The Art of Pausing

We almost never watch live TV anymore. It’s liberating to watch if you want, what you want, when you want. Another liberating feature of modern TV is, whether your watching from a DVR or a streaming service, you can press “Pause” until the kids quiet down or while you take a snack (or potty) break or answer the phone. When sports come back, that’s one thing we’ll watch live, and you can even “pause” live TV like a game. Of course, one great thing about that is you can catch up by fast forwarding through the ads. I’ve even been known to fast forward between plays of a football game.

The “Pause” button obviously has many benefits when enjoying recorded or even live media. Less obvious, perhaps, but very important, are the benefits of pressing “Pause” to personal growth. Learning to pause allows growth to catch up with you. In other words, it’s in the pause that most growth happens. Leadership teacher, John Maxwell, has said, “Experience is not the best teacher, evaluated experience is the best teacher.” If experience alone made one better, then everyone who has been in the same job longer would be better than their “less experienced” colleagues. We know that’s not always the case. That’s because you need to evaluate and learn from your experience in order to grow, and you have to pause in order to evaluate.

The Power of the Pause

To “evaluate” means literally “to find the value.” Pausing provides the opportunity to reflect which means “to think deeply or carefully about.” If we take the time to think deeply and carefully about our experiences in order to find the value in them, that process is what turns experience into insight. Insight is the wisdom we gain from evaluating our experience and that wisdom is what guides us into a better future. That’s growth.

Pausing is essential to personal growth. But, when should I pause? I would recommend pausing at least at these times:

  1. The beginning of each day to go over the most important things in the day and your growth plan.
  2. At the end of each day to replay the crucial events of the day and evaluate them.
  3. At one point during the weekend to do the same for each week as you do daily
  4. Monthly as you change over your calendar, the exercise is the same for each frequency, you are just evaluating a larger arc of your experience
  5. An annual week or weekend to review and plan the whole year. My wife always chooses a word or short phrase for the coming year during the holidays. She lets us know that this is the year of …
  6. Finally, pause as immediately as you can after significant experiences.

Our society seems to get more and more frenetic by the year. Pausing can seem almost counter-intuitive. But, the more you do it, the more opportunity you give yourself to learn and grow.

Use your “I’s” When You Pause

Here are four approaches to your Pause time that may be helpful.

  1. Investigate – interrogate yourself and your experience to explore it’s value
  2. Incubate – I also call it percolating or marinating. The idea is to let thoughts and experiences grow to their full potential. You may want to lift the lid on that crockpot from time to time to see how their doing.
  3. Illuminate – here you actively place a value score on your experiences. Scoring them helps you seek out more of the higher value growth opportunities. Note: some of the highest value experiences can be painful ones which I do not recommend seeking out but value them highly.
  4. Illustrate – turn your evaluated experiences into lessons which you can share with others to help them grow. See #2 under “How to Re-set Your Value” from last week.

We have all had a life full of experiences. Some of those experiences have been good and some have been bad. Those of us who have grown and learned from our experiences are the ones who have taken the time to pause and reflect on them. Set an alarm on your phone for this evening that says, “Pause.” When it goes off, stop what you’re doing and take 5 minutes to reflect on one specific experience from today.

See Value IN Yourself to Add Value TO Yourself

I love this picture! That kitten doesn’t seem to have a problem with his self-image, does he? It’s a great illustration of the concept of self image. What do we see when we look in the mirror? What image of ourselves do we see looking back at us? As I get older, I’m noticing that I recognize the person looking back at me in the mirror less and less. I sometimes wonder, “Who’s that old guy looking back at me?” If you’re over, say 40 or so, you get what I’m talking about. But that’s not what this post is about. We’re talking about personal growth and the reality is that you need to see value in yourself before you’ll be willing to add value to yourself.

Unless your a narcissist or some kind of crazy, you’re susceptible to “impostor syndrome,” especially if you’re a high achiever or have big dreams. Impostor syndrome is that form of self-doubt that worries about being “whatever-enough” for the job or the dream. Every Lion looks in the mirror and sees a kitten from time to time. But, if that’s your constant state, that will prevent your personal growth.

