I'm no marketing guru but I have learned over the years that I can either genuinely excite or unwittingly bore for England on the subject of what I do. The difference between the two requires the highly challenging art of listening. A luxury in short supply at the start of any new conversation.
Depending on whether I am facing a policy-maker, a creative practitioner, a teacher or a parent, I can choose either to describe my role in terms of being strategic, creative, educational or administrative. Or something combining all four. However I begin, sometimes I completely forget to find out why the person addressing me wanted to know in the first place. Without this knowledge, it’s easy to fall far short of expectations and end up saying nothing at all of interest.
For instance, the policy maker actually wants to know if I can help them influence their constituents by presenting the evidence they need for their next case. The creative wants to glean ideas for working creatively in schools without selling their soul. The teacher wants to know if what I do will really help improve attainment without increasing their heavy workload. And the parent…
The poor parent only wants to find out if I'm the right person to ask the way to the nearest loo. After listening to five minutes of me banging on about advocating the importance of arts in the early years, they've become so desperate that anything I say simply represents an obstacle to themachieving the immediate relief they need. Some may even end up hating me for that!
This question is never about us, it’s always about them. The sooner we discover how to address people’s questions with the answer that most quickly speaks to their real enquiry, and helps them achieve the fulfilment of their knowledge (or bladder), the more likely we are to engage them in a richer, more interesting conversation about what their interests and intentions are, ie why they want to know.
So how does this work in practice? We can hardly go around responding to this question with ‘Well, why do you want to know’? without sounding rather too impressed with ourselves. Definitely not cricket. So my tactic in these situations is to try and ask the question first. Or, failing that, offer a short reply that clearly describes the values of Earlyarts, opens up a wider question about how my colleague might engage with these values, and enables them to talk about their interests for long enough to find our common ground and build a relationship. It’s all about listening.
I have learned this lesson the hard way by spending time with a few of the world-leading pioneers who are the most adept at teaching me how to listen – our youngest children. I don't know any three, four or five year old who has been remotely interested in what my job is (frankly, if it’s not a racing car driver, fireman or police woman, forget it!). They don’t care who I am and are not the slightest bit impressed whether my title has director or dogsbody in it.
However, when they invite me to listen to their stories about who they are (which they are incredibly confident and adept at telling), I have the immense privilege of watching masters of communication at work. Bit by bit, as a child experiences you validating their words and genuinely taking their ideas seriously, the trust builds - amazingly quickly when your interest is really genuine – and their incredibly engaging stories unfold. But watch out as most kids can sniff out a patronising smile at ten paces.
Before you know it, they have explained their philosophy of life (or, at least, the subject of their play there and then) and invited your contribution to this hugely important subject. It is now, at this stage, when the child gives you the ‘glad eye’ and invites you in, you can be sure they are interested in you and your presence in their play for that moment.
And let me tell you, when this happens, you have just scored the meeting of the century with the most important person on the planet. Make the most of it – especially if you call yourself a ‘leader’ - because there will be nothing as truthful, challenging, meaningful and educational than this in the entire make-believe world of adulthood.
Image Credits: Little Acorns Project; Earlyarts