The Crucial Art — and Science — of Listening Leadership

Good listening skills can change minds, improve relationships and help build communities. Listening is also a big focus of the work of Nicole Furlonge, professor and director of the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College Columbia University.

Last spring, we were fortunate to catch up with Furlonge, who is an astute practitioner and proponent of what she calls “listening leadership,” positioning listening as an essential interpretive and civic act that can lead to deeper engagement with others.

What started as an inquiry into literature, via the book “Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature,” has become a teaching and training imperative for her as she works with everyone from teachers to school leaders, future doctors to museum curators. Her next book, tentatively titled “The Third Ear: How Listening Transforms Teaching and Learning,” is due in 2022.

Nicole Furlonge
Nicole Furlonge

Furlonge’s brand of listening leadership is especially important for school personnel. Though schools have largely gone dormant, the 2021-22 school year is fast approaching. COVID-19 and America’s latest racial reckoning, two deep concerns of the last school year, are neither settled or resolved. To rebuild communities in which young people not only learn about algebra and grammar, but also prepare for their roles as citizens in an active democracy, we must listen intentionally and skillfully. Furlonge is an essential resource and guide.

In this conversation, we establish the foundations, both literary and educational, of Furlonge’s work. A follow up will explore how listening leadership can become a fundamental part of any school’s success.

How listening became a central concern for her.

Nicole Furlonge: What does it mean to read on a page that seems to want to sing, speak, or sound in ways that are different from what we expect to see in print? We think that print is flat and static. But I kept hearing it in ways that weren't.

I grew up in a house where I was always audience to people telling stories. Whether it was storytelling from a book, someone reading out loud, or going to church, oratory was always happening. I also grew up with a father who grew up on Eastern Shore, Maryland. He had this deep southern drawl no one seemed to be able to understand except me. I was the translator in some ways. All of that together attuned me to this life of sound around me.

When I started reading literature, it pulled on that thread. I attended Boston Latin School, a public exam school in Boston. A culminating experience in AP English asked us to write a paper about any author. I chose Langston Hughes, and as I studied Hughes, which I hadn’t done before, I kept noticing his poetry’s musicality. I was drawn in by how Hughes was trying to play with music on the page and started trying to describe that.

When I got to college and then graduate school, I found other writers, most notably Sterling Brown. I described him as a “listening poet” in an essay and my professor called me in and asked, “Can you tell me more about this?” I said, “I'm just describing what I think he's trying to do. He's trying to bring sound into the text.” He said, “You should think through the implications of what it means to say that a writer is a listening-writer, that we can listen to the page.”

All of that pulled at me through my dissertation and then my book “Race Sounds.”

What it means to be listening-writers and listening-readers, and why the designations matter.

As a listening-writer, you're trying to bring to the page a sensory-laden experience where the reader won’t just scan a page with their eyes or make sense visually. You almost want them to pull themselves into the text and relive the sounds of the moment that you're trying to convey. Without that imagined and enacted full-bodied experience, we're shortchanging what we mean by reading.

Understandably, if you come to the page as a reader, you're not expecting to have to listen. You're expecting to scan or read with your eyes and all of a sudden you're confronted with this idea that, “Oh, there's sonic life in these words aside from just what it sounds like when you read out loud.” It's the multi-sensory experience being brought to a page that isn't expected to be multi-sensory.

As a reader, how do I engage with that? What does it mean to not engage? What are the implications of not listening, of choosing to not know how to? Our expectation is that we don't have to listen when we pick up a book in print.

All of this is wrapped up in my thinking about what it means to be a listening-writer and a reader-who-listens: what it means to listen in print. There's an ethics to it; you're making choices, and those choices have implications. If we can't bear to listen on the page, then how do we learn to listen when we encounter each other?

On the science of listening.

In his listening lab at Princeton, Uri Hasson brings a neuroscience perspective to what it means to listen. He has replicated this experiment a few times, but its basis is that a person enters an fMRI machine, and the machine records their brain patterns as they’re telling a story. The story can be as mundane as what the person did that morning.

Next, another person goes into the fMRI machine, and they listen to the recording. Hasson’s team found that, as the person settles into listening, their brain patterns begin to mimic the brain patterns of the speaker. And as they go deeper into listening, their brain patterns begin to anticipate the patterns of the speaker by nanoseconds. So this idea that our brain patterns, our brainwaves, connect when we speak has some neuroscience basis to it. We’re actually on the same wavelength when we’re attuned to each other.