What’s Your Value?

I’m not talking about your financial net worth. I’m asking, “What value do you see in yourself?” That’s important because you will not give yourself the opportunity to grow if you think you are not worthy of it because if you don’t believe in yourself, you won’t bet on yourself.

Your sense of personal value becomes a self-fulling prophecy in the sense that others will begin to see you the way you see yourself. Leadership coach John Maxwell said, “If you place a small value on yourself, rest assured the world will not raise the price.” If you don’t allow yourself to expand and grow, if you don’t invest in yourself, remaining where you are for a long period of time, others will take note and place the same value on you as you’ve placed on yourself.

Value is defined as, “the regard (high opinion, liking and respect, esteem) that something/someone is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something/someone.” With that definition in mind, what “regard, importance, worth, or usefulness” do you see in yourself? Let me tell you something. Unless you’re that narcissist I mentioned earlier, you’re worth way more than you think.

How to Reset Your Value

I’m a person of faith so the first place I look to determine anyone’s value is to the Bible. According to the first book of the Bible (Genesis), we are all created in God’s image. The rest of the Bible talks about how much God loves us and the extent he’s gone to redeem us. God places extreme value on each of us. Who am I to argue with God?! You have great value.

Even if you’re not a person of faith, you can change the image you see when you look in the mirror. Here are a couple ways to do that.

  1. Watch your Self-Talk – We tend to listen to and believe ourselves more than anyone else. What we say to ourselves, we believe. How we believe determines what we do, and what we do we tend to become. No one ever set a world record who said, “I can’t do this.”
  2. Add Value to Others – When we give to someone else by helping them grow and develop it creates space in us for growth
  3. Do the Right Thing even if it’s the Hard Thing – This discipline will go a long way in resetting your sense of character.
  4. Practice a One Word strategy – Pick a character quality or skill you’d like to develop and make it your one word for the month. Put it in a prominent place where you’ll see it daily and spend time each day focusing on that word and how it will be seen in your life.
  5. Remember the Rest of Your Story is Unwritten – Remember, the story of your life is an epic novel. The next chapter, let alone the ending, is not yet written. Become the author of your own story.

You are a person of value. It’s time to start betting on yourself.

Know Yourself to Grow Yourself

When you plan a trip you have to know at least two things. You need to know where you’re starting from and where you’re going. That’s true if you’re going to the grocery store or going across the country. It’s also true when we talk about personal growth. It’s true but the starting and ending points of personal growth are often far less obvious than are the two end points of a physical journey. That’s why we say you have to “know yourself to grow yourself.”

Knowing yourself is the starting point of your personal growth journey and it involves understanding what you want. There are three kinds of people when it comes to knowing what you want and doing it. First, there are those who don’t know. They are confused. Then, there are those who know but don’t do anything. They’re frustrated. Finally, there are those who know and make the journey. They are fulfilled. Which are you?

The really great thing is there is fulfillment in the personal growth journey itself, not just in arriving at the destination. If you think about it, when it comes to personal growth, when does one ever arrive?

To Know Yourself, Know Your Why?

A starting point for your personal growth journey is to understand your purpose. Knowing what to do becomes more clear when you know your “why.” How do you know your purpose, your why? I really like this exercise I learned from John Maxwell’s book Intentional Living. He suggests you can discover your “why” by asking the following questions:

