A Lesson About Growth From a Rubber Band

How many uses can you think of for a rubber band? Holding your newspaper together (which is the first common use of rubber bands outside of factories), holding long hair out of your face, shooting your friend from across the room, a reminder around your wrist, a tool for “snapping” yourself when you want to break a bad habit, bundling pencils together, ranchers know how they can be used on their young male livestock, you get the idea. There are almost as many uses for a rubber band as there are rubber bands.

Now, what is one thing every use of a rubber band has in common? The rubber band has to be stretched for it to perform any of it’s useful functions. That’s why John Maxwell calls one of his 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, “The Law of the Rubber Band.” It says, “Growth Stops When You Lose the Tension Between Where You Are and Where You Could Be.” Not only does growth stop when you lose this tension, but, In the words of Abraham Maslow, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, then you will probably be unhappy the rest of your life.”

The problem with stretching is that it’s uncomfortable. If fact, if you haven’t stretched in awhile, it can be downright painful whether we’re talking about muscles or personal growth.

Sometimes You Stretch Yourself

One of the first things athletes do before any kind of exercise is stretch. Many companies have their employees stretch before the work day. Of course, they do this to warm up and loosen muscles to prevent injury and allow for strengthening. In personal growth it means we set goals that are just beyond what seems possible. We set “stretch goals.”

We’ve all heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals, right? What does the “A” in smart stand for? Achievable. Does that sound like a stretch goal? Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ proposes a different kind of goal in a white paper called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” He proposes H.A.R.D. goals. In his model the “D” stands for Difficult. It means, “I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my goal.” Now we’re talking about stretching. Rabbi Nehman asks, “If you won’t be better tomorrow than today, then what do you need tomorrow for?”

When was the last time you set a goal that required you to learn something new and leave your comfort zone? How else will you become all that you’re capable of being? You don’t want to end up on the wrong end of Maslow’s quote, right?

Sometimes You Get Stretched

Do you remember the toy called “Stretch Armstrong?” He was the super-hero you could stretch to 4 times his size. Mr. Armstrong, however, never stretched himself. He got stretched. Life can be like that. We can get thrust into situations that force us to stretch.

Three days after the Presidential election in 2008, seven people from the company I was working for at the time got laid off. I was one of them. If you remember the economic situation at the time, it was pretty tough. People weren’t hiring. One thing led to another and in a few months my wife, 3 of our children, and I were living in China and I was in a role I never would have imagined. That role led to me being acting director of an international school the next year. I had never lived overseas before. I had never worked in education before. I got stretched.

Albert Einstein said, “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.” He’s right. Living in China was not on our radar screen at all prior to us moving there. But, the growth we experienced, personally and professionally, during those two years is something we wouldn’t change for anything.

Becoming all you can be requires growth. Growth requires change. Change is uncomfortable for most people. I recommend being intentional about it. Believe it or not, it’s more comfortable than getting stretched. Start small. Set a goal to try something you’ve never done before by the end of the month. Once you’ve tried it, reflect on the experience. Did you enjoy it? What did you learn? Another quote from John Maxwell is, “Experience isn’t the best teacher, evaluated experience is.” Unless I reflect on and evaluate an experience, I won’t learn from it and grow.

How Your Comfort Zone May Be Hurting You

There is a story in the New Testament about one of Jesus’ disciples named Peter who walked on water. As the story goes, the disciples were in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee one night in high winds and rough waters. Jesus, who had stayed behind to dismiss a crowd and spend some time alone, came to them walking on the water. When they first saw him they were terrified, thinking it was a ghost. When Jesus reassured them he was not a ghost, and that it was he, Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” So, Peter climbed out of the boat and walked on the surface of the water for a bit. That’s what I call getting out of your comfort zone!

When Your Comfort Zone Helps You

I wonder what might have been going on in Peter’s head during that conversation. Everything in him would have been telling him to stay in the boat. Sure the boat was in high winds and rough waters, but inside the boat was the safest place to be. In that moment the boat was his comfort zone. He was a fisherman who spent most of his career in a boat. Rough waters and high winds were nothing new to him. “Stay in the boat!” is what I’m sure that voice inside his head was screaming.

