Effective Listening: Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Why aren’t we better at listening? Is it really skills or something deeper?

I’ve been intrigued by a 6 month, Leadership LinkedIn Discussion asking leaders to give “one piece of advice” for new leaders. With over 1300 comments, the discussion was skewed heavily toward one topic: effective listening. How leaders “listen” trumped all other discussion threads including transparency, honesty, and knowing yourself.

Julian Treasure’s Ted Talk,  5 Ways to Listen Better, attracted 1.5M views. Clearly, we know that bad listening is dangerous, or we wouldn’t be so interested.

Bad listening…

  • is contagious
  • discourages future communication
  • disengages
  • destroys trust
  • erodes confidence
  • ?

Listening deteriorates when we are

  • rushed
  • preoccupied
  • distracted
  • multitasking
  • disinterested
  • unskilled
  • intimidating
  • already know the answer
  • don’t really want input
  • ?

We know how to listen

  • Avoid multi-tasking
  • Create a quiet time, free from distractions
  • Connect
  • Empathize
  • Summarize
  • Ask Questions
  • ?

 Perhaps the problem is larger than listening

What we label as skills problems, may be deeper. Listen for what you choose to hear.

Look in the mirror for signs of lost

  • Respect
  • Empowerment
  • Interest
  • Passion
  • Purpose
  • ?

Open-Space Leadership: When Less is More

Sometimes leadership is just about creating an open-space and getting out-of-the-way.

I love using Open-Space Technology with a large group to generate ideas. It’s an amazing, high-energy, low-cost way to hold a powerful meeting. Participants essentially create their own agenda and self-organize into groups to discuss topics that matter to them. Although it’s useful to have a trained facilitator help with the effort, I have found it works just fine with the leader serving both as host and organizer.

“We have discovered, through countless pointed lessons, that there is precisely one way to mess up an Open-Space and only one way. And that is to think that you are in charge of what happens, or worse yet, to act that way. Truthfully, the facilitator has little if anything of a substantive nature to contribute. No fixes, no interventions or at least not of an obvious sort. For a brief time at the beginning, the facilitator holds center stage (literally), and then it is essential to get out-of-the-way.”
~ Harrison Owen, Founder of Open-Space Technology

Open Space in Action: One Example

Last week, I held an Open-Space Meeting with over 100 participants discussing the topic: How Can We Be More Influential Leaders?

We started in a big circle, set up the process and guiding principles and we were off (see resource links in the post for more how-tos). WIthin 15 minutes we had generated 18 fascinating topics to be discussed throughout the next 3 hours in concurrent sessions. Team members stepped up to own and facilitate topics. Participants could move freely from session to session. The conversation was robust. We then ended back in the circle where each participant-turned facilitator shared highlights from the conversation and next steps.

The topics were an interesting mix of leadership development, business-processes, how-tos, and best practice sharing. Some topics were inspired by challenges, others by success. Some chose to teach and share, while others chose to facilitate through lots of questions. We ended with many ideas and actionable next steps.

The spirit and the energy in the room was palpable. This was a group inspired to change things.

Why it Worked

I asked the team why it worked. Here’s some of the thinking:

  • I had a chance to think about the topic I would share in advance, and I came prepared with some ideas on how to facilitate the discussion
  • I chose a topic that I was passionate about it was cool to see how many others shared that same interest
  • We got to talk about exactly what we needed to, with the people we needed to
  • It was intriguing to see where the interest was which topics attracted the biggest following.
  • Now we know what matters most to our organization for future work
  • It was cool to see how many people in our remote group are all sharing the same experiences.
  • I found kindred spirits
  • I was heard
  • Some fantastic ideas were shared that I can take back and use immediately
  • Even though only a few people showed up to my session, we got started on some important work and I have already set up a follow-up conference call to build on our actions

A Leader’s Perspective

Our topic of “Influence” lent itself well to this technique. By stepping back as the leader and providing space for the conversation to emerge, I could model some of the most important parts of influence– listening and understanding. The team became the teachers. The spirit of this exercise can be translated in other ways as they go back to their daily work and provide influence in those environments.