  1. What do you Cry about? Almost everyone cries about things like the loss of a loved one (human or pet) or a broken relationship. So, the question is not what do you cry about? It’s, what do you cry about? What are the things that uniquely move you to tears? I’m a sap crier, not a sad crier. Don’t get me wrong, I cry about the normal things. But I tend to cry more about things that are moving. My family calls me a sap. So, I had to reverse engineer this to discover that I cry about Ignorance (when people don’t know that things could be better or how to make them better). I also cry about Estrangement (when relationships that should be wonderful are broken). Finally, I cry about Devaluation (I’m not talking about currency here. I’m talking about when people are written off as of having or bringing no value)
  2. What do you Sing about? Again, the emphasis is on you. What are the specific things that light you up to the point of wanting to sing? I get jazzed about discovery, when I see or help people learn the things that will transform their lives. I also want to sing when there is reconciliation, when those relationships that should be wonderful become wonderful again. Finally, I love it when those who’ve been written off are proven to be worthy. Call it redemption or transformation. I don’t care what we call it, I love it.
  3. What do you Dream about? This is not the big house, boat, or fancy car conversation. This is about what one thing, if you could change it, would make all the difference for you? I dream about spending the rest of my life launching leaders to live their legend.

So, Now What?

Comedian, Michael Jr. says, “To inspire people to walk in purpose is my Why. I can do comedy, write books, or be in a movie. They are ‘whats’ that are made more clear and impactful by my why.”

The next step in personal growth is to find some of your best “Whats.” Ask yourself,

“What are my strengths?”
“What are my weaknesses?”
“What are my interests?”
“What are my opportunities?”

In short, what do you like to do and/or want to do?

Now, ask some of your friends and family the same questions about you. They can validate or clarify especially the answers to the strengths and weaknesses questions. You may also find value in taking an assessment like the DISC analysis. I can help with that. I’m a certified DISC trainer. Feel free to contact me at jim@engagerdynamics.com. I’ll set you up with a web-based assessment that will give you a 30 page report outlining many helpful insights into your DISC personality profile. There is a small fee for this service, but it is well worth it.

Now it’s time to put it all together.

What’s Your Sweet Spot?

The next step in your personal growth journey is to identify what you’re great at? It may be natural talent or developed skill, but you’re good at it. You may like to do lots of things but there are a couple or one that you excel at. These are the things people tell you you’re good at but you don’t recognize it because it “comes naturally.”

Your sweet spot is where your passion (what you cry and sing about), your dream(s) (what you dream about) and your talent and skills intersect. When you’ve identified your sweet spot you have the “Know Yourself” part of “Know Yourself to Grow Yourself.” You’ve put a pin in the “Where am I now” part of your personal growth map. Now you can plan your growth to develop your sweet spot.

Growth Doesn’t Just Happen

Over the last three months I’ve been writing about Communication. In April the topic was “The Power of Connection” in four parts. May was four posts on Organizational Communication. Finally, last week I concluded a five part series on Listening. During the quarter that started this month, I want to shift themes from Communication to Personal Growth. It’s been said that “mastery” (the desire to get better at stuff) is one of a handful of intrinsic motivators. In other words, we are driven to grow and improve because of internal rewards (satisfaction) over external ones like prizes or recognition.

Leadership teacher, coach, and author John C. Maxwell,  among his many books, has written two that have been helpful to me on this topic. First is , The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, and the other is called Intentional Living: Choosing a Life that Matters. I highly recommend them both and if you were to read them you would recognize their influence in my writing during this quarter.

The First Law

The first of John’s invaluable laws of growth is the law of “Intentionality.” It’s also what the entire second book is about, living on purpose. The Law of Intentionality says, “Growth Doesn’t Just Happen.” You have to plan for it and work on it … on purpose.

My youngest two graduated from High School a year ago (wow! already). Our lives have changed in the evenings since that happened. While they were in school the evenings were filled with homework and preparation. That’s because the school had a curriculum and each course in that curriculum had a syllabus and each day had a lesson plan which included learning objectives. The school district was intentional about their learning and development (growth).

Once we graduate and the structured learning environment of school is gone, most of us are set adrift when it comes to personal growth. We find jobs or start businesses that may or may not have anything to do with our formal education. Then life is all about the daily tasks related to that job or business. But, as many experts will tell you, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” If that’s true, then in the scenario I just described, we’re dying.

Be Your own Board of Education

Because we no longer have others structuring our learning and growth for us, we need to develop our own personal growth plan.

