’s nakedness was apparent to his subjects, our weaknesses or faults are evident to those who follow us. Even in cases where we may think we are hiding certain flaws or fears, our teams experience the consequences of these buried secrets through our actions and interactions with them. Effective leadership does not require perfection, but rather humility and honesty on the part of the leader to acknowledge areas for growth, solicit feedback, and request help and support from others. Had the emperor asked several trusted subjects for honest input on his robe, he may have discovered his nakedness before parading before a large, public crowd.
Whether you are a young leader with experienced individuals around you, or an experienced leader with younger colleagues, respect is earned and retained when others see you are willing to humbly and gratefully accept constructive feedback. Leaders with courage to make changes, or engage team members, to help mitigate harm that could occur from their own lack of knowledge or skill in a particular area earn the trust of those around them.
Soliciting and receiving feedback as a leader can be uncomfortable and difficult. An initial step might be to ask one or two trusted individuals in your life for honest and constructive criticism regarding how you engage with others. When you receive feedback, it is essential to listen carefully and accept it without excuses. Take time to reflect on what is said, ask clarifying questions if needed, and express appreciation to the individual sharing with you. It may be that the other person’s perception of something that happened is inaccurate, but the fact that they perceived it that way may be indication of the need to improve communication or bring clarity to a process or expectation. As a leader, it is necessary to communicate regularly that you welcome constructive feedback and provide an opportunity for people to give it...either through an open door policy, availability for meetings, conducting a 360 review, or responding promptly to emails or phone calls providing feedback.
Currently, as many of us are working virtually, in some cases for the first time, it can be helpful to actively seek out feedback from those on your team to find out what about your leadership is working well in the virtual context, and what might need to be changed. What contributes to effective in-person teamwork may need to be adjusted for this season. Eliciting the power of feedback is a great way to find leadership success amid change and crisis.
In his short story, A Christmas Tree, Charles Dickens writes: “I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree.” He describes the wonder of the children as they looked at the ornaments. “This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit—some of the diamond eyes admiring it were hardly on level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses—made a lively realization of the fancies of childhood.”
Our children today do not have the same experiences as the children Dickens describes. Lights on a tree hardly hold the same wonder when they compete with high definition screens. Imaginations are not ignited with wonder, sitting and staring at twinkling ornaments, when they are stimulated instead by continuous noise from handheld devices. Furthermore, innocent ponderings are interrupted by mature content, flowing into our homes and lives via technology.
Tim Elmore, in his book, Marching Off the Map, describes, “We have now begun to experience a strange paradox in our young: The extinction of childlikeness; the extension of childishness.” He explains that the “infectious flow of information” is exposing our kids to adult topics. As a result, they can “lose (1) their sense of innocence, (2) their sense of wonder and (3) their sense of trust.”
Not only are we losing our child-like wonder today, but also our ability to connect with our environment, the way people used to engage the beauty of simple things like Christmas decorations. Kirsten Weir wrote a fascinating article, “Never a Dull Moment.” She explains how in today's technological world, it's unusual to be stuck with absolutely nothing to do. “Most of us are bombarded by near-constant stimuli such as tweets, texts and a seemingly limitless supply of cat videos right at our fingertips. But all those diversions don't seem to have alleviated society's collective boredom.” She cites Psychologist John Eastman who says the reverse may be true. "These might distract you in the short run, but I think it makes you more susceptible to boredom in the long run, and less able to find ways to engage yourself," he says.
Weir reports that several researchers concluded boredom is best described in terms of attention. “A bored person doesn't just have nothing to do. He or she wants to be stimulated, but is unable, for whatever reason, to connect with his or her environment.” Connecting, and helping others connect, with the environment around us is critical as we seek to develop meaningful moments and lasting memories this Christmas. Most of us are used to our environment stimulating us, and if we are bored, we reach for a device. We have lost some of our ability to connect with each other. When we get together for holiday parties, and family gatherings, we often struggle to stay engaged with the people or activities around us and can be tempted to seek stimulation in our social media feed, text messages, or email notifications.
Creating meaningful memories may require some discipline and planning. We can start by being aware of when we are tempted to pull out our device, instead of engaging with someone who is in the room with us. We have to be intentional in creating focused time for interaction. For example, designing a fun box for phones and encouraging people to drop theirs in during family dinner. Planning some interactive activities (games, discussion questions, collaborative project) can give people tools to engage with each other rather than turning on video games or a movie. We must practice good emotional intelligence by asking questions, engaging others in conversation, and modeling for kids how to build relationships.