We also set this up in advance as an important developmental opportunity for the team. Open-space sessions are a gentle and friendly way to practice facilitation and public speaking. I was delighted with the preparation and delivery of the team.

I was inspired by the opportunity to travel freely from session to session as a participant. It’s great to experience such inspired thought leadership from people at all levels and roles within the organization. If I had built the agenda myself, I would have overlooked some of the most popular topics.

Team Trouble? How to Build a Team One Person at a Time

My phone rang again this week. It was a front-line leader I have known for years having team trouble.

“I can’t get them motivated. They just don’t seem to care like I do. I am not sure what to do, I’ve tried everything.”

I have received this same call many times over the years, not from this person but from others in similar circumstances.

When the frustration level hits a wall like that, I go back to my most fundamental belief about team building: great teams are built one person at a time.

Until that fundamental trust is built between the leader and each individual team member, team meetings will likely remain superficial and team builders won’t get much traction.

Also, it’s a lot less daunting to think about how you can empower one person’s success, rather than feeling like you need to influence an entire team all at once.

Doing this involves meeting the person where they are. And as Dan Rockwell suggests, adapting your style the person you are working to influence.

Steps for One Person at a Time Team Building

Set the stage with the group

  • Start positive: express your commitment to their development
  • Be careful not to position it as fixing something broken
  • Let the team know you will be reaching out to set up individual meetings

Prepare by thinking about your impressions of each person

  • What are they most proud of?
  • What do they care most about?
  • What excites them?
  • What’s their biggest strength?
  • What seems to scare them?
  • Who do they respect? Why?
  • What is their role on the team?
  • What do they want to do next?

Hold individual discussions

  • Ask some of the questions above
  • Really listen
  • Resist the urge to comment or challenge, take it all in
  • Consider: what surprised you? What did you learn?
  • Agree on one or two key actions with measurements of success
  • Pick one great thing and ask them to share back at the next team meeting
  • Establish time to check in

On the side

  • Find time to learn more about who they are and what they do outside of work
  • Share a bit about yourself and look for common interests
  • Look for opportunities to work with them on something fun
  • Encourage opportunities for team members to work together

Incorporate some highlights into future team meetings

  • Start with asking each team member to share something they are proud of
  • Ask them to share a best practice or teach something
  • Have them share wins around their key actions

Please share your experiences what team building techniques have worked best for you?

The Most Important One: Tolstoy and Covey on Focus

One of my son’s favorite books is The Three Questions (Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy).

The story takes a child-friendly adventure through Tolstoy’s famous questions:

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to do?

When is the best time to do things?

The main idea– give all of your attention to the present scene and players, and do everything you can to contribute.

The most important one, is the one you are with… and the right thing to do, is what he most needs…. and the best time to do it is now.

“The most necessary man is he with whom you are.”
~Leo Tolstoy

I have been struck by how much these questions resonate with Seb (age 6). When it is just the 2 of us playing or talking, he will stop the action and ask with a big smile, “who is the most important one?” Or, when he wants to do something fun he will remind me, “when is the best time to do things?”

People need undivided attention. They want to be listened to, and really heard. They need to know that they are the most important one– at least in that moment. This is at the core of my values as a leader, and at the same time, it is a constant struggle to put into practice. I don’t have this handled.

It is easy to think we are doing it all– that we’re handling the juggling act with grace, and that were giving folks what they need. There is so much that is urgent, and coming in through so many channels. I am constantly picking up the phone, while on a conference call, and have text messages beeping in. And yet, I try to convince myself that I am “listening” to all 4 conversations: the conference call, the new caller, the urgent texter, and the conflicted conversations in my brain. I am not fooling any of us.

If you are a newer leader who has not yet stumbled on the classic work of Stephen Covey, the great leadership writer, whose life we celebrate this week, I would start there. Covey’s First Things First, has some solid principles that still guide my work today, and is amongst my most frequently gifted books. I also find value in outside practices that help me to clear my brain and let me approach the tougher situations with a bit more clarity: prayer, yoga, and exercise seem to work for me. Many also find deep power in meditation.

