Deep listening is a skill – like organizational ability or teambuilding – that can be taught.

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 “Today’s students aren’t looking for the ‘sage on the stage,’ says Dr. Mark Chung Hearn, Seattle University’s director of contextual education at the School of Theology and Ministry. “They’re looking for the ‘guide on the side.’ ”

In his “Social Analysis: Skills for Unpacking Society’s Problems” course, he puts that philosophy into action with some unusual assignments:

Ride the bus and write a reflection on the experience.

Watch a TV show – including the commercials – and analyze the content.

While your classmates observe, build a structure using Legos, marbles and dominoes – all the while contending with a professor who deliberately undoes the foundation you’re working so hard to construct. Hearn’s disruptions are meant to mirror the unpredictability and chaos of the immigrant experience, and his technique works. “People get angry and upset,” he says. “But what does this mean for us as leaders?”

His goal: Equip students with the skills to analyze any issue – from immigration to homelessness – by moving deftly between the intimate and the birds-eye perspective. “Unlike the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ ” he says, “we’re actually trying to pay attention to the person behind the curtain, to pull back, peel back and see what’s really going on.”

His class is a key component of Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry’s Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership program. A rich mix of students, drawn from the nonprofit, corporate and civic worlds, join together in a two-year quest to become better leaders. Many are pursuing second, or even third, careers. The one thing they have in common? “They’re looking to make more meaning out of their professional lives,” says Hearn.

What’s the bedrock ability that makes a strong leader? For Hearn, it’s deep listening: When a person really tunes in to what’s happening in front of her, he says, a kind of awakening is bound to follow. And this type of listening is a skill – like organizational ability or teambuilding – that can be taught.

Dr. Valerie Lesniak, Director of Formation, Associate Professor of Spirituality, and interim Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the School of Theology and Ministry, elaborates on this topic. “We start to really listen, when we listen with not only our ears, but also our minds, hearts and the rest of our bodies. Listening is the process of responding to spoken and nonverbal messages.”

Graduates of the MATL program are putting their degrees to work for a range of industries and causes, from advertising to juvenile justice reform. “My work in the MATL program gave me a chance to learn about myself at the deepest level,” says Kristina Gibbs-Ruby, a student in the MATL/JD dual degree program-which offers students the ability to obtain a Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership and Juris Doctor degrees simultaneously. “I have a solid understanding of what motivates me as a leader, and what my stumbling blocks are. I’ve learned how to lead from a place of power within, rather than power over.”

At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, MATL graduate John Fauver has stepped beyond his role in facility and safety management to create leadership workshops for the scientific community. Post-doctoral students are stepping out of the lab, looking up from their microscopes and examining what leadership means. For many, it’s a brand-new topic. “It’s giving them the tools they can use as they progress in their careers,” says Fauver.

Back on the Seattle University campus, Mark Chung Hearn is thrilled to watch his former students in action.  “We have so much going on, in the political arena, in the religious arena, where we are just flinging things back and forth at each other,” he says. “Now more than ever, we need leaders who can step back and analyze a situation from a number of angles.”

The School of Theology and Ministry is a part of Seattle University, a Jesuit Catholic University built on spirituality and social justice, with dedication to interreligious relationships for the common good. We offer 6 graduate degrees, 3 professional certificates and professional development courses.