Unlocking the Power of Active Listening Leadership


January 27, 2022
Dr. Lori Desautels

Active listening leadership is more critical in this time than ever before.

From the research of Dr. Stephen Porges:

“As the COVID-19 crisis challenges the fabric of our society, we look to our science to understand how the crisis is influencing our mental and physical health, how we perceive the world, and the way we interact with others. Similar to several other mammals, humans are a social species. Being a social species explicitly emphasizes that human survival is dependent on coregulating our neurophysiological state via social interaction.”1

We have lost connection with one another during the past 22 months; how a school leader responds to staff is the most critical part of co-regulation while creating a climate of felt safety. Co-regulation can be defined as sharing our emotionally available presence with another. It is listening to learn and to understand what is beneath the behavior of our colleagues and adults who sit beside our students each day.

As therapist and author Resmaa Menakem shares, “Settled adults have settled students.”

Active Listening Leadership is Generative Leadership

To be generative is to create something valuable or add to the world in a positive way. As I wonder about leadership in our schools, I feel generative leadership presents itself as both supportive and humble, a compassionate presence during conflicts or disagreements. Emotions are contagious, and our children and youth are observing the adults as their developing nervous systems acclimate to this evolving time in education.

We have experienced a global pandemic that has created layers of adversity on top of existing hardships and trauma. But as Dr. Stephanie zu Guttenberg states: “Education is the most powerful anti-trauma mechanism we have.”

School is where our children, youth, and families reside. To demonstrate active listening leadership, we must acknowledge and embrace the recent social, emotional, and physiological changes our students are bringing into our districts, schools, organizations, and classrooms. Co-regulation coupled with awareness is critical for our education leaders today.

Humility requires us to own our mistakes and take responsibility for our actions in all moments. It requires intention and action, which is intentional neuroplasticity. We know that our nervous systems change structurally and functionally with every experience. When we begin to foster new habits of collaboration within our organization or school and listen to learn, the neural circuits in our brain form new connections in the frontal regions of the cortex where we can be creative, synthesize, emotionally regulate, and empathize while cultivating change.

Practicing Active Listening Leadership with Colleagues

We are no different than our children and youth. When we are feeling protective and defensive, our nervous systems are speaking to our innermost needs, and our behaviors can appear rough and edgy. When we recognize the needs of those colleagues who act resistant or defiant, or are quick to shut down, we address the root of the distress in the nervous system.

Humility allows us to learn from our interactions and enables us to compromise. It empowers us to recognize the humanity of people who don’t act like us, look like us, or who hold different values and beliefs.

We want to model active listening leadership in our schools that teachers and staff will in turn uphold and model for students.

What does modeling active listening leadership look like each day? It demonstrates humility, which is about validation. Validating what our colleagues are feeling dampens down the stress response systems in our nervous systems, so we feel empowered to share at a deeper level. When we feel heard and seen, we begin to relax into possibilities within an environment that feels safe and connected.

Psychiatrist and author Dr. Paul Conti discusses vulnerability and trauma. He states:

“People whom society disenfranchises or discriminates against encounter additional obstacles when asking for or receiving help in a world where prejudice is abundant and competent assistance is in short supply. We need to do our best to understand that someone’s lived experiences differ greatly from my own, and this awareness helps me to access a shared humanness and do my best to open myself up to his or her experiences.”2

Questions feel good to our nervous systems. Active listening leadership requires us to ask questions, creating a communal felt safety where every voice is heard and venerated.

Here are a few examples:

  1. What do you need right now that would ease your mind and support you in ways that help you to thrive?
  2. How could I support you this year so that you are free to teach and lead in our building?
  3. What can we do together to create an environment that feels equitable, safe, and nurturing?
  4. What are the professional challenges you are experiencing right now? How can I lessen those and work beside you?
  5. What do you feel needs to be celebrated and expanded upon?

Meeting my colleagues where they are in each moment—while maintaining awareness of my own brain and body state—allows us to build bridges of possibility while attending to the gaps of dissension that keep our schools and organizations from thriving.

Co-regulation is our biological imperative, and we cannot survive without each other. When we are self-aware and authentic in our leadership roles, we are sharing a safe, emotionally available space and presence for one another. That is generative leadership through the lens of neuroplasticity.

When we work together creating what we need as a school or organization, we can tap into one another’s suggestions or strengths.

1 Porges S. The COVID-19 Pandemic is a paradoxical challenge to our nervous system: A polyvagal perspective. (2020) Clinical Neuropsychiatry 17(2) 135-138.
2 Conti, P. Trauma, the invisible epidemic. (2021) Sounds True Publishing.

Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.

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