I started a meeting with silence last week. We’re not talking the usual, mildly uncomfortable moment of silence that comes up every once in a while. Instead, I started this meeting with seven minutes of silence.
I’d drafted an idea for a team of teachers at one of our schools and decided to present it for their consideration in a way requiring no presentation.
“Okay, instead of talking this through, without talking, I’d like you to review the document and put all of your questions and comments in the margins as they come up.” A couple of the teachers looked at me to discern if I was on the up and up. I assured them I was. About 30 seconds in, one teacher said, “Well, here’s the thing…”
“Just put it in the margin,” I said, impressed at myself for not taking the bait of conversation.
They typed, I watched.
They typed some more, I watched some more.
I read as they as they added every question and comment that entered their heads.
Maybe two minutes into the process, I noted one of the teachers was inserting comments I’d classify as having a critical tone. From her first comment to her position midway down the first page, each time she hit option+command+m, the result was a reason why what I was proposing would not work. It continued this way for the remainder of the seven minutes. Though I’d told myself I was presenting a draft document and had said aloud to the room that I wanted to show them something we could make representative of the team, I was getting defensive.
As I scrolled through the comment, the voice in my head responded with Yeah, buts and Here’s what you don’t understands. She was missing the point of what I’d created.
By the time we hit the 7-minute mark, it was all I could do to stick with my plan and say, “Okay, now how would you like to proceed?” Others in the room started the conversation and kept driving. While I engaged and listened to their thinking, I was always half-listening for my critic to chime in. It took a while until she added her voice.
When she did, it wasn’t to voice one of the criticisms or reasons why one of the ideas would not work. It was to ask a question and then another to get clarity of the way everything might proceed. In fact, not once in the entirety of the conversation did she give direct voice to the ideas she’d written in the comments. Instead, I noticed she was making each comment into a question, searching for clarity and help thinking through how what I’d proposed might be made to work with their students.
The more I listened to what she was adding to the conversation, the more I realized she wasn’t the foe I’d assumed she’d be as I was reading her comments. She was an ally. She was an ally who’d done exactly what I’d asked and thrown her initial thinking into the document, shared what her gut told her would be hurdles to overcome in shifting the way the team had been doing things.
What I’d read as pessimism and inertia was this teacher trusting me and trusting the process. While I’d been preparing for battle, she’d been preparing to question, think, and learn.
My assumptions – the very same things I’d been asking these teachers to keep in check – almost derailed my ability to hear and understand what this teacher and her colleagues were bringing to the table. Much of my job is to listen. Part of the benefit of having a set of responsibilities different from those of teachers is my ability to come at conversations and difficulties fresh and open. Instead, I’d walked into the process in the same defensive posture I’m often working to help teachers move away from in our work.
I’m glad I caught myself. I’m glad I was able to stop, drop my assumptions, and listen.