In her article, Weir cites researcher Van Tilburg. "We saw that boredom actually increased people's tendency to recall these very nostalgic memories and actually made them feel that life in general was more meaningful." Some boredom is essential to the wonder that Dickens described! It creates room for the most nostalgic and memorable moments to occur and be remembered. So, this Christmas, don’t just hand the kids a device, rather sit down with them to play a board game, decorate cookies, or share stories by the fire. When they complain about being bored, just smile!
Research continues to link the overuse of technology to depression, attention issues, and poor social skills. Many parents and grandparents I talk to feel overwhelmed by the powerful influence of technology in their families and homes. Technology, if not managed, can impair our family’s wellbeing. One of our best defenses against devices controlling our time and relationships is to develop a culture in our homes that encourages healthy technology use. So, how do we go about inspiring a tech-smart family? Here are a few strategies and resources:
Book Jolene to speak to your church, school, or community group on Tech-Smart Parenting or visit the Leading Tomorrow podcast for more on this and related topics!
A recent study revealed that 18 to 22-year-olds are the loneliest age group today. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this troubling statistic. One, of course, is the prevalent use of technology in our society today. While devices help us connect to people in new and beneficial ways, there are some drawbacks. Empathy, for example, has decreased as technology has increased. One study reported that college students are 40 percent less empathetic than they were 20 or 30 years ago, prior to the widespread use of the internet. Screens dull our ability to feel the pain and joy of others and to connect with them emotionally. This presents a threat to deep, committed relationships that are impossible to maintain without continuing empathetic interaction.
While Millennials and Generation Z are especially adept at communicating online, valuable intimacy often gets lost in virtual communications. Quantified Communications reports that an average adult today makes eye contact between 30 and 60 percent of the time in conversation, but emotional connection is built when eye contact is made during 60 to 70 percent of the conversation. When there is less eye contact, fewer connections are made. Virtual connections, while valuable, cannot replace the emotional connection and sense of well being that occurs with eye contact, touch, and physical presence.
Leaders and managers today often report that young staff lack the relational skills and emotional intelligence to connect with others effectively. In many ways, it is the older generations who must take responsibility for this. When we hand a 5-year-old a device instead of answering their tenth question about giraffes or princesses, we rob them of an opportunity to develop face-to-face communication skills and connect with us in a way that is meaningful to them. When we miss the body language or facial expressions of a 10 or 12-year-old in our life because we are busy checking our social media feed, we lose the opportunity to model good emotional intelligence. When we avoid a conversation with an 18 or 20-year-old in our life because we assume their earbuds mean they don’t want to talk to us, or we fear rejection, we miss an opportunity to demonstrate sincere interest or unconditional love.
Young people today need opportunities to practice healthy relational skills, and they desperately need to see them modeled. Many leaders, mentors, teachers and parents I talk to, however, do not know even where to start in actively engaging the young people in their lives. What I have found, in interacting regularly with 5 to 25-year-olds, is that there is great power in a good question and active listening. I have yet to encounter a young person who did not respond positively to someone sincerely asking about their perspectives and concerns. True, there might be an eye roll or two at first, but when they see you persist in your interest in them, despite their eye roll, trust and respect begin to develop.
So, what does a good question entail? First of all, it must be open-ended. If it allows the young person to respond with a simple “yes,” “no,” “good” or “bad,” a grunt or sigh, it is not a good question. Instead, it should require some thoughtfulness. Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day at school?” try something like “What was the best part of your day at school?” The response to a good question should give you some insight into the young person’s life and provide an opportunity for a follow up question. For example, if they respond that the best part of their day was chatting with a friend, you could follow up with a question like, “Tell me about your friend? How did you meet?” A good question can thus communicate that you care about what they care about. Check out some other great sample questions here.
Good questions are one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate interest, gain empathy, and develop deep connections. As a result, they are a critical tool for all of us as we interact in a society that is increasingly distracted and busy. Make it a goal to practice asking good questions and taking the time to listen actively to the responses.
As a sophomore in college, I served as a student leader. Our team was responsible for providing peer mentoring, planning student programs, and helping with various campus activities. We were volunteers, with leadership responsibilities piled on top of classes, homework, and part-time jobs. It was important for us to stay focused on the goal. One of our team leaders often encouraged us by saying, “It’s all about the one!” It didn’t matter if attendance at an event was low, if one lonely student came and found community and new friends, it was worth it. If we had a test looming the next day, but a student struggling with depression showed up at our door, giving up some sleep and taking time to encourage her was meaningful. That slogan helped keep us focused on how critical investing in just one person can be!