A comfort zone is defined as “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.” There is a part of us, sometimes called the “little voice inside our head,” that is very attuned to anything that threatens to disrupt our comfort zone. That’s what was screaming at Peter. When the things that threaten our comfort zone are dangerous, that little voice is very helpful. It keeps us from harm. Maybe you can remember a time, for example, when “something” told you not to do business with a certain person and you found out later they were a crook. Hooray little voice!

When Your Comfort Zone Hurts You

The problem with that little voice is that it’s programmed, not intelligent. By that I mean it reacts the same way to anything that might alter the status quo (comfort zone) whether the change would be good or bad. In the case of a challenge that might lead to great things, that little voice becomes an internal “saboteur,” that could destroy your future. It can’t tell the difference between good change and bad change.

Peter ignored his internal saboteur initially and got out of the boat. I say initially because the story continues. It goes on to say that when Peter saw what he was doing and then saw the waves, he began to sink and Jesus had to grab hold of him and pull him up to safety. We all know what happened. Peter was doing something extraordinary until he listened to his internal saboteur who said, “Look at the waves!” That’s when the extraordinary thing began to crumble.

The End of the Story

Now, let’s give credit where credit is due. Peter got out of the boat, which is more than many of us can say about the challenges or dreams we’re contemplating. What is your “little voice” saying to you about those challenges or dreams? “You’re not ready.” “You wouldn’t know what to do.” “You’ve got responsibilities.” “You can’t be serious.” Is your little voice helping or hurting? Only you can decide.

The twist to the Peter story is that the situation confronting Peter was, in fact, dangerous. In that case, his little voice was attempting to keep him from harm. Peter got out anyway. What he learned about himself and about his relationship with Jesus in those moments, could not have been learned any other way. What do we make of that?

Just after grabbing hold of him, the end of that story is Jesus saying to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When it comes to the challenges or dreams you’re contemplating now, what will be the end of your story?

What’s in the Box?

We have four people in our house who will order something on Amazon or through some other online source from time to time. So, you never know when a box or package may show up on the porch. When you see a box on the porch and you’re not the one who ordered something, the response is almost always, “Ooh, what’s in the box?” You get really curios really fast.

Curiosity is defined as “A strong desire to know or learn something.” It is the driving force behind innovation and creativity. Some of the smartest and most influential people have had these things to say about curiosity.

“I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Albert Einstein

“The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.” Albert Einstein

“Creativity is Intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein – Curiosity is the fuel of creativity

“Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” Sir Ken Robinson

“The most important thing a teacher can do for students is to keep their curiosity alive,” Ken Robinson. [see his TED talk on the subject. It’s the most watched TED talk of all time]

“The future belongs to the curious, the ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it, and turn it inside out.” Unkown

If all this is true, I wonder why more of us aren’t more curious.

Semper Gumby

Several years ago I worked with a team that adopted the slogan “Semper Gumby.” Borrowing the Latin word “Semper” from the U.S. Marine’s motto meaning “Always,” we added “Gumby” to fill out the meaning “Always Flexible.” The idea first came up as a joke after a client had asked for yet another change in the program of services this team was offering. We later came to realize that the nimble flexibility the team provided this client was precisely why they did business with them. They saw flexibility as a differentiating strength.

Making it Personal

The first year we lived in China, one of the veterans of overseas living said to me, “to be successful living in Asia, you have to be willing to live with ambiguity.” He was right. I learned that the more of my western expectations I was able to let go, the more I enjoyed the experience of living there and the more I learned. Put another way, the more flexible I was, the more I was able to grow. We saw some people who came to live and serve who lacked flexibility. Their brittleness quickly became brokenness.

Ambiguity and Flexibility are similar in meaning. Ambiguity means, “the quality of being open to more than one interpretation, inexactness. Flexibility means, “capable of bending easily without breaking; ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.”

