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It's that time of the semester when many of us are frayed and ready for an extended break. We may find ourselves beside the staff water cooler or in the parking lot trying to alleviate stress by venting our frustrations with colleagues: "Have you seen my third period?" "Man, the principal is making me crazy with these walk-throughs!" "If I have to sit through one more staff meeting with so much else on my plate, I swear. . ."

Constructivist Listening

These venting sessions can find a home inside your meetings through the simple routine of dyads, a listening structure that transforms stress and emotion into productive energy. While cathartic, the water cooler conversations serve to separate emotion from our formal professional spaces, allowing pent-up feelings to brew rather than letting us channel them in healthier ways. Barred from "feeling in public," we sit through staff meetings running an internal monologue of grievances or, at worst, behaving passive-aggressively. Sound familiar to anyone?

By contrast, dyads offer us a form of Constructivist Listening, adapted by the National Equity Project from the National Coalition for Equity in Education, which rests on a few assumptions:

  • Emotions are a natural part of life and deserve a seat at our professional tables.
  • Emotional distress limits intelligent thinking and caring behavior.
  • When given time to reflect, people have the ability to solve their own problems.
  • As social beings, we construct meaning through language by talking and being listened to.

A powerful dyad takes about ten minutes from soup to nuts, including time for each participant to reflect and time for a group debrief. This small investment will pay big dividends as you release colleagues from the grip of repressed stress, freeing up their cognition for the "real work" on your agenda.

Speakers Need Listeners

Here are a few essential steps to make dyads a powerful listening tool.

1. Frame the purpose and guidelines clearly.

A dyad is for the benefit of the speaker, not the listener, and is designed to challenge our listening habits of interjecting, overriding, or tuning out. To safeguard the speaker's reflection time, dyads follow four guidelines that you need to name upfront:

  • Equal time per speaker (generally two minutes each, give or take)
  • No interrupting or breaking in with a personal story
  • Double confidentiality (You won't share what you heard with others or go back to the speaker to solicit more information because the dyad was actually for the speaker.)
  • No complaining about colleagues.

The last guideline used to strike me as gratuitous, but I now understand that it ensures safety between participants. If I'm listening to you and you throw our colleague under the bus, how do I know that the next time you won't do the same to me?

2. Design "gut" prompts that surface people's feelings and experiences.

A good dyad question gets you at your gut, inviting you to bring your whole self into a meeting. Here are a few that I inherited and have adapted:

  • What's it like to be you lately?
  • What thoughts and feelings are you carrying about _____?
  • What's "on top" for you walking into this meeting?

Each example allows for multiple points of entry: personal or professional, positive or negative, cognitive or affective. As a tool for humanizing your meetings, dyads allow a diverse group of colleagues to show up authentically as themselves.

3. Facilitate a safe forum for group sharing.

After the dyad, it's important to open a protected space for participants to share what came up for them. At this point, you should remind the group of the four guidelines, in particular the role of confidentiality, saying something like, "I want to invite anyone to share any reflections from your dyad. Please remember our confidentiality guideline and do not share on behalf of your partner." Time and again, I have watched this collective moment of reflection coalesce a group into a community. I recall facilitating a retreat where someone said, "I haven't felt so heard at work for a long time. I never thought about the importance of just listening to each other."

4. Teach the I-yad.

Finally, I offer you my favorite offshoot of the dyad: the I-yad! Coined by my brilliant colleague Mark Salinas of the National Equity Project, the I-yad is a tool to draw upon when you need to release emotion without someone trying to solve your problem. Simply walk up to a colleague you trust and say, "Can I have an I-yad please?" As silly as this sounds, the question itself validates the core principles of Constructivist Listening:

  • I am a human being with feelings, even in my working life.
  • At times, I need to get my feelings off my chest so they don't distort my interactions with others.
  • I believe in my ability to solve my own problems, so I really just need you to listen to me well.

Imagine what might come of that!

Try this tool, and watch as a bunch of stressed-out educators lower their shoulders and breathe more deeply while they reconnect with their better professional selves.

When and where do you do your best listening with colleagues? How and in which settings can you imagine using dyads as a listening tool? What other "gut prompts" come to mind?

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The Listening Educator
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