The implications are that listening becomes a way to connect. But also we know that when we don’t listen, there is this real world way in which we’re disconnected. What does it mean to be in a world together where we’re disconnected and not just remote from each other, which is a very different concept?

The risk of listening, the cost of not listening and the search for balance.

Ultimately, if we listen, we might find ourselves in moments when we change our minds or encounter evidence that might push against our way of making sense of the world.

The price I think we pay for not listening might be, in the United States especially, without exaggeration, democracy itself. What does it mean to not listen into the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified systemic disparities in our country? To not listen to what this moment has unearthed for us means that we're willing to ignore disparities to our peril or to the peril of large populations of people that might be different than we are.

Political discourse is a hard example, but it's also the prime example because it's so divided. You're either liberal or not, you’re Republican or Democrat. Claudia Rankine, the poet, recently said that, in this country right now, “50% of the people don't agree with 50% of the people.” If we’re in that place, then how do we move forward democracy, this thing that we all say we value? For me, the price of not listening is that we fail to practice ways to be in community with each other, in network with each other, which is essentially what citizenship is.

On listening for and to truth.

When you think about COVID, we have real-time data about death rates, about morbidity, about recovery, about precarity. We could choose to listen in, but there's a predisposition, a decision, not to listen despite the data, despite the losses. I'm sure the reasons for that decision are many, but we have a cultural and systemic problem around a failure of listening in a way that would get us to truth, that would get us to facts that would lead to an engagement with science and more informed decisions.

We literally have lives on the line at the same time that we have this preponderance of a practice of not inquiring, not being inquisitive, dismissing science and even dismissing my rights versus yours. It’s a doubling down on the American individual in the worst ways, highlighting the individual instead of the many in “E Pluribus Unum.”

On the moves that both schools and students made after the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning it prompted.

It’s too early to say that we’ve changed anything. “We’ve had the town hall, we did the listening circles, we posted an announcement...” Those are decisions to change. They're signals, and we know how powerful signs and symbols are to the world, to people, to help them see that we’re trying to be different.

We also know from the study of leadership and organizational change that symbolic gestures are only one small piece of change. They might feel good and they might make people think, “Oh, that place over there is really doing it.” But we’re only going to see change when we put those symbols into actual, constantly developing and deepening practice. And change will then seed more change.

Statements don’t make the students who posted on Instagram about how they felt isolated and excluded in their school immediately say, “I feel a deep sense of belonging at my school.” It takes time to make real change and to cultivate belonging. This is a long game.

Some schools are going to authentically take this moment, seize it for what it is, and make true, enduring change, the marker of which would be that 10 years from now we have students declaring that they feel a sense of belonging at their school. Students of color, LGBTQIA students, first generation students, students who live below the poverty line, middle class students, faculty and staff, too. All sharing a deep sense of belonging as we practice more equitable and inclusive schooling.

But we also know that there will be schools that will not make those big changes. They won’t continue because this work is not about getting over the hump, it’s not about getting to the fall, it’s actually about staying the course. “Today, I listened and I heard X. The next month I listened and I heard that the ecosystem, the mycelium is growing in a different way or is rotting over here now.”

We need to learn how to be proactive and responsive in the face of crisis and also when there is no crisis or horrific trauma to react to. Listening leadership gives us a way to continue the practice of being attentive, to continue the practice of forward action in ways that also tune into new data, whether it’s from a person or a survey or our admissions processes or whatever. Every year we have a chance to be the responsive and humane schools we say we want to be.

I want all schools to change. I want them to be authentically different in all the ways that so many people have said. But I know, realistically, there are going to be some schools where we will see huge shifts, some schools that struggle but make inroads, and some schools that really don’t get there. And there honestly are some schools that haven’t even made the statement, which may be a sign that they’re not engaged or a sign that they’re doing the work differently.

I feel an urgency. When I first entered independent schools, we were trying to make changes around equity and inclusion, and now it’s like, “Okay, let’s get some other things going here." My ultimate hope is that my children, that my friends’ children, that children everywhere, are feeling the changes underway, and that our efforts today ripple to the benefit of many generations to come.

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