Our culture is obsessed with numbers as indicators of success. We measure success as the amount in the budget; the number of customers, guests, sales or conversions; or the size of our facilities. While there are great reasons for this, it can also be a distraction. I am often asked how to create a successful leadership development or ministry program for youth and young adults. Mass methods are only marginally effective. The best way to engage with and develop a young person is one-on-one, or in small teams and communities. Millennials and Generation Z have access to information unlike any other generation in the history of the world. They don’t need another great program; they need to process. Indeed, the number one predictor of a young person retaining their faith is a meaningful relationship with an older believer. Trusted mentors and friends and safe spaces in the frenzied worlds of youth today can provide opportunities for the development of strong values and convictions.
I call this period that we are in the “season of a remnant.” Regardless of your setting, it is unlikely that we will accomplish significant change or impact in young lives and perspectives through large group trainings, conferences, or classes. Relationships, community and meaningful conversation are where the most formative experiences occur. Wondering why a young people has a specific political view? Engage them in a conversation (not a lecture!) about it. Wanting to instill an essential character trait or leadership quality in a young mentee? Model it for them, inviting them to share in a meaningful leadership experience. Hoping to share faith or truth with a generation that desperately needs it? Begin with “the one” or a few…a remnant.
Will and Ariel Durant, Pulitzer-prize winning historians, in discussing the inevitable decline of civilizations, write the following: “Nations die. Old regions grow arid, or suffer other change. Resilient man picks up his tools and his arts, and moves on, taking his memories with him.” I often reflect on this statement and think about my students and my children, their children and grandchildren. As the civilization we belong to undergoes change, what tools and memories do we want young people to possess as they move on to a new or changed civilization? What tools do we want to ensure they carry with them into an uncertain future? There will always be a resilient remnant and equipping them means we sometimes have to remain focused on “the one!”
I have taught leadership courses for many years. It always amazes me to read student essays on who has greatly influenced them. Most of the time, they write about family or friends. These influential people are seldom rich, famous, or powerful. They sometimes live far away or are seen infrequently. To read students’ writing about grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends who have greatly impacted them, I am reminded of the importance of our relationships with family and friends. The holidays is a time of the year when we often see people who live far away or are busy other times of the year. As a result, interactions during Christmas gatherings can be awkward, forced or uncomfortable at times. If there is dysfunction or hurt in the family, it makes it even more difficult to have meaningful conversations. Nonetheless, these events provide invaluable opportunities to mentor and encourage. Our attitudes, behaviors, and responses influence and communicate regardless of our intent, especially to kids, youth, and young adults in our family circles. So, as we begin this season of celebration, here are a few tips to remember as we seek meaningful interactions this Christmas.
Tim Elmore, in his book Generation iY, explains the fact that most young people today learn and interact through “uploading.” They engage in forums and activities via devices where they can share opinions, perspectives and preferences, and receive instant feedback. Nonetheless, many of our formal leadership and learning environments continue to implement “downloading” methods to engage, lead and teach those in our care. We talk at people, give orders or directions, and provide important information without stopping to receive input, give explanations or engage in discussion.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, many lived by the motto that children were to be seen and not heard. That philosophy was applied to many in "follower" positions such as students, soldiers or employees. While this perhaps made life easier for those parenting, teaching, or managing, it could result in decisions or information based on limited understanding. The ideas and desires of those in leadership roles were "downloaded" to the followers and silent obedience was often expected. Some leaders still adhere to this top-down approach to managing followers.
Since childhood, Millennials and Generation Z have been taught and encouraged to be seen and heard! They are accustomed to having input…whether it is choosing a favorite game on their device, posting a response on social media, or texting their vote to a favorite television show, they are uploading generations. If we want young members to feel engaged and committed to our teams, whether in the office, pew or classroom, we must allow participation, discussion, and “uploading.”
While there are some negative consequences from this need to be heard, there are also many benefits. Active participation can lead to increased creativity, understanding of diverse perspectives, and greater engagement and ownership. Regardless of the pros and cons, leaders today must understand that those they lead or teach are used to "uploading." Failure to provide opportunities for them to do so limits our ability to gain respect and earn the right to speak constructively into the lives of those around us. At times we need to address the negative aspects of our "uploading" culture. First, however, we must prove we are leaders who intentionally listen to those we lead.
Ideas for "uploading" as a leader:
*Ask open-ended questions regularly; allow the time and space to actively listen and ask follow up questions as we learn from those on our teams.
*Be sure that training and learning experiences incorporate as much discussion and active participation (uploading) as lecture and instruction (downloading).
*Request ideas, and when possible and appropriate, allow students or employees to pursue a course of action they value (even if it seems a bit problematic). Encouragingly help them navigate the challenges or consequences of the decision/action. This can help teach effective decision making, critical thinking and problem solving, equipping future leaders with needed understanding and skills.
*After listening to the input of others, there will be times when as a leader you need to make an unpopular or hard decision. When this occurs, explain your reasons, and honestly engage and answer questions. This becomes a mentoring opportunity and demonstrates transparency.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!