Start with work. If you love your job (if you don’t, that’s another conversation) or aspire to a certain position, there are most likely job related certifications you can pursue. Research those and decide which ones you want and how to get them. There may even be organizations you can join that provide curriculum for your job development. In many cases an employer will pay for job related education and memberships. LinkedIn Premium has training available on a wide variety of topics as well.

How about Hobbies and personal interests? Set a goal. What do you want to be able to do by the end of the year? Find Youtube videos or online communities or local clubs that deal with that and start learning. Or go old school, like me, and buy books. Invest some time and money in yourself.

Finally, set a time and place to “study.” I get up at 5:15 every morning. After feeding the cat and letting the dog out, I pour a cup of coffee and sit down on the couch in the living room. I read for half an hour. I read a selection from two books. First, I read a chapter from the Bible progressing through a book. Then I read from whichever book is current on my list. It could be on a variety of subjects. After that, I write for half an hour. That’s when I work on these posts. I also have a couple of e-books on my phone that I read whenever I’m in line or waiting for my wife in a store.

There are other things I do and other things you could do. The main thing, though, is to start. Growth doesn’t just happen.

Using the Speed Gap Trap to Your Advantage

Last week I listed one of 7 barriers to good listening as “The Speed Gap Trap.” I called it that because of the gap between the speed of speech and the speed of thought. I called it a trap because it’s in that gap that most good listening gets stuck. Most often people don’t listen well because their minds wander while the other person is talking or because they use the gap to plan their reply.

Bonus Brain Time

There is a completely opposite way to look at the speed gap. It can be listening’s worsts enemy, or it can be listening’s greatest ally. What makes the difference? Intentionality. You can learn to use the gap to your listening advantage.

Before we go any further, I want to try an experiment with you. Think about a red balloon . . . What came to mind? Was it a big hot air balloon or a smaller helium filled birthday party balloon? Now, think about a green chair . . . Did you have a specific chair that came to mind or did you imagine one? It doesn’t matter. The point of the experiment is to show that you can choose what you think about. If you followed the instructions, you directed your mind to a red balloon and a green chair, and you did it in no time at all. You’re pretty amazing!

What you are experiencing now is something called meta-cognition. That’s a fancy word for thinking about your thinking. You have the ability to examine your thought processes while they’re occurring. Think about that. If you apply that ability while you are listening, you can turn “The Speed Gap Trap” into what I call “Bonus Brain Time.” Use the speed gap to think about your listening and direct your thinking to focus on the speaker.

Putting Bonus Brain Time to Work

Try an exercise. During your next conversation, practice being aware of how you are listening. First, pay attention to your own posture and attention. Are you giving eye contact? Are you listening to what is being said or are you planning what you will say next? One signal that you are planning what to say next instead of listening is the urge to interrupt. If you feel that, you are more than likely not listening as well as you could.

Next, pay attention to the person talking. What words are they using? What are their body language and facial expressions saying to you? I call this listening with your ears and listening with your eyes. How do the things they are saying come together to form a picture (listening with your brain)? How do you feel about what you’re hearing (listening with your gut)? Does it strike you as authentic? Is there any prejudice on your part that would lead you to believe one way or another?

After the conversation is over, make some notes. How did you do? What did you learn about the person who was talking? Even more, what did you learn about your listening? Yourself as a listener? Practice that same process over and over. It will be very useful as you develop your listening skills.

7 Barriers to Good Listening

At work we often talk about “Barriers.” They are those things, people, rules, policies, etc. that “prevent movement, or access, or progress.” In a coaching conversation, for example, you might ask, “have you experienced any barriers to meeting the expectation?” In other words, “is there anything outside or within your control that has prevented you from achieving the desired result?” In their book, The Oz Principle, authors Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman write about overcoming barriers to achieve results as part of being accountable.

We have a 9 month old puppy named Zuzu. It appears that one of her primary goals in life is to overcome barriers. While we were training her to go outside, we placed various barriers at entrances to rooms with carpeting or a rug and to keep her in the family room with us which has a tile floor. Mind you, Zuzu is a 5 pound puppy. It has been incredibly entertaining to watch her find ways to get beyond those barriers. She uses her nose, her paws, her teeth, whatever she can, to move (thankfully never destroy ) any barrier.