Is the “most important one” always the one you are with? Of course not. Sometimes, you must switch gears. But, it is an awfully good place to start.

One Person at a Time

My favorite work as a leader is the time spent one on one, digging deep, helping to bring out the best in someone. The other fun part is motivating large teams toward a vision and strategy to get something important done. And then there is the in-between.

What I find most difficult as I have assumed larger roles with bigger teams is the strong desire to connect one on one, and the almost impossible task of getting to know everyone in a large organization to the depth that I would like. I do my best to be as fully present as I can in each encounter, but it can be tough to do this well. Intimacy is hard to scale.

One Person at a Time

This challenge hit me in the face this week.

Intimacy is hard to scale

I was talking to an extended member of my team who does important work in my organization hundreds of miles away and a few levels down the org chart. I had not seen him in about 6 months. He said to me, “Karin, I think about what you said to me every day.” Oh boy, I smiled and waited. It turns out that once he reminded me of the challenge I had given him, I recalled the entire conversation, including exactly where we had been standing at the time. However, if I had been really on my game, I would have had immediate recall and perhaps have even been the first to bring it up.

I was so pleased that the conversation had helped him, and so disappointed in myself for the lack of proactive follow-through.

Time Well Spent

As timing would have it, the next day I walked into my office to find the very large stack of books I had ordered to give away at an upcoming summit I was hosting for some of my team. My intention was to inscribe them with a personal messages for each team member. That seemed like a good idea weeks ago, but now with literal wildfires burning in the West, and other emergencies that were consuming my day, it seemed like a daunting task.

That evening, I dove in and was surprised to find that what had felt like a difficult time-consuming exercise turned into a calming and useful experience. Somehow, moving deliberately through the team, one person at a time thinking about each person very specifically and the gifts they were giving, felt magical to me. Time melted away in a peaceful meditation. I left that night feeling tremendous gratitude for the people in my organization and their contributions to the work and to one another. It also became obvious to me that I knew some folks much better than others, and had much work ahead of me to be an effective leader for them.

Can intimacy scale? Tough question. There are certainly ways to be completely present in our relationships even in a large team setting. And, of course ways to do better with follow-up. I also found value in thinking quietly about each person one at a time, and seeing what surfaces.

Would love your comments and ideas


One Powerful Word

The words we choose as leaders are powerful. Helping our teams find the right words to clarify their thinking, can be even more powerful. As with so much else in leadership and life, less can be more. Sometimes, reducing the thought down to one powerful word can create vision and focus.

I have two friends both looking to lose a little weight. One is following a strict regimen of counting every calorie eaten and burned, with special calculators and lots of optimistic conversation around how many calories we actually torched in each workout.

Another friend takes a simpler approach, just don’t eat anything “white.”

Turns out, they are eating very similarly– avoiding refined sugar, potatoes, bread. Both are losing weight. One is spending a lot more time thinking about it.

Reducing challenges down to one word can create for easy following.

One word can clarify priorities (customers, safety).

In team building, having each person pick one word metaphors to open the conversation creates imagery that culls out the issues quickly in a non-threatening way.

“Today this team is a _______.”

“I want it to be a __________.”

In coaching, asking the employee for one word to describe their concerns helps to crystallize thoughts and clarify the issues.

For informal recognition, a powerful well-timed word, can be more memorable than a long discussion.

When supporting decision making, asking for a one word reason can help, “in one word, what differentiates this candidate from the others?”

Of course using the wrong one word without explanation can be devastating “no” and a few un-bloggable others come to mind.

However, encouraging people to find the right word can.

  • calm emotion and confusion
  • clarify thinking
  • reduce conversational clutter
  • creating a starting point for more useful words to follow

Nemesis Mentors

The natural tendency when looking for mentors to turn to people who look like us, think like us, or value the same things we do.

It’s easier, and often precisely how people are matched in some formal mentoring programs.

That can be fantastic.

On the other hand, what about seeking out a mentoring relationship with the person that REALLY frustrates, annoys and angers you? A nemesis who ignites and challenges you? Who questions your motives and assumptions? A person that makes you so angry at them, you wonder if you could really be mad at yourself. One of those guys.

