By Cathy Salit

When I was 12 I hated school. It was the late 1960s and the world was in upheaval and changing daily — but my school was not. The curriculum was mired in the Eisenhower era, and the school was somehow both liberal and authoritarian at the same time. Learning and growing, which had been such a joy for me in grade school, were gone. I acted out — a lot — and spent way more than my share of time stewing on the bench outside the principal’s office, on my way to being sent home, most often in some combination of rage and tears. My mother was usually at the apartment when I got there, and would listen with care and sympathy to my latest tale of junior high injustice.

One day, a teacher refused to let my classmate go to the bathroom. I stood up for him (literally — I refused to sit down), and got into a screaming fight with the teacher (whose name, I kid you not, was Miss November). Once again, I was sent home. Once again, my mom met me at the door, sat me down, and handed me a wad of Kleenex. And once again, she patiently listened as I poured my outraged heart out. And as my sobs began to subside, my mom got an odd look in her eyes.

“Cathy Cake,” she said, using the childhood nickname I only allowed under extreme circumstances, “I think we’ve had enough.”

I sniffled my assent. She went on. “How about you start a school of your own?”

“What?” I said. I was stunned.

“You should quit school and start your own school, one that you want to go to.”

“Mom, I’m twelve,” I said.

“I know, sweetie,” she said. “Are there other kids who feel the way you do?”

I told her there were, and she said, “Great — let’s recruit them and we’ll create a new school together.”

And that’s what we did. A bunch of disgruntled kids, supportive parents and innovative educators took over an abandoned storefront on the upper west side of Manhattan, and started our own school. We made up the rules, designed the curriculum, and cleaned the bathrooms. The Harvard Educational Review interviewed us for an article, and Random House published a book we wrote about it. The experience turned me around, and set me on a path to becoming the person I am today.

Now, for a long time I thought this story was about innovation and creativity and me being an upstart and a rebel and all that. But recently, I’ve come to realize that really, this is a story about my mom. It’s a story about what an amazing listener Sema Salit was. She listened not just to take in information, or to understand, or to console. She did all that — every day — but she also listened differently. She listened for context, for emotion, and for possibility. She listened as a creative collaborator, and — all these years later, I’ve come to understand — she listened as a leader.

We all know listening is important, and study after study shows we’re worse at it than we think. But we can choose to grow as listeners — to learn to listen for possibility, to listen as a builder, a co-creator, and as a leader. This kind of listening has the potential to transform our work, our relationships and, yes, our world. Below are some links to some inspiring video and articles to help you grow as a listener.  You can start your journey here with some tips from my Inc.com video series.

Are you an 18-second Boss?
Take a quick break and watch this 3.5 minute video with management guru Tom Peters. He provides some powerful coaching for all of us who manage people. Then, send it to your team and invite them to give you some direction on your listening performance – how do they need you to listen?

Leaders Who Listen Have Breakthroughs
What is a true two-way conversation? In this article, Harvard fellow Elizabeth Doty shares six strategies for creating your own performance breakthrough when it comes to communicating as a leader.  After reading the article, try two new performances when communicating with your team, your boss or your peers this week.

Listen — It’s No Joke
You might have heard this one — it was voted “world’s funniest joke” in 2002, and I’m sharing it for a reason…

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other man pulls out his cell phone and calls emergency services. He gasps to the operator, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator in a calm, soothing voice replies, “Take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard.

Back on the phone, the hunter says, “OK, now what?”

Yes, listening is about much more than the words.


Cathy Salit is a performer and the founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.

Learn more about Performance of a Lifetime

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