• Kai Vacher

#12 Nunchi: the Korean art of listening that makes you a better leader

Updated: Mar 8

The ability to be truly responsive to those around you in a school community is an essential quality of a good leader. Kai Vacher found that there’s plenty to heed in the Korean art of listening.

Some cultures do listening better than others. For example, do you know about nunchi? The Korean concept is all about the art of listening and thereby understanding others. It has similarities to what we in the West refer to as “emotional intelligence”.


Having “great nunchi” means continually recalibrating your assumptions about how the people around you are feeling, and what their needs might be, based on new information.


In a more refined form, nunchi is now taught to all Korean students as part of the school curriculum.

In the UK, we seem to take listening less seriously. The writer Deepak Chopra makes a distinction between those who listen effectively, and those who don’t. Many of us, he says, are either speaking, or preparing to speak, when we should really be listening. We typically listen to respond rather than listen to understand. I imagine many of us fall into this trap – and particularly those of us in leadership positions.


Being genuinely responsive to those around you is arguably pertinent to all roles within a school, but most important for leaders. We need to genuinely listen to the school community: students, staff, parents and governors. If all stakeholders feel listened to, it is more likely that they will support the school on a day-to-day basis with ongoing development plans and ambitions for the future. It is particularly important that the whole school community feels listened to during times of change, when regular two-way communication is essential to a smooth transition process.


So, how do we get better at it?


Listening strategy


I have learned from experience that it has to be “planned in” as a leader. When I first took up the role of principal at British School Muscat (BSM), I had in mind training from Sir David Carter that school development plans had to be rooted in extensive consultation with the school community if change was to be sustainable.


Following this advice, I created and executed a plan: I allocated time to listen to all my colleagues, held workshops with parents, invited groups of students for lunch and visited each governor in their place of work. I was eager to know what the entire community thought was already good at BSM and, crucially, what could be improved.


When the school development plan and vision was published, it was important that everyone could see that, while it was impossible to include everyone’s ideas within it, it was evident that we had listened to the whole community. We made this as transparent as possible. And it worked: we got full support.


Buoyed by the success of this initial consultative approach, I have adopted this authentic listening strategy in a number of other key school developments since, including:

  • Establishing a masterplan to redevelop our campus.

  • Creating the BSM Learning Ethos, which underpins our approach to pedagogy and curriculum design.

  • Appointing heads of school.

  • Selecting annual charities for the school to support.

  • Conducting annual parent and staff surveys that directly inform our school development plans.

  • Holding coffee mornings with parents to listen to their concerns regarding homework, assessment and reporting.

One significant advantage of this approach is that the scope for resistance to proposed change is much reduced: when resistance is identified within the consultation process, it can be addressed and embraced appropriately, while the ideas are forming.


I have honed my skills in this area over the course of these projects and identified a number of questions you should be asking yourself, as a leader, to check whether you really are an “authentic” listener:

  • Have you put your mobile phone out of sight and on silent?

  • Can you go the whole conversation without interrupting?

  • Are you giving yourself time to digest what you are hearing?

  • Have you asked questions with genuine curiosity to gain a better understanding of what you are hearing?

  • Are you listening reflectively? For example, listening carefully to the speaker, then reiterating their message back to them, showing you understand what they are feeling.

  • Are you giving the speaker your full attention? Are you making appropriate eye contact?

  • Are you listening at least twice as much as you are talking?

  • Are you tuning in to what is being said, how it is being said and the feelings or emotions that may or may not be expressed?


Kai Vacher is principal of the British School Muscat in Oman.

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue of TES Magazine under the headline “When it comes to leading, I’m nunchi the wiser”.

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