From power relations to powerful listening

With 21st-century education, we might have different visions (ideals), yet they might share a common core, like: “citizens able to make democratic decisions, with respect to humans and more than human rights”.

To have the ability to “ make democratic decisions” means we actually continuously practice making sense of the world around us, clarifying who we are and what is our work, as well as expressing that, in different forms and ways. This we call multiliteracy for students’ learning process part of the transversal competencies curriculum. 

“To make sense of the world” means you co-create with the world, it is not something dualistic, it is mutuality..

“To make sense of the world” means you co-create with the world, it is not something dualistic, it is mutuality, and this is epistemologically systems thinking. You are the world you are trying to make sense of, and the world is part of you, this also is the basis for practicing teachers’ and implicitly students’ autonomy. I will pause here a moment, if we actually say in our school and education curriculum “we would like autonomous students” this implies we have autonomous teachers around them. Autonomy is something we practice, and have the opportunity and space to do it daily, and it relates very much to critical thinking and scientific thinking, for students, another important transversal competency of the 21st century.  

21st century internationally acknowledged, referred to, and here presented from the Finnish curriculum; on the left side you have them as presented by a Swedish Finnish school to the students so they are able to understand them, only if we have a common shared language, then one can self assess where they are in achieving that competence

To decode “You are the world you are trying to make sense of, and the world is part of you”, means teachers have the tools, the space, and the time to practice clinical education of teachers, reflecting back on how is it that the learning in the classroom is happening.

I see and come from a place where I feel empowered, I make sense of the world then challenges, problems, and obstacles become learning opportunities; by practicing “who I am” this ( making sense of the world) is decoded in the everyday small practice of paying attention and then sophisticates into everyday little integration movement, “why is this meaningful to me” and from that place of creativity, take small actions or steps and then follow up on impact. 

This is the systems thinking approach we practice with action-based learning in Coaching Strategies -Turn Challenging Learning programs for school management, and team cooperation. 

This is my understanding of the Finnish Education System, how it is planned so it allows and fosters the above ideas, an Opened System

We had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of principals, education heads of departments, and teachers, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge their courageous (exploratory) work.

Moving from power relation to powerful listening we practice some steps, here we are attempting to slow down the process

Start from where you are

Moving from level to level as an organization: the culture, values, and principles that show how we move, act, learn, and work as a collective. It is not about the level where we are or where we “think is good to be” it is about paying attention and alignment. We use the short catchphrase “it is about the process, not the result“. We present here 4 levels of organization based on the place from which we listen. By this ‘ place from which we listen“, we offer an invitation to notice, to pay attention to your own attention, agenda. With participants in the program, we noticed things: am I listening now just for me to find the right moment to intervene, do I listen so I can gather more information, do I listen so I can feel and sense how it is this experience for you, do I listen so we might collectively find a new idea, way or perspective. It is not some kind of assessment or one level being better than another it is actually the process of everyday EFFORT of noticing from which level we listen and act. Then the alignment: if our intention is at level 3 or 4 and we constantly act from level 1 or 2, then we create stress, the “bed kind of stress”. and by that, we mean the kind of situation where one is no longer able to make sense of the world around and less able to make decisions.  Model documented from the work of Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, and the Presencing Institute, MIT. 

(source: MIT, U School, Otto Scharmer)

In this world, we train with our decision-making capital to be fine with paradoxes and to notice and eliminate inner contradictions, “competing agendas”.


By this we practice a simple idea: we collect information, listen to all voices (stakeholders), and then we make the best decision with what we know today we clear the gutter to stop any rumination “of this and that, and if this..or it is not in my power to, someone should do something”. With participants. the practice was how do I move from ” I want teachers to think and act as a team, to have a team mindset” to reframe this paying attention to the place from where you listen and paying attention to your inner place of intervention. In our programs, we simply invited to use the voice of I, and that was not only some “grammar” yet reflective work that needed first of all an open, safe place.

If we have goals, desires, wishes, or policies that aim or are in the sphere of level 3 or 4 and my everyday actions are at level 1 and 2, I want to know that, as this would mean I will have soon ( very soon) burnout teachers and learn out students. This is what Otto Scharmer says in the form of: “ we produce results absolutely nobody seems to want” and this situation leaves people depleted, frustrated, and (resisting change) no longer able to develop as the “world no longer makes sense to them”, and that might look like: they start operating from the past, they feel their autonomy is low and “it really doesn’t matter” what they do.