We’ve been talking this month about Listening. There are many potential barriers to good listening. One of them is he belief that because we hear, we listen. Hearing is part of listening, but only part. Listening, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is a full contact sport.

There are several other barriers to good listening. Here are a few of them:

The Speed Gap Trap

This refers to the difference in the speed at which people speak and the speed at which we can process speech. Most of the time, people speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute. But, we can hear at a rate of 500 – 800 words per minute. What happens to all that extra time? That’s where the untrained listener’s mind wanders, they lose concentration and wind up being accused of not listening.

The Vapor Effect

Hearing is the most ephemeral of senses. Sounds are vibrations. Once the vibration is over, it’s gone. That’s why we take notes or make audio recordings of lectures in school. That’s also why its a good idea to take notes during certain conversations. Because, if we don’t make some concerted effort to retain the words that have been spoken, they won’t last any longer than the vibration that carried them.

The Me Focus

“Self-Centered” means to be preoccupied with oneself and one’s own affairs. Often when we are in conversation our focus is us. What do I want to gain from this discussion? What do I want to say next? How can I prove my point? Again, this speaks to how we use our Bonus Brain Time. If my focus in our conversation is me, what are the chances I’ll ever reach super-power listening skills?

Now, there is a difference between being self-centered and being self-aware, a huge difference. Self awareness is linked to “Meta-cognition” which is something we’ve talked more about in another post. Basically it means “Thinking about our thinking.” For our topic we could say it means, “Thinking about our listening as we’re doing it.” This self-awareness is a powerful tool for developing our listening skills. Self-Centeredness is the opposite.

Some other barriers to good listening include:

Prejudice – If we have preconceived ideas about the other person, their motives, position on a topic, or anything else, it will inhibit our ability to listen to them.

Stress – is like static in our brain and blocks out other people.

Anger – is similar to stress in its effect. When we’re angry, even if it’s not with the person who is speaking, the emotion blocks our ability to listen.

Distractions – seems pretty basic, but background noise, cell phones, TV, etc are kryptonite to super-power listening.

There are many other possible barriers to listening. How many can you think of? Understanding the barriers to good listening goes a long way in helping us get better at listening if we act like Zuzu and find a way past those barriers.

Listen With Your Mouth

Several years ago our family was out to dinner with some friends. At one point during the meal their daughter said, “Hey everybody, Look!” When we all looked, we saw that she had put her earbuds in her nose and right when she had all our attention, she opened her mouth and we could hear music coming out of her mouth like a speaker. It was hilarious. But that’s not what I mean by listening with your mouth.

Listening with your mouth is more like the question I left you with last week, “What’s your story?” You listen with your mouth when you use your mouth to encourage the other person to speak or to speak more.

How to H.E.A.R.

There is an acronym that can help to remember the key elements or steps to good listening. I included this in a post in January of last year. The acronym is HEAR. Two of the four elements, interestingly, involve our mouths.

H is for hush. We have two ears and one mouth. But, we often use them in reverse proportion. We often talk more than we listen. The first step in Hearing someone and certainly in listening is to close our mouths. We can’t listen when we’re talking. Hush also refers to quieting some of the internal barriers to listening like prejudice against a person or idea.

E is for Empathize. Put our autobiographical responses on hold until we’ve heard the other person’s story from their point of view. There is a difference between Sympathy – sharing the speaker’s feelings (we’re not trying to do this) and Empathy – understand the speaker’s feelings (we are trying to do this) (E can also be for “Evaluate” when listening must be critical)

A is for Ask. I wrote more about this in a later post. But, questions are the most useful communication tools we have. The first rule of good listening responses is when in doubt, ask. The presidents association of New York once estimated that good questions increase our comprehension and retention by about 15%.