More tricky.

More entertaining.

And likely, more valuable.

In Greek mythology a Nemesis will “give what is due.” That doesn’t turn out so well in some of those stories. But what if what is due is just what you need?

I watch this dynamic at play in our church youth group. And looking back, a similar phenomena happened back in my youth group days (but I was too involved to see it).

Unlike school where you can pick who you hang out with; in the church scene, kids are pretty much required to do stuff with everyone and be nice about it.

The kids that inevitably drive one another crazy, can help each other the most. They think differently they care about different things, and often have something that might be missing or underdeveloped in the other. The growth happens when they spend time really digging in and opening up to one another. I have seen some amazing peer mentoring magic happen here, one on one– after the storm.

At work, we are all trained to get along, be team players, and work collaboratively to get stuff done, “you don’t have to like each other, just respect one another and work as a team.”

But what about seeking out the person that most annoys you in the group or organization? Of course, there is a 3.75% possibility that the guy’s just a real jerk. I’ve met him. But barring that, how about approaching that person with the Won’t You Be My Mentor? list?

Then, wait for the magic.

Dad Says: Best Advice From YOUR Dads

In the spirit of Fathers Day, my son Ben (17) and I set out to collect as much fatherly advice as we could in a week. We asked everyone we knew or ran into friends, work, school, church, airports, restaurants, and random encounters “what’s the best advice you ever got from your dad?”

The question also became a conversation piece in a wide variety of contexts and our whole family got involved. We had people talking about this in team-builders, men’s breakfasts, church meetings, fire stations, summer camps, executive dinners, knitting groups and through our social networks. One friend got so engaged in the process he collected responses from 4 generations of family.

Sebastian (6) also got into the game, taking his own notes “be a taim plare (be a team player)” and “folo yor hirt (follow your heart).”

Ben and Mom’s Top Picks

  1. Don’t listen to your father (Karin’s Dad, from his Dad, MD)
  2. Have faith– but there is no RIGHT faith (Ben’s friend, Matthew who collected 4 generations of advice, MA)
  3. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance (Sean, our waiter, CA)

We received hundreds of responses from 5 countries.

The folks we talked to fell into 3 clusters:

  • the eager to engage

About two third of the folks we asked were excited to engage, and had compelling and interesting stories that came along with their advice. A few got choked up, as did we more than once in the process

  • those who preferred not to talk

MANY others had almost the opposite reaction. In these cases our questions were answered with silence or a quick attempt to change the subject. This was the most troubling and surprising part of this process

  • and “gee, my dad didn’t SAY a lot but showed a lot in his DOING

Our favorite was from Magesh in India “he once helped a poor child in the area by paying for him to have a heart operation. I sure learned a lot from him.”

“Sorry Ben. This is one that I can’t contribute to. Not many words were passed from my Dad to me that would fall into your category.
The only thing that I can share is, don’t let it happen to you- always talk to your kids and encourage them without shouting or threatening.
Love you guy”.

So when Dads DO talk what do they say?

Top Topics (and some good -or fun- examples)

Tried and True (19%)

“Do unto others”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff”

“Measure twice, cut once”

School & Knowledge (14%)

“If you don’t ask, you won’t know”

“Girls are just as good in math as boys”

“Never listen to the damn doctor”

How to Be and Improve (11%)

 ” Du kannst dich drehen und wenden wie du willst, der Arsch bleibt immer hinten” ( you can turn around as much as you want, the ass always stays in back)

“Figure out what people need and give it to them”

“Names are important. Really important. Never bluff. Ask again”

“As you know, my parents escaped from Vietnam to come to America. The one advice that my father gave me that stays with me is Ask yourself what you would do if you were not afraid My parents taught me to not let fear stop you, but rather move you.”

