People in conversation

Leading by Listening with Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges

In college, the idea of leadership development can be overwhelming, with terms like “lean in” pervading popular culture as students are repeatedly told they need to stand out to survive in the post-graduate world.

Mount Holyoke College and Smith College chose a more structured, supportive approach.

The schools’ respective Weissman Center for Leadership and Wurtele Center for Work and Life offer a series of student leadership workshops in partnership with a local program for women interested in running for public office.

The multigenerational group of students, staff, faculty, and community members came together for Essential Partners' workshop “Leading by Listening."

Led by practitioners Sallyann Roth and John Sarrouf, the workshop sought to address the question of what it means to listen deeply and respond from a thoughtful and reflective place, whether leading a study group, a campus organization or a business.

“The most profound workshop”

Through structured exercises and reflection facilitated by Essential Partners, roughly 100 participants gained a clearer sense of their own "center," and how to listen with resilience to difficult feedback.

Small breakout groups discussed what it meant to listen for the hope within the concern, the solution within the complaint, and the interest within the position. In small breakout groups, the students created space for a deep kind of listening—both to hear their own voice, and among their community.

Janet Lansberry, Assistant Director of Mount Holyoke College's Weissman Center, found herself surprised.

“Other workshops had been more focused on techniques and tips,” she remarked, “and I think that’s what I was expecting. What we had instead was probably the most profound workshop that we ever brought to campus. It offered a really unique foundation in personal insight.”

This more reflective approach is essential for honing a critical aspect of truly impactful leadership: emotional intelligence.  According to Lansberry, “There’s been so much research showing that understanding yourself, your motivations, and the effect you have on other people is a skill of leaders that are really having an impact.” 

learning how to listen

According to Lansberry, “The audience left the workshop with a new appreciation for the important role of listening as well as personal insights, skills, and approaches to take with them into the future.”

In fact, 96% percent of respondents said they would recommend this workshop to others. Students cited a range of new skills learned throughout the workshop: “Getting to a solution is not the goal of a conversation or listening spaces, but trying to understand each other.” Another student talked about “realizing that I have a voice, choice in every conversation, and conflict that I experience.”

Iyanna James-Stephenson, class of 2015, shared an important takeaway for her understanding of how to deeply listen, rooted in self-awareness. “In practicing self-care with our listening techniques, I recognize that we will always be learning how to listen; always learning how to be a better leader. You can recognize times when you haven't listened to someone, whether you refused to listen or you were unable to listen. You can always rekindle those times that you were not the best listener.”

By focusing on one’s own perspective, Iyanna added, “You can come to mental and emotional closure by rebuilding or respecting the mental and emotional health of the person you may not have listened to.”