R is for Reflect. I also devoted another post to this. But, good listening responses reflect the speaker’s meaning like a mirror. How? Repeat and rephrase what you hear. It’s the most basic kind of feedback. You’re simply feeding back the speakers meaning to check for understanding. It is often easier to react than to reflect.

Initiating the Story

When you want to know someone’s story you have to get them talking. How do you do that? You could start with, “What about this weather?” I grew up part of my young life in Michigan where an apt reply would by, “Yeah, but wait 15 minutes and it will change” followed by the laughter of shared experience. While that gets the person talking, it doesn’t get you into their story.
You may want to try some of these conversation [story] starters:

  • “What are the top three things on your bucket list?”
  • “If you could ask for a miracle, what would it be?”
  • “What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?”
  • “Who has been the most influential person in your life?”
  • “What’s the most memorable lesson you learned from your parents?”

You can find 220 more possibilities here.

Going Deeper into the Story

Listening to someone tell their story is like viewing a picture. At one point in the conversation the picture may be like a sepia toned, old, faded snapshot. A little more information may add color and clarity to the picture. Still more information gives the picture 3 dimensions until at some point the picture begins to move. Even more information and you’ve stepped behind the eyes of your storyteller and are seeing the world through them. That’s Super Power Listening.

How do you get the additional information? With your mouth. Use questions to tease out the color, depth, movement, and emotion of the story. But make sure your questions are open ended. For example, instead of asking, “Were you angry?” which requires only a yes or no answer, ask “How did you feel?” That invites the speaker to volunteer more about their emotions.

Examples of other open ended questions include:

  • “Can you tell me more about that?”
  • “Why did you/they do that?”
  • “What’s next?”
  • “What’s the most important thing about that?”
  • “How did they feel about that?”

You see, it’s not only possible to listen with your mouth, if you want to get to SuperPower Listening, it’s necessary.

What’s Your Story?

I often find myself filled with wonder at the thought of how many stories there are in the world. Sometimes in traffic, other times driving through a neighborhood, I wonder what’s the story of the person in that car? Where are they going? Why? Are they happy about it? What’s their life been like to this point? Or the people who live in that house, what is the novel of their life?

John Holmes said, “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” As of April 2020, according to the most recent United Nations estimates, there are 7.8 billion people living on the planet. That’s 7.8 billion other stories! What an overwhelming thought!

As I write this there are demonstrations/riots going on in not less than 30 cities across the country. Those events were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died as a result of his treatment by a white police officer in Minneapolis. During the television coverage, reporters repeatedly ask demonstrators, “Why are you here, what’s your message to America?” The message of the sincere protesters is similar to the one after Rodney King in L.A., and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and others. These things keeps happening, I suggest, at least in part because no one is really listening.

Listening with Your Hands and Feet

When someone says, “I just don’t feel heard,” they usually don’t mean they are uncertain their voice has caused the other person’s eardrums to record sound. They usually mean the person hasn’t done anything in response to what they’ve said. People say, “No one ever listens” at work, for example, because they believe no one follows up, nothing ever gets done. Are they right?

While serving as the interim director of an international school in China it was brought to my attention that our local Chinese staff felt they were not being treated fairly in their compensation. I met with the staff members and decided to do some research. I met with local government agencies, a local attorney, business leaders of Chinese companies in the city and other Chinese educators to find out what the compensation packages were like for their employees. I learned that our packages were competitive. With the exception of one adjustment regarding housing allowance for married couples where both worked at the school, we made no changes to the compensation.

When I met with the staff to discuss my findings they accepted the outcome. What was interesting to me was not that they accepted the outcome but they accepted it with gratitude. They expressed appreciation that I had listened to them. Though it wasn’t the outcome they may have hoped for, they felt respected because I had listened and taken the time to research their concern. The reason they knew I had listened was because I had taken action and followed up with them. I call that listening with your hands and feet.

SuperPower Listening

“Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.” That’s how I describe what I call “Superpower Listening.” What would the world be like if we could all see it through the eyes of others?