You matter more than you think

This is the title of the wonderful book from prof. Karen O Brian, from the University of Oslo. The invitation is to start from where you are, and as we move from the present situation “challenge” the “stuck”, there is this small action, that appears in the process almost as “inviting us to take it”. when I asked teachers in the process how it feels to you, answers like “ it feels easy, almost natural, it feels as if I know exactly what to do next” or “ the right persons and resources somehow appear effortless, I saw them with easiness”. 

So this is how we can decode: we start with a very small action and then we create a system around us of support ( action research or clinical education approach) and we observe the scaffolding of that one very little action, on which I rest my complete attention. Without practice, the brain is trained to focus on what we are missing (on incompleteness), and what we are lacking, so we purposefully and intentionally train the mind to follow this small action. And that is inviting creativity, and resourcefulness, integrating actions instead of silos thinking and actions that are simply inefficient in today’s learning context.

The leadership story

As we practice with the group, reflecting and allowing images that emerge for our listening story, and also about our Power story, we noticed the “younger self” leadership story appearing. How have we integrated that story into the work we do today? In other words, how do we serve that story of childhood intuitive experience of leadership ( of going forth) with others? By leadership, “we understand anyone involved in shaping the future and change-making” (Otto Scharmer) so everyone in education.  

Mistakes as proof of “waking the walk”

Vygotsky’s 3 zones in the learning process, this how we experienced as leadership model in Coaching strategies programs: 

1. The comfort zone (no learning is possible, we operate from the past). 

2. The challenging zone ( also called proximity zone, where the learning becomes possible, feeling safe enough to allow emerging). 

3. The Risk zone (here also little learning might be the case as one could be overwhelmed with confusion). 

We need to integrate our learning from multiple sources ( the body holds a lot of the unconscious and subconscious learning), as “only 5% of the learning is conscious” we want instead of pouring more learning to tap into the learning from the body (embodied) and bring it to conscious informed action. So the invitation with coaching strategies for schools is to walk the journey, continuing to “explain the journey” will keep us all in “our heads”. “ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Dao De Jing, from the practices and research of Thomas Hubl).

The work of integrating, transformative “needs loose enough structures, and horizontal relations”…

Reflecting on what and how we did it, bringing logic and rationality is important, yet when we invite the creative step (the emerging) we need to suspend the “skeptical voice of more explanation, more theory”. We need to allow the process with mistakes, as mistakes will shape our own way and will welcome us from where we are, instead of comparing us to some “right standard”. Once more the work of integrating/transformative “needs loose enough structures, and horizontal relations” ( so as 21st-century class dynamics, according to the research work Phenomon Learning, Kirsti Lonka).

Tolerating making mistakes, for teachers’ process and school management practice is tolerating not-knowing ( staying with questions and finding better questions, this is proof of Open Mind practicing Curiosity instead of judging that closes the Mind). 

“The moment I seem to get closer to the answer, the question seems to change” ( very good example from a series I was following as documenting the program and the work of the teachers).

 As our worlds are defined by wicked problems, which means our processes of making sense also need to be complex, sometimes paradoxical even. A rather fix, narrow process for change-making and sense-making would affect/ stop tapping into emerging ( new learning, and new ideas based on collective intelligence instead of a TOP DOWN approach that got us here).

( drawing for the process, by generative scribbling artist Kelvy Bird, MIT)

Going “forth” (emerging mindset)

With the 21st-century education and school culture, we move from “ready-made fix it” or “advise” or “someone else solving something that affects me” leadership to a “ thought creative provoking process in which there is mutual learning”. In the words of Ari Ranki, Head of Principals in Vantaa Municipality, I was principal when I was 34 and when I had Japanese guests observing the school I told them “ I am not the wisest person here”. The emerging leadership in schools is a mutual learning approach, and hearing principals and heads of departments, saying “I do not know how this will work” is proof that there is an open culture or learning-based organization. It is also showing vulnerability, and that is also proof of trusting the team and staying open mind, open heart, and open will as a principal. 

From a horizontal relation process, development becomes possible, we practice open questions and centered listening. We cultivate a safe space and complete trust.  Challenging learning is an opportunity for development if we practice moving from the “Blind Spots”, and practice curiosity of new perspectives. What was not visible before, with little cracks or shifts- what we were not able to notice, because our attention was too much focused on the problem, on the past, or too much on “finding the right solution” blueprint solution etc. This is the “new being effective and efficient” ( as these values are most appreciated by teachers according to TALIS, OECD measurement) in education for the 21st century. 

We come back as leaders, to prioritize cultivating Learning Relations, which means relations that will take us from a comfort zone to a learning zone. The horizontal structure of relations is also proof of mutual learning for school management. 