Microsoft developed a list of education competencies, one of them is “Dealing with Ambiguity.” They define that as: “Can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.”

If you’re familiar with the “True Colors” personality types, the above definition sounds like an Orange through and through. Our youngest son is an Orange. Ambiguity is his friend. He just returned from a three week trip to Europe with two of his high school buddies. They planned the trip almost as they went. He loved it.

Only 27% of the global population are Orange. Well over half of us have a personality type that prefers a more steady, measured approach to life. We don’t necessarily welcome change as a friend. On the other hand, most of us would acknowledge there are things we would like to get better at. We would like to grow. There is a well-known saying, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying” that has a lot of truth to it. Jack Welch put it this way, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

What Can We Do?

When you get up in the morning, or when you’re about to do something strenuous, what do you do? You stretch. Stretching loosens your muscles so you can use them without damaging them because they become more flexible.

The same thing is true with our minds. We can stretch them to become more flexible which will allow for growth. One simple stretch exercise I’ve done with people involves a mug. I pick up a white mug that has a logo on one side. I show it to the person or group across from me and ask them to describe it. From their point of view it’s a white mug with a handle on the left. When they’re done describing it, I disagree with them and describe the mug from my perspective. I describe the logo and the fact that the handle is on the right. You get the idea. We’re both right, it’s a matter of point of view. To expand on this idea, try using your imagination to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Imagine what it must be like to be (fill in the blank).

Stretching means getting out of our comfort zones. If you’re an analytical type, read some poetry. If you’re poetic, do some math!

In his book, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, John C. Maxwell writes about “The Law of the Rubber Band – Growth stops when you lose the tension between where you are and where you could be.”

Let’s stretch!

A Mile Wide

We used to live in the great state of Nebraska. It’s a wonderful place with wonderful people. We loved our years there. The Platte River runs through Nebraska. Altogether, including tributaries, the river runs over 1,000 miles. We had the chance to visit a riverside cabin with some friends on one occasion and we went “boating” on the river. I put quotes around the word boating because you can’t boat on the Platte in the conventional way. It’s too shallow. We skimmed the surface of the river on an air boat. It was so fun, fast with quick turns, a great time. The Platte river reminds me of the saying, “A mile wide and an inch deep.”

Although the Platte is beautiful and we had a great time, the saying “A mile wide and an inch deep” is derogatory when talking about people. It means the person may know a little about a lot of things but they don’t know much about any one thing. Or it means their knowledge or intelligence is superficial, shallow.

Another saying about water that’s used of people is “Still water runs deep.” That sounds like something you’d rather have someone say about you, until you look up what that saying originally meant. “Quiet enemies are more dangerous than shallower, more visibly turbulent enemies, so beware.” It’s come to mean something more positive like “a person who seems quiet or shy may surprise you by knowing a lot or having strong feelings.” This whole water/people saying thing has me thinking about the relationship between being still or quiet and being deep.

There is also the saying, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” So, quietness alone is not the indicator of depth.

Shallow or Deep

A deep person is someone respected as having profound insight, knowledge, and wisdom while someone with superficial understanding who is gullible is considered shallow. If Gallup conducted a poll, I wonder how many people would say they wanted to be known as shallow. Among leaders, especially, I’m sure they would prefer to be known as deep.

The question is, can someone become deeper? The answer is yes. No one is born deep. Anyone who is respected for their insight and knowledge was once a kid in elementary school learning to read and write just like the rest of us. They grew deep over time. How? Here are three things we can do to grow deeper.

Ask Good Questions

Sir Francis Bacon said, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Looking at it from another angle, Charles P. Steinmetz once wrote, “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.” Good Questions are usually:

  • Purposeful – you ask based on what you want to learn about the person or the subject, not random or trivial
  • Open – they invite your conversation partner to talk rather that answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”
  • Focused – they ask only one thing at a time
  • Followed up – they begin in more general terms then become more specific to increase understanding

Here’s a post and a couple websites to explore good questions.