It’s a similar idea to the Native American proverb:

“Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”

When I Googled that proverb to be sure I had the wording right, I ran across an unexpected source for a similar idea. If you’re a big Elvis fan it may not be as unexpected to you. But I didn’t remember an Elvis song called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Here’s a recording of that song with a brief intro by Elvis.

We can’t walk a mile in 7.8 billion pairs of shoes. But we can walk a mile in a few. In order to walk a mile in my shoes or see the world through my eyes, you need to know my story. SuperPower listening is engaging with someone well enough and long enough to learn their story. “Their story” is made up of episodes and one story is never the whole story. But, episodes build upon each other and reveal more and more of the person’s view of the world. It takes time and effort. It may also call upon you to take some action. Sadly, most people are not willing to put in the time and effort or are unwilling to be called upon for action to sincerely ask the question,

What’s your story?

Listen Linda!

“OK. Listen, listen, listen, Linda, just listen,” pleads then 3-year-old Mateo when debating with his mom over whether or not he should get a cupcake. If you haven’t seen this video, watch it here. Mom replies, “You’re not listening to me.” To which Mateo immediately retorts, “Because your not listening to me!” Wow! What a perfect representation of what’s wrong with so much communication. Ellen DeGeneres lunched the video to viral status when she had the Mom and son team on her show. The video is cute and Mateo is very articulate. But, I wonder if at least one reason it became so popular (no shade to Ellen) is that people everywhere (not just parents and kids) could relate to the issue it unveiled, No one is listening!

Last month I wrote about Organizational Communication. But a message sent is not communication unless it is received and understood. That requires listening. In fact, I would argue that listening is the most important element in effective communication (we have two ears, after all, and only one mouth). Well-known broadcaster, Celeste Headlee, in her famous TED Talk “How to Have a Good Conversation,” (over 5,000,000 views) says listening is the most important skill you can develop. She supports this claim with a quote from Buddha, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.”

Even though we spend a around a quarter of our time speaking and just over half our time listening (a 2:1 ratio), the following are true:

  • 87% of Married couples identify poor communication as their major problem … why? Because, “My Spouse Doesn’t Listen to me”
  • Surveys of workers rate “Good Listening” as a manager’s most important attribute, and, In a study of half the Fortune 500 companies, 2/3 of employees said “Good Listening” was a skill their managers most often lacked.
  • Management surveys have identified the most vital and neglected skill for college graduates entering the workforce as “the ability to listen and follow directions.”
  • One study estimated that 60% of corporate communication problems can be blamed on poor listening.

So, why don’t we listen?

Celeste Headlee suggests two reasons. First, she says, “we’d rather be talking.” When we’re talking, we’re in control. We don’t have to hear things we’re not interested in, we’re the center of attention, so we can bolster our own identity. The other reason Headlee offers is that we’re distracted. She mentions the fact that we can speak at about 125 words per minute but we can listen at between 500 and 800 words per minute. Our minds fill in the extra words. I call this “Bonus Brain Time” in my Listening course.

Because of Bonus Brain Time, it takes a lot of work and discipline to listen. That’s another reason we’re not so good at it. We either have not learned how to discipline ourselves or we’re not willing to put in the work.

I’ll offer one final reason we don’t listen well. We’re selfish. Let me put it in the words of Stephen Covey, who said it much more eloquently.

“Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, we listen with the intent to reply.”

I guess Celeste made the same point when she said, “We’d rather be talking.” We’re more interested in making our point than in understanding the point of another.

So, why should we listen?

For one reason, it’s the Loving thing to do. Love in any context is caring more about the other person’s well being than about your own. It’s what makes a great boss, a great lover, a great friend. If love is caring about the other person, what better way to show you care than to listen? Sometimes, that’s all the other person wants anyway.

Another reason to listen, it makes you more interesting. It’s true. If people, in general, like to talk about themselves, which we do, then we tend to find those who are more interested in us to be more interesting to us. Become that one-in-a-million listener and you’ll be the most interesting person many people know. Granted, it’s a little more selfish reason to listen, but it’s a reason.