As leaders, as we move from “fixing” mode (mindset) we cultivate the capacity to listen and “hold” ( by holding we mean allowing the “system to see and sense itself”, hence we practice autonomy.

Moving from Blind Spots

Defining Blind spots: “ we take education status quo for granted, as it is a natural law”. And then with the system approach, we have this “ but this starts to morph into something else the moment you begin to change the most important variable: the quality of the awareness of the participants in the systems” ( Kaufer, Scharmer, 2013). 

There is a lot of energy and effort from school management and ‘training” programs to approach “resistance to change”. Yet, we could instead of approaching as a resistance to change as creating space and ways in which we practice rest/pause moments. These allow us to “ digest” and make sense of reality. Resistance to change is like a reaction to stress- the inability to make sense of “everything” that is happening, it is ‘an overload”.  Jon Kabat Zinn defined stress as “ the nervous system unable to digest what is happening”. Hence we have some kind of reaction ( learning from the past, there is no possible future or new learning here) “ of flying, fleeing or fighting”. 

 We use tools to allow creating RESPONSE ( allowing future thinking, and new learning to be possible). Hence we practice tools of social art technology to “bypass” the blindspots ( in the iceberg model everything beneath the water level) to access the source of creativity (where new learning, solutions, and true action become possible) and also very import it is true and make sense for everyone involved and moves collectively everyone towards an emerged solution, instead of “convincing” people of the solution. 

( drawing by Kelvy Bird, Generative Scribbling, MIT) 

  • Invitation to practice

( the practice was adapted from tool developed by BiDu, Israel as part of Global Forum practices, MIT, 2022)

Start from a moment of silence, we can take such moments in nature, or in a “busy” office as it is really an inner place of allowing attention to rest, or as we would say “closing all opened windows of daily activity that have been running in the background with some cost on our energy”. We do not have to actually do something particular, there is no evidence of posture that would attract attention, you can simply be as you are you just make a point of taking a break, allowing silence. 

Then I invite you to have a journal nearby you and allow these questions to prompt you in some way: 

1). What image comes to you, allowing an image to surprise you, from your life, maybe childhood, young adulthood, what is/means listening? Stay a moment with that image and try to shortly capture in writing ( the event, shortly people, action, your own feeling)

2) What comes to your mind when you think of power, and power relation in your everyday life? Once more, an image might arrive, remaining open, we practice curiosity and being open in this moment. Once more you can shortly describe the event, the people involved, and your emotions around the image/the event.

3) What is the bridge (connection) looking at these 2 images, and stories between Listening and Power? How do you show up for listening and for power?

You might like to follow up on this in the next days and weeks in the form of a few minutes of clinical practice, noticing.


Credits: in the pictures of this article are the amazing principals and teachers from Gant, Belgium from Latvia, Romania, Macedonia, Uk from the program Coaching Strategies for School Management and Teams of Teachers- a Systemic approach, October 2022, in Vantaa Finland.

  1. The Finnish Curriculum ideal (vision), with an adding that “ it is with respect to human and more than human rights”.
  2. on Starting where you are idea: Brene Brown in her podcast: What is Happening at Work? with Adam Grant and Simon Sinek” mentioned something that attracted my complete attention: it is a social scientist’s core belief we start where we are; you start where the people are
  3. on Centered Listening, more on this concept/practice from Leadership Embodiment, Wendy Palmer 
  4. on Lev Vygotsky 3 zones, there are plenty of resources, I took here from Pema Chödrön, Welcoming the Unwelcome, book and perspective on integrative Practice during Challenging Learning
  5. on Horizontal relations as a leadership model, Let my people go surfing Yvon Chouinard
  6. On cultivating attention with change-makers in education, the book “You matter more than you think” by Karen O’Brien, University of Oslo
  7. The brain is a cultural organ, and only a very small part of what we learn is conscious, on the neuroscience of learning, book by Suzanne O’Sullivan “Sleeping Beauties”
  8. On “stuck” or challenging situation ( the present situation), movement to the emerging future “ Social Presencing Theater” by Arawana Hayashi  
  9. The blind spot of our leadership 
  10. Systems Thinking- Melanie Goodchild 
  11. on the emerging mindset, changing from “fixing it” mindset Theory U by Otto Scharmer and Joanna Macy ” Coming back to Life”
  12. With clinical education, we address all 3 capitals of teachers: the professional – the qualifications, and knowledge; the social – their set of beliefs, values, and principles, and decision-making – agile, adaptive, and decision-making- routines and habits (Fullan, 2019).on professional, social and decision-making capital of teachers, ‘Indelible leadership” M. Fullan, 2019

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