Listen

It doesn’t do any good to ask good questions if you don’t listen to the answers. Right? It is sometimes amazing how many people don’t get that.

It is said that LBJ had a plaque on his wall that read, “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin'” Putting the point a little more eloquently, the Dali Lama said, “When you talk you’re only repeating what you already know. But, if you listen, you may learn something new.”

Knowledge, wisdom, and insight come from learning. Learning happens when you listen. Feel free to check out a few previous posts on listening. Scroll down on that page to the category “Listening.”

Reflect

Asking good questions and listening are only two of the essential steps to growing deeper. We should take the time to reflect on what we’ve heard/learned. Earlier I mentioned the still water and wondered about a connection between quietness and depth. Here it is. We should take time to be quiet and let things marinate in our minds.

One of the greatest leaders of all time, Jesus, apparently made a habit of getting alone. In John’s gospel he writes, “Jesus, … withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” What would we do if we followed that example? I’m sure Jesus prayed. That might not be a bad idea. He probably also reflected on the interactions of the day. We could take time to think about what we’ve learned, perhaps connecting the dots to other knowledge.

An important element of reflection is quietness. Sometimes just listening to the quiet allows the “back burner” of your mind to make connections and suggest insights or understanding to your conscious mind. These flashes of insight, as they’re sometimes called, can be very exciting and are the stuff of being deep.

With water, the depth causes the quietness. With people it’s the other way around. Quietness contributes to depth. It’s difficult to be quiet and still in our culture with all the electronic devices and social media. But it’s worth it. Try to schedule some daily time to ask questions, listen, and reflect in quietness. You’ll feel yourself go deeper.

Are We There Yet?

I know you’ve either heard it or you’ve said it (or both!). You’re on a long road trip, driving for hours, and inevitably out pops the question, “Are we there yet?” You can hear the whiny voice, can’t you? When I used to fly a lot for work I had a love-hate relationship with that map. You know the one. It has your origin and your destination with a line connecting them and a little symbol of an airplane showing you how far you’ve come on the trip and how far you still have to go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve checked that, especially on long flights, with the follow up question running through my mind, “How much longer?”

The obvious missing element in the above scenarios is patience. We get impatient with so many things,  traffic, in grocery store lines, in lines anywhere! But, we also get impatient with people, loved ones, co-workers, perfect strangers (and imperfect strangers!). Being impatient with situations is bad for us. It effects our blood pressure, heart rate, stomach, etc. Being impatient with people is also bad for us for the same reasons, but it’s bad for the other person as well. It can effect their body like effects ours. But it can also effect them mentally and emotionally to the point of inhibiting their growth.

Patience – Word Nerd Alert

So, what is patience? The English word comes from a Latin root that means “suffering.” One Greek word for “Patience” comes from two words, one meaning long and the other, temper, so it means taking a long time to get angry. Other words mean to bear a load for a long time or to endure hardship. One of my favorites is a Chinese expression. The characters for this “Patience” include one made up of the characters for “knife” and “heart” and one made up of characters for “and yet” and “small.” It seems to mean that patience is taking a knife to the heart and yet considering it a small thing. Wow!

Another, very simple definition of patience is “showing self control.” That seems appropriate when we consider some of phrases we use to express our impatience. “I lost my patience.” “I lost it.” “I went off.” Those expressions mean “I didn’t control myself.”

Patience is a Virtue

Whichever definition we choose, patience is good for everyone. That’s why the saying, “Patience is a virtue.” It keeps us calm which is healthier. But, and I would argue more important, it gives people room to grow. Patience allows people freedom to try things, experiment, make mistakes, fail, and ultimately succeed. Without it people become timid and fearful. With it they become creative and courageous.

Where does impatience come from? If you type that question into the Google search bar you’ll find some good articles on impatience from a psychological perspective. The depth of those articles is beyond my scope. I can say, though, that impatience comes largely from a belief that people and circumstances should align to my goals and timelines. When they don’t, I experience frustration which is akin to anger which is very similar to impatience.