I’ll offer one more reason to listen. You are far more likely to be amazed. Though we may like to talk about ourselves, the truth is, we know our story. Other people are often far more interesting to us. Celeste Headlee made this point in her video as well. She said she grew up believing everyone had some hidden amazing thing about them. She believes she is a better radio host because she keeps her mouth shut as much as possible, she keeps her mind open, and she is constantly prepared to be amazed. “And,” she said, “I’m never disappointed.”

This month we’re still talking about communication. But, more broadly than just organizational communication, and with a focus on the most critical part of communication, listening.

Grapevine Communication

Do you remember these guys? The California Raisins. I’m dating myself a bit. They first appeared on the scene in June of 1986. Look them up. It was an advertising coup for the California Raisin Advisory Board (I wonder if you even knew there was such a thing!) This claymation, pretend R&B group actually released 4 albums. But, when I see this picture, it’s their signature song and number one hit that comes to my mind, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” (Is it playing in your head right now?)

What does that phrase “Through the Grapevine” mean? You know me, I looked it up. Here’s what I found. The expression through the grapevine (or sometimes on the grapevine) is commonly used to mean ‘unofficially’ rather than through an official announcement, for example ‘I heard it on the grapevine that they’re planning to make some people redundant’. Rumors and gossip are spread on the grapevine but why ‘the grapevine’?

The term originated in the USA and comes from the telegraph system invented in the 19th century by Samuel Morse. The system required thousands of miles of telegraph wire to be installed, held in place several feet above the ground by telegraph poles placed at regular intervals along the telegraph route. People thought the wires and poles looked like the strings used to train vines so the telegraph lines became known as ‘the grapevine’. During the American Civil War rumors were often spread via the telegraph lines. When people were asked whether a particular story was true, they would often reply ‘I heard it through the grapevine’.

The Organizational Grapevine

We’ve been talking about Organizational Communication, it’s “W’s“, its Direction, and its Purposes. In each case the assumption was probably that we were talking about formal Organizational Communication. The “Grapevine” is the informal communication within an organization. It’s the “water cooler” conversation. It’s what people talk about over lunch and at break. It’s what people have to say when they’re outside of work or on social media.

Grapevine conversations often begin with phrases like, “Have you heard …?” or “Did you know … ?” or “Can you believe … ?” In those forms, they can sound a lot like gossip. Some of that will happen because people will be people and often people have an unhealthy interest in the affairs of other people. People will talk about their boss or about the last company event, or about their fears and uncertainty about job security, unless there’s something positive and exciting to talk about. You see, the organizational grapevine is not only a negative thing. It can also be positive. So, let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages to Grapevine Communication.

Advantages of the Grapevine

  1. The Grapevine spreads like wildfire. In that sense it is much more efficient than more formal communication. If you can manage the message, this is a great advantage.
  2. The Grapevine, in its rapid spread, also provides feedback more directly than more formal methods like employee surveys.
  3. The Grapevine can build unity among people as they share ideas and opinions
  4. The Grapevine is an opportunity for people to vent and is often a relief valve for people
  5. The Grapevine can be a handy supplement to formal communication as a way to get word out quickly and powerfully.

Disadvantages of the Grapevine

  1. The Grapevine often carries incomplete information and rumor as readily as it does solid information
  2. The Grapevine is not managed communication so it can be as unreliable as the telephone game with regard to the accuracy of the message.
  3. The Grapevine can consume enough of people’s time to make them less productive in their work.
  4. The Grapevine can foment hostility against leaders.
  5. The Grapevine can hamper the goodwill of an organization if the information is false or distorted negatively.

There is a Grapevine within any organization. A good leader will take care to avoid the disadvantages of it while understanding how to benefit from it’s advantages.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the same way, organizations abhor silence from their leaders. Understand the “5 W’s,” the “4 Directions,” the “5 Purposes,” make sure your message is true and good, and communicate, communicate, communicate. That will give you the best chance to benefit from the Grapevine.