Dreams, Inspiration and Spirituality (11%)

“Believe in yourself and continue to inspire others the way you inspire me”

“Put your effort and time into the things you love doing”

“Talent is handy, it’s not essential”

Integrity and Respect (10%)

“Strive to always tell the truth, regardless of the consequences”

“Don’t worry about what others say if you are doing it for the right reasons”

“Be honest, open and upfront about anything and everything. You may not be liked today, however you will be respected tomorrow.

Relationships and Dating (9%)

“Girls like to be kissed”

“If you want your wife to be pretty, you’d better clean your plate. When you leave bits of food all over your plate, that’s what your wife’s face will look like.”

“Marry this one”

Family (8%)

“What did your mother say?”

(If I spoke rudely) “Mom is your mother, but she is my wife don’t forget that”

“Find something specific about your daughter to like every day. Let her know you found it”

Sports (7%)

“Don’t throw like a girl”

“Whenever possible, throw strikes”

“When in doubt, grab a glove and go out back”

The Basics: Finances, Food and Drink (6%)

“Cheese and crackers and a beer make a nice snack”

“Don’t complain about your weight while eating a snickers bar”

“Never walk over a penny”

Cars and Driving (5%)

“Don’t date a man with bald tires on his car”

“Always remember where you parked your car”

“Turn your head when you change lanes”

Thanks, Dads. Happy Fathers Day.

Namaste,

Karin and Ben

Please let us know your Dad’s best advice

Listen Well: Better Get a Bucket

I believe that after integrity, listening is the second most important leadership skill.

And it is also one of the most difficult.

Listening well is hard.Listening well, consistently, is even harder.

Lately, I have been paying more attention to what is happening when the listening is good.

The key is having some good buckets– categories to help you organize what you hear, and to feed it back.

People need to know that you have heard them that you are with them and that you got the gist.

Buckets help you organize your listening and feedback.

One on One

Imagine an emotional co-worker coming to you with a long story about why a project is in jeopardy. You listen intently to what she has to say, and look for the main ideas.After she is done, you can respond with empathy and understanding.

“I am hearing three main concerns here let me see I have this right “and then spill your buckets.

Helping someone to organize their own thoughts makes them feel better, and usually calmer. Situations seem easier to tackle when they are simplified into groups.

Bigger Groups

This also works in larger contexts as well. I recently watched an executive who was hosting a big conference get up every 3 hours and feedback the big ideas he heard from each speaker. He put his buckets on display, reinforced key messages, and modeled the level of listening that should be happening.

I have also used this technique in large town hall meetings. Rather than respond to every comment, I listen intently and then share (and respond to) the main buckets of issues.

There is value in the trying

Of course sometimes, your buckets will be wrong. That’s okay.

It at least helps the conversation along in a productive way.

Try taking a bucket to your next meeting. It’s exciting to see what might fill it up.

Early calls: Discovering You Love to Do

One of my favorite parts of being a mom is watching my kids discover what they love to do. The other day, Seb (6), looked at me with an epiphany. “Mom, when I am talking and everyone is listening to what I have to say, my heart feels happy, and I feel totally in control of myself. My life feels good and easy.” Yikes. He was hearing the ringing of some early calls.

“Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, causal blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition. Expect that through the right lens, all our encounters will appear full of thunderbolts and instructions; every bush will be a burning bush”
~ Sam Keen, Hymns to an Unknown God

The truth is, he is right. He has a natural gift for speaking, and people light him up. I am so glad he is paying attention.

I love to talk with adults that seem that happy and engaged in their work. It’s fun to ask them when and how they “knew” what they wanted to do. It always leads to fantastic conversation, and people who are jazzed about their work are even more jazzed to talk about why.

I keep a running list of themes I hear from folks who are in love with their work. Here are a few.

  • It’s okay to not have found your calling, be patient
  • Create space and time for reflection
  • Listen carefully to your heart
  • Build a strong network and community of support
  • Take some risks
  • Don’t discount it because it feels too simple; it may feel easy because you have a gift
  • One thing leads to another, pay attention to signs along the way
  • Know that it will be hard, involve sacrifice, and come with its own junk
  • Be grateful for the journey

Are you doing what you love? How did you know this was what you wanted to do?

What advice do you have for those in search of.