We’re All Ears: Learning By Listening

This post has been co-authored by Maura Smale and Jen Jarson.

The context

Jen: I started a new job at a new institution about two and a half weeks ago after 11 years at my previous institution. This new institution is rather different than my former one. That was a residential, small liberal arts college. This is a small commuter campus that’s part of a huge system. My new job has more administrative responsibilities, too. I learned new things every day in my previous position, of course, but there is something quite different about the blank slate of coming in to a new institution and a new position. So much to learn, so much to do, and so little context or history to help light the way.

Maura: I’ve been a library faculty member at my college for 9 years, three of those as director of the library. But like Jen, right now I find myself in a period of settling in to something changed. I was out on a research sabbatical for six months–most of this calendar year–beginning in early February and returning to the library just last week. I’m in the same job and institution, though the day to day rhythm of my work is vastly different than it was a few weeks ago. As I’ve been settling back in (and trying to remember where I left things in the folders and drawers in my office) I’ve been struck by the similarities to starting a new job. I still have my institutional and historical context, but there’s lots for me to learn (and relearn), too.

What are (the right) questions to ask when you’re trying to (re)learn about a job/institution?

Maura: Since I got back I’ve been arranging meetings with my colleagues to catch up on last semester and their work, and sometimes feel like the questions I’ve asked are quite similar to those I asked when I first became Chief Librarian. What have you been working on? How’re your projects, research, and other work going? Have you hit any roadblocks? Is there any support I can offer? I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, especially my colleague who served as interim director when I was out, for keeping everything running in the Spring. But because nothing is ever truly static there were a few unexpected situations and opportunities that came up while I was away. Learning about those really is like having a new job (though in the same organizational context), especially coming up to speed on new projects in the library for this academic year that hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon before I left on leave.

Jen: I, too, am trying to meet with as many of my new colleagues as I can. For me, that includes library and non-library folks at my local campus, as well as folks in the libraries at other campuses. To prepare for each meeting, I take stock of my running list of questions and choose those that seem most relevant to that person or group. As I look over this list now, I recognize that the questions are a mix of specific (such as, what assessments of student learning outcomes have been done recently?) and open-ended (for example, tell me about your work and responsibilities, how do you think students perceive the library?, what could the library be doing to better meet students’ needs?). Both types of questions provide me with useful information and open avenues for exploration. While the nature or phrasing of some lines of inquiry are likely more productive than others, just showing a sincere interest in others’ goals and challenges and seeking opportunities for alignment and collaboration feels like an important part of what makes this kind of outreach fruitful.

What should we listen for when in meetings, either individually or with committees or teams, both inside and outside the library?

Maura: Listening is important–I’m always working to improve my listening skills (and I think it’s a lifelong process, at least for me). In coming back after sabbatical I’m reminding myself to listen as much as I can: in one on one meetings, in committees, in casual conversations. I’ve been spending some time walking around the library and campus to listen, too, though since our semester hasn’t begun yet it’s still fairly quiet. Typically in conversations we focus on the topic at hand, and I’m reminding myself to listen with both ears open. I’m trying to pay extra attention, not just to the specific task being discussed but to projects and processes in the library as a whole.

Jen: Like Maura, I’m trying to listen on a number of levels. I’m listening for actionable improvements and opportunities, whether in the here-and-now or in the near or distant future. I’m also listening to uncover further questions I should be asking, those that I haven’t yet been able to fathom. I’m listening to understand priorities and goals and challenges and how the library plays a role in supporting or addressing them. I’m listening to figure out how the many moving parts of this large organization fit together and how to navigate and communicate best within and across it. I’m trying to listen for what the other person is really saying, rather than only what I expect or assume they’re telling me. I’m listening for the moments and places where our interests intersect and where we can best collaborate to advance student learning.

What questions do you think are most important to ask when you start a new position or return after time away? What do you wish a new/returning colleague would ask you? What do you find most important to listen for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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