Active Listening Skills for ESL Managers

Active listening for a DOS or trainer is a key management skill. It allows you to build positive, more collaborative working relationships with all stakeholders, resolve conflict more easily, increase goodwill and garner valuable information about your school giving better decision-making tools.

Active listening is using all your senses, giving your full attention to helping the speaker feel heard and valued, it demonstrates respect and a willingness to take on board another person’s ideas and thoughts. It’s a process through which you can learn more about what is happening in your school. People who feel heard are more likely to drop a complaint, contribute and participate than those whose negative feelings continue to build perhaps even exacerbated by a poor listening situation. Active listening leads to happier, more involved stakeholders and quality information about your school. It’s the foundation for an effective participative and collaborative working atmosphere.

Despite being high-value active listening can be quite hard work, it takes time, energy and a lot of concentration. If you are an active, problem-solving type of DOS, you might find it difficult to focus on the listening rather than finding immediate solutions for problems. At times it seems counter-intuitive to listen rather than to do, but keep in mind that it is the process of listening that is often more valuable than the actual outcomes or solutions. On the other hand, If you are a more laid back listener it can be a strain to actively listen, to engage, rather than be passive in the process.

Steps to great active listening:

Get Calm

Step back and breathe. You need to be mentally and physically calm and quiet to listen, you can’t do it if you are wound up or feeling attacked.  Calmness is catching too!  An anxious speaker will relax more quickly if you set a calm tone. Try to detach from emotionally engaging with the content. For example, if you feel the speaker is completely unreasonable, or highly personal focus your thinking on the process of listening rather than the ‘merits of the case’, try to close down your internal dialogue.

Don’t problem solve

Your goal is to listen and hear, not win the argument, be right or defend the school. Detach yourself from trying to allocate blame, find a solution or dismissing the issues as unimportant. There is no need for you to provide solutions, clarify misunderstandings or put things right within the listening process – these can be done later. Focus on listening and really hearing what is being said.  Most problems are greatly reduced or even disappear if the speaker feels they have been heard.

Don’t Judge

Avoid judgment.  You need an open mind to actively listen, to be open to new ideas, new perspectives and possibilities. Even when good listeners have strong views, more experience or knowledge they suspend judgment, hold their criticism and avoid arguing

Make space

Find an empty room, create a comfortable space and turn your phone off.  If it’s feasible, offer to make a drink for the other person.  Take an attitude of them being the priority and deserving full respect.  Ask if they are comfortable and if they need anything. Tell admin to see that you are not interrupted.  Try to tune out all distractions. Ask permission to make notes as a just in case, so you don’t miss important points.

Choose your time

A lot of feedback is very immediate, situations can be rushed and time is short. However, if you feel a situation needs active listening it’s ok to defer the conversation.  Say “ What you are saying is very important and I really need to listen, but that is difficult at the moment, can we meet up at….”   Most people will appreciate your offer of full attention over an immediate, rapid response.

Show gratitude

Giving feedback can be stressful, people tend to brace themselves, plan and rehearse how they will say things and then have to wind themselves up to actually say what is on their mind.  As a listener acknowledge that they have trusted you enough to share their thoughts, say ‘thank you’ for the effort they are making. It is better for someone to tell you how they feel than to leave school and tell everyone else!

Use wait time

Make time, be patient, it might be difficult for the speaker to talk about this so give them time, extend your wait time so they can form their thoughts into words, essential if you are not both working in your mother tongue.  As in the classroom, make the wait time a comfortable, easy space rather than you showing your impatience. Try not to:

  • anticipate the end of their sentences
  • rush or interrupt
  • ‘top-up’ responses (adding your own information).
  • jumping in before they finish with your questions
  • thinking ahead about what you will say next
  • overuse fillers such as ‘indeed’
  • fiddle with pens or check your phone

Give the speaker your full attention

Interest can be shown through verbal and non-verbal messages.  Seat yourself so you can see the other person, maintain eye contact, nod your head, smile or make sympathetic faces.  Agree by simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘mmm’ to encourage them to continue.  Keep your body open, try not to cross your arms or legs, unclench fists.  Keep shoulders and arms loose, and lean in slightly toward the speaker.

Check your understanding

You need to find the balance between letting the speaker say what they need to, without interruption and checking that you have understood correctly.  The trick is not to jump in too quickly with clarification questions and when you do, keep it gentle and not take the tone of an interrogation!  You can check you have understood correctly by paraphrasing or repeating back the key elements.

At the end see if the speaker agrees with your summary. You can use language such as:

Tell me if I have got this right

Is this a fair summary?

 Closing down the conversation

After summarizing your understanding it can help, if it hasn’t already been covered, to ask the speaker what course of action they would like to be taken and if they have any suggestions as to how to improve the situation.

Thank the speaker for their time and for sharing with you.  Create a follow-up plan, which may be ‘I’ll get back to you when I have spoken to…’ or ‘let me have a think and get back to you after the weekend …’


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