A leader’s job: How I handle complaints from a volunteer board

July 23, 2012

Sarah Eaton - leadership blogThis year, I took on the role of President for a non-profit board that I sit on. I have sat on boards before and held the position of President before. At that time, I was in my early 30s. Now, a decade later, with a completely different board, it feels very different. I feel less “attached” to the position itself, but feel a deeper responsibility to lead wisely.

I often ponder the Native American concept about considering the impact our decisions we make today will have on the people living seven generations in the future. This shifts my perspective from the idea of trying to balance everyone’s input and views today to a more complex model that also considers the long-term impact of our decisions, into a future that we can neither know, nor predict.

The decisions we make today are not just about us as a board. Our decisions are not even about our members. They are about both the elected directors and the members we represent; and not only those who are involved today but those whose lives may be impacted in the future. Our leadership decisions impact not only our work today, but also the future.

I recently had a board member come to me with a complaint. He seemed angry and insistent that his ideas be heard and implemented immediately.

As a younger leader, I may have gotten angry with another board member insisting that I do something a certain way. Or I may have caved into his insistence and done what he wanted without thinking it through, in an attempt to keep the peace.

Now, I think that my first job is to listen. Instead of being emotionally involved, I am curious as to what he has to say. I am wondering about his point of view, his insights and his concerns. I did not promise that I would agree with him and I also promised that I would not ignore him. I promised to listen.

After I have listened, I have said that I will do one of the following:

  1. Address the concerns in a fair and just manner (take action).
  2. Explain why the concerns cannot be addressed in the exact manner that the complainant would like (give a clear explanation that is solidly grounded in evidence).
  3. If I lack adequate expertise, then take the concerns to either a governing body (i.e. the rest of the board) or a specialist with more more depth of experience (e.g. staff, outside consultants, etc.) who can offer guidance, provide additional knowledge and/or propose a course of action.
I take a strength-based approach to my leadership work. That means that I start with the assumption that everyone brings strengths, talent and expertise to the table.

Starting with that assumption changes the leadership game. It means that rather than reacting immediately, that I take the time to consider the strength that the individual brings to the situation. This often means setting my own opinions and feelings aside. I may be angry or frustrated, but I still have a job to do.

Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. I means that others are trusting us to be wise and fair.

I believe that as leaders, our first job is always to listen. Then ask questions. Then think seven generations ahead. Then either seek more advice or take action.

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Listening Strategies for Beginning Language Students

February 4, 2011

In my adult Spanish first class of the semester, we listened to the recording of an introductory conversation. Students had the script of the conversation in their book. We followed these steps:

  1. Students read the conversation individually first, reading for meaning and context. They used pictures, their knowledge of cognates and the glossary to help them.
  2. We listened to the recorded conversation on the CD.
  3. Students practiced the conversation in pairs.

This is all pretty typical stuff. Then I challenged my students to practice active listening. I told them we were going to listen to the conversation again and their job wasn’t to listen for meaning. They already understood the conversation from the first few activities. This time I challenged them to:

Listen to the pronunciation of particular consonants and vowels. I modeled the consonants I wanted them to identify and listen to.

Pay attention to the native speakers’ intonation of both sentences and questions, as well as the tone they used. Some of them weren’t sure what intonation was, so I modeled it by raising my voice by saying “You like chocolate ice cream” as a sentence and then by turning it into the incredulous question, “You like chocolate ice cream?!” by changing the intonation and emphasizing the word “chocolate”. I pointed out that the words were the same, it was just my voice that was different. I asked them to listen to how the speakers used their voices in the conversation.

Focus on how the native speakers link words together. I pointed out that one thing that makes people sound fluent is the way they link words and phrases. Beginning language students often sound choppy and unsure of themselves. Learning how to link words together early on builds both skill and confidence.

We listened to the recorded conversation again. I asked them if listening actively made any difference. They nodded. We shared observations and then continued with our practice.

Tips for active listening activities

  1. Ensure they already understand the main idea of the material so they won’t focus on the content.
  2. Give specific instructions on what to listen for.
  3. Model the sounds or language yourself to be sure they understand what to listen for.
  4. Give a limited number of things (3 or 4 are enough) so they don’t get overwhelmed.
  5. Have them share their own observations.

We did this in our first class of the semester. My plan is to incorporate active listening into every class to help them build their communicative skills early on.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Language learning: Speakers vs. Writers

November 18, 2010

Last night when I was teaching, the class was small, due to a big snow storm we’d been having over the past 24 hours. As I write this the current temperature outside is -15 C (5F) with a “real feel temperature”, as they like to call it, of -25C (-13 F). We’ve had about a foot – or 30 cm of snow in the past 48 hours, too.

Those that came to class yesterday were definitely the most dedicated, the most interested and the most committed. They were clearly divided into two groups. The speakers and the writers.

When it comes to language learning, there are those who want to learn to speak and converse. They’re not really interested in learning to write.  They’re often more confident speakers and less afraid about making mistakes. They tend to be more extroverted and relaxed in social situations. Writing seems slow and boring and for them, has little connection with learning to speak a language. They think that the time they spend writing could be better spent learning to converse.

Then there are those who love the comfort provided by learning to write. They have more time to process new concepts and try them out on paper before opening their mouths. This group are often more afraid of making mistakes when they speak. More importantly, they’re afraid of being judged for the mistakes they make. Sometimes more introverted and afraid of public humiliation, they see writing as a wise investment of their time, helping them to lay the foundation for better speaking.

Last night, I pointed out which activities would likely appeal to the listeners (listening to the CD conversations and a popular song, I’d brought), which ones would appeal to the writers, and which ones combined speaking, listening, reading and writing. I would say, “Those of you who are writers are likely going to find this next activity challenging, because it’s all based on listening.” I played a song they’d never heard before and asked them to write down any words they heard.

After I gave them each a white board marker and asked them to write on the board all the words and phrases they’d heard. The listeners went up and filled the whiteboard from top to bottom and side to side with words and phrases. They weren’t all correct, but they were pretty close.

Not one of the students who favored writing had anything to contribute to the white board. Not one word.

I told them we were going to listen to the song again and before I could go on one of the writers grumbled, “Not again! I hate that!” I smiled and said that their objective this time was to try and pick out the words and phrases on the whiteboard. We listened. Once the words were written down on the board, the writers were able to more easily identify them.

They suddenly seemed to become cognizant of themselves as learners, as they observed their own – and each other’s – http://wp.me/pNAh3-nM and capacities. Do you have writers or speakers in your classes? What do you do to challenge both types of keep and keep keep engaged? Do you consider it part ofhttp://wp.me/pNAh3-nMyour work to teach the value of writing, as well as the value of overcoming speaking fears?

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Short story radio – Excellent listening practice for ESL students.

May 31, 2010

Here’s a nifty resource I found for ESL learners. It’s not directed towards ESL learners, but I think that’s the beauty of it. Short story radio has audio podcasts of original short stories. The readings are done by native speakers, giving the listener exposure to authentic language. Check it out: http://www.shortstoryradio.com/index.htm

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.