“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”
- Henry David Thoreau
We can expect from many indications that 2018 will be a year filled with challenges. Dialogue regarding educational pathways, quantitative reasoning, assessment and placement, curricular innovations, online instruction, and no-cost and low-cost educational resources as well as any number of additional topics will dominate our time and energy at the college and system levels. Many of the decisions will be significant, directly affecting students, faculty, and staff by impacting curriculum, programs, student services, teaching, and learning. Faculty will need to take the lead in discussions dealing with academic and professional matters and work in cooperation with colleagues to ensure effective decision-making processes and sound decisions.
With so much at stake, we must create the conditions necessary to allow all participants to contribute and respond, collegially and respectfully, no matter how difficult the conversations or the decisions. We will by no means agree on every decision or every course of action. In fact, some of the discussions will result in arguments and disagreements. This situation is not something to be avoided; rather, the conflict that comes from rigorously exploring diverse opinions and perspectives is a critical part of the process of formulating sound decisions. Disagreements are only productive if all involved take the time to understand one another and work through any differences. Fundamental to understanding one another is the ability and willingness to genuinely listen.
THE ROLE OF LISTENING IN DECISION-MAKING
We do not often discuss or highlight the role that listening plays in decision-making, but it is critical to the effectiveness of the process. When considering the productiveness of our interactions with others, we tend to think about how those we work with are speaking rather than how our listening, or the lack thereof, affects the situation. But consider thereciprocal relationship between speaking and listening; the quality of a conversation depends on both. In a successful conversation, individuals feel that they are respected and their contributions are welcomed and appreciated.
Listening — genuinely, openly and actively — conveys respect and promotes understanding. It does not necessarily result in agreement, but it does acknowledge the value of the other person and communicate that his or her perspective is appreciated. Attentive listening also indicates a commitment to creating an environment conducive to a genuine and open exchange of ideas, beliefs, and actions. When effective listening is absent or breaks down, the entire decision-making process is profoundly weakened.
Creating and sustaining an environment where ideas and perspectives can be explored and challenged is difficult. Many times, expectations and assumptions may undermine our ability to listen to others and theirs to hear to us. We come to conversations with our minds made up. We believe that we have thoroughly explored the issue, analyzed it from all angles, and determined the best course of action, and we are quite certain that no one will have any information that could alter our thinking. We may easily or without thought dismiss information that does not square with our own beliefs or ideas, and we may resist considering new ideas or information unless we make a conscious effort to do so. This tendency can be especially true when we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that our opinions, and perhaps our expertise or reputation, are being challenged. Other times, the nature of the relationships we have with our colleagues may affect our ability to listen. When we know our colleagues well, we often assume we know what they are saying or will say in a particular situation, and we plan our response accordingly. In all of these situations, the conditions needed for genuine listening are not present. Further, dialogue and deliberation quickly devolve when individuals believe that what they have to say is not valued. Defenses rise, listening stops, and the decision-making process may slow down, be called into question, or in some cases come to a halt. When these situations happen, the conversation may be difficult to move back to a place of productive engagement, but doing so is possible.
Genuine listening requires a commitment from individuals and the community, at our colleges as well as in our system as a whole. During these dynamic times, the latter is more essential than ever, especially in a structure with the scope of California’s community college system. At the state level, with layers of decision makers from different constituencies, we all must set aside our egos, preconceived notions, and assumptions and come to each conversation with curiosity, candor, and sincerity, not certainty and superiority. In community, we must commit to establishing and sustaining an environment, based on mutual respect that supports an open and vigorous exchange of ideas without dismissiveness or censorship. By listening to each other and speaking honestly, we confirm the value of the individuals with whom we interact even when the perspectives that are being articulated are not necessarily shared. We should strive for an environment of collaboration and cooperation, valuing all individuals and perspectives.
One of our greatest strengths in the California community colleges is our governance process, intentionally designed to ensure that diverse viewpoints are represented and considered. In our governance work, the tension inherent in holding differing points of view is what ensures the efficacy of decision-making. Controversial opinions should be sought out and discussed, but we cannot work through the discomfort controversy causes without the deep understanding that comes through genuine listening. By listening to one another and to all of our colleagues with sincere, conscious attention and respect, we will be better able to engage in true collaboration and make sound decisions that benefit our students, our programs, and our colleges.