Earlier this week, I represented parents and their child at a special education Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. Although I felt the meeting went well, since we did not finish the IEP, we scheduled a follow up meeting, and once we were outside, I asked my clients how they felt the meeting went. They responded with a smile, and informed me that they felt they were “being heard” in a way that had never happened before at previous IEP meetings, and they thanked me for making that happen.
This was not the first time I have had clients inform me that until I started representing them, they did not feel heard in IEP meetings. In a strange way, I have very mixed feelings about this type of response. On one hand, I am certainly glad that my presence and advocacy for my clients changes the dynamic in IEP meetings in a way that puts my clients on equal footing with the educators and administrators in the room, allowing them to feel heard for the first time. On the other hand, it saddens me that so many parents need to hire an attorney in order to level the dynamics between parents and educators.
While I am glad to represent parents and students in order to equalize the playing field, it is equally important that they feel heard by educators at their school. When I am done representing a family, the student’s education continues, and they should not have to bring an attorney to every meeting in order to feel heard.
This is especially true because most people cannot afford an attorney, and there are insufficient free legal services available to represent all those whose voices will not be heard without representation. In a 2017 report, the Legal Services Corporation found that:
- In the past year, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.
- 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year, including problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veterans’ benefits, and domestic violence.
- In 2017, low-income Americans will approach LSC-funded legal aid organizations for support with an estimated 1.7 million problems. They will receive only limited or no legal help for more than half of these problems due to a lack of resources.
When I represent clients, I remind them that they know the most about their situation, and to the greatest extent possible, it is important for them to tell the professional educators in the room what their child’s needs are, and why they are seeking changes in their child’s education. In most cases, however, they have already tried that, but the educators, as trained professionals, tend to minimize parental input because the professionals believe they know better.
My job, then, is to help cut through that professional vs. layperson communication barrier to make sure that educators hear what my clients have to say, even if that means I need to summarize, repeat, and explain what my clients have just said. In some instances, it is clear that my clients and school staff are mired in a historical debate about why something went wrong, and while that history may inform a solution as to how to avoid that situation in the future, once the conversation devolves into a blame game, nobody is listening, and solutions will not be found.
Of course, I am not always able to convince school staff to listen to my clients and agree to their proposed solutions to educational problems. However, if my clients are genuinely heard, an agreement is far more likely.
From the professional educators’ side, it is always important to remember that although educators may have a lot of expertise, they cannot possibly know all the details of a child’s life. They will not gain that information if they do not genuinely welcome the input of the child’s parents. This is especially true for parents who may have difficulty articulating their child’s needs, and do not have legal representation, as this inability can lead educators to assume that parents have nothing meaningful to contribute. In fact, the opposite is true, so when parents struggle to articulate their child’s needs, it is educators who must work harder to give voice to parents and make sure that they are being heard.
That works requires active listening. My role is often to encourage active listening when it is not occurring. The Center for Creative Leadership describes six skills required for active listening:
No. 1: Pay attention. One goal of active listening is to set a comfortable tone and allow time and opportunity for the other person to think and speak. Pay attention to your frame of mind as well as your body language. Be focused on the moment and operate from a place of respect.
No. 2: Withhold judgment. Active listening requires an open mind. As a listener and a leader, you need to be open to new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities. Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold their criticism and avoid arguing or selling their point right away.
No. 3: Reflect. Learn to mirror the other person’s information and emotions by paraphrasing key points. Don’t assume that you understand correctly or that the other person knows you’ve heard him. Reflecting is a way to indicate that you and your counterpart are on the same page.
No. 4: Clarify. Don’t be shy to ask questions about any issue that is ambiguous or unclear. Open-ended, clarifying and probing questions are important tools. They draw people out and encourage them to expand their ideas, while inviting reflection and thoughtful response.
No. 5: Summarize. Restating key themes as the conversation proceeds confirms and solidifies your grasp of the other person’s point of view. It also helps both parties to be clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up. Briefly summarize what you have understood as you listened, and ask the other person to do the same.
No. 6: Share. Active listening is first about understanding the other person, then about being understood. As you gain a clearer understanding of the other person’s perspective, you can then introduce your ideas, feelings and suggestions. You might talk about a similar experience you had or share an idea that was triggered by a comment made previously in the conversation.
Being heard helps to resolve many interpersonal conflicts, so the next time you are engaged in a heated dispute, pause for a moment, and make sure that all sides are being heard.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.