How Do We Do It?

So, how do I become patient? It starts by remembering that the people around me are as interested in their goals and timelines as I am in mine. Are mine more important just because they’re mine? Hmmm, perhaps not. With that in mind, here are a couple things we can do to re-gain self control when we feel our patience running out:

  1. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
  2. Identify the source of your frustration, what goal is being threatened or what timeline might not be met?
  3. Think about the actual worst that could happen in this situation.
  4. If we can’t change the situation without showing impatience then find a way to make the best of it. We might check emails on your phone if you’re in a long line, for example. Be creative.

Showing patience makes for healthier, more productive relationships at home, at work, anywhere. Think about the last time you showed impatience. How did that go? What might you have done differently? Now, plan for the next time a situation like that may come up. How can you show patience?

Happy Anniversary!


It was one year ago today that I launched this blog. My first post went up on Sunday, April 15, 2018 and was titled “Star Performance.” Since then I have posted weekly, publishing every Monday. Although it’s been exactly one year, this is actually the 59th post because I published a few mid-week thoughts in addition to the weekly posts.

This blog has been primarily about elements of Employee Engagement. A few months ago I added a page to the website called “Posts by Category.” The categories listed are:

  1. Engager Dynamics
  2. Habit Formation
  3. Listening
  4. Words

That last one, “words,” may sound a bit strange, but I call myself a word nerd because I enjoy diving into the definitions of terms as a way of better understanding what I or someone else is talking or writing about. A few of the mid-week posts have been about words that have made a powerful impact on my thinking.

Engager Dynamics

These posts are specifically about those things “bosses” do that cause their people to give their discretionary talent and energy to the work. They are identified by a single verb, like “Expect,” then the post expands on what it means to set expectations. I’ve organized these “dynamics” into those that Challenge and those that Connect with people.

Habit Formation

So much of what we do is out of habit. That includes many of the ways we interact with each other. These posts revisit each of the Engager Dynamics from the perspective of how to make them your habit. The first in this series introduces habit formation under the title “How Does a Klutz Become a Dancer?

Listening

Arguably one of the most important and most underutilized skills in the human interaction skill set, listening is the focus of the next series of posts. I call it “The Super Power You Didn’t Know You Have.” Super Power listening allows you to see the world through other people’s eyes. That’s so cool, and cool things happen in relationships when you can do that.

Words

I mentioned this series above but, to elaborate a bit, I posted a few “Word Nerd Alerts” by themselves. I’ve included in this category other posts that have word definitions as part of the content within that post. What can I say, I’m a nerd.

A Request

On the “Home” page of the blog website (www.engagerdynamics.com) I wrote,

“Welcome to Engager Dynamics.com! Thank you for visiting. We are having a conversation about what I call “Engager Dynamics. We are looking at Employee Engagement from a little different perspective.”

I would love for this to be a conversation, so I invite you to leave comments on any of the posts. Let me know if you agree, disagree, have additional thoughts, or suggestions on topics. I know we’re busy. If you don’t have time to leave a comment, would you let me know if you’ve read any of the other posts in a comment to this one? Thank you!

The Habits of Transformational Engagement Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about an organization I had been part of. One of the biggest issues with that organization was poor communication. Isn’t that almost always true? In this particular case listening proved to be a key transformational dynamic. When people knew they were heard by someone who cared and, when appropriate, took action on their concerns, trust went up, morale went up, and metrics went up.

Good communication in all its aspects is a necessary thread that runs through all the Engager Dynamics. But let’s take a few minutes to talk specifically about listening. Like anything else, the way we listen is largely a matter of habit. We may have good listening habits or we may have bad ones.

Here are a couple of good listening habits:

  • Eye Contact – this is not staring a hole in the other person’s retina, but watching a person when they’re talking to you. Look for facial expressions, especially micro-expressions (those involuntary facial muscles “twitches” that divulge a person’s true feelings), and watch body language. I call this listening with your eyes.
  • Ask Questions – When someone is talking, think of it as them drawing you a verbal picture of how they see the subject of the conversation. Asking pertinent questions can help fill in details or give texture for a deeper understanding of the subject. For example, if one of your children came to you and said, “Johnny hit me!” You have a stick figure picture of a boy hitting your child. What’s missing? It could be the identity of Johnny, it could be the context and witnesses to the event, and it very well could be the reason Johnny hit them. Is Johnny a bully? Did your child hit Johnny first? Questions help fill in the picture.

Now here are a couple of bad listening habits:

  • Allowing Distractions – I once had a client who prioritized the phone over the face. In other words, it didn’t matter what we were talking about together in his office, if his phone rang he would hold up an index finger, say, “Excuse me just a minute,” and answer the phone. In the meantime I sat there listening to his phone conversation . . . awkward. Not only was it awkward, but it was a bit frustrating and I certainly didn’t feel like he cared about the conversation.
  • Forming your Response – There is a gap between the speed of speech and the speed of thought. When we use that gap to plan our response to what the person is saying, we lose focus on them and are, then, only pretending to listen. This is most common in situations where the discussion involves differing points of view. It may be a dialog, a disagreement, or a debate. The point here is that sometimes we disagree with another’s point of view less than we thought we did, but we don’t know it because we stopped listening to formulate our rebuttal.

You may be able to identify with one or more of these good or bad habits. We can train ourselves to stop the bad habits and develop the good habits. How, is the subject of another piece. Suffice it to say we can pay attention to the way we listen and try to identify our habits. That’s the place to start.

[Note: this post and last week’s are re-published from a Linkedin article I wrote a couple years ago. I broke the article into two parts for readability]

The Habits of Transformational Engagement Part 1

Several years ago I had the opportunity to step into an organization that had been under difficult leadership. All the people involved were good people but the employees felt disconnected from the leader. There was a lack of trust and all the corresponding baggage associated with that. The fact that this organization was overseas and that most of the employees were expats only exacerbated the situation. When the leader resigned I was asked to step in and try to “calm things down.” So . . . What now?

Employee Engagement

There is a lot of good discussion these days about it. Some are augmenting the idea by calling it “Transformational Engagement.” I’m part of this conversation and I love the concept of Transformational Engagement. Most of the dialog is about the benefits of Employee Engagement, what an Engaged Employee looks like, and/or the factors in an organization that contribute to or detract from Employee Engagement. This is very important to the conversation but it fails to zero in on the crucial factor . . . leaders. While some people naturally engage in their work because that’s the way they’re wired, in most cases the onus of engagement rests on the leaders. Leaders, managers, and supervisors need to be “Engagers,” people who engage others.

Habits

Studies have shown that as much as 45% of what we do each day is out of habit. So, I want to talk about the Habits of Transformational Engagement.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

I like to say, “The beginning of Wisdom is the definition of terms.” So, before going any further, let’s define what we’re talking about. These definitions are taken from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Habit: An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary
Transform: To change something completely and usually for the better
Engage: To induce to participate, to involve

My working definition of Transformational Engagement is: “Causing people to invest their best energy, creativity, and passion into improving the organization.”

When leaders engage people, transformation occurs at several levels. The leaders themselves are transformed, the people are transformed, the atmosphere of the organization is transformed, and the results are seen in the organization’s metrics. They improve, often dramatically.

The question is how do leaders engage people? What are the skills, I call them engager dynamics, required and can a leader learn them? There are several engager dynamics. Not only can leaders learn them, but they can become habits. In fact, they must become habits if the leader hopes to become an engager.

How?

Back to the question raised at the end of the first paragraph, “What now?” In that situation I did a written survey of all the employees (at the time there were between 50 and 60). I compiled the data from the survey and then met one-on-one with each employee. In those one-on-one meetings I shared the results of the survey and then asked questions to get candid anecdotal feedback on their thoughts about the organization and its direction. From what we learned together through that process we implemented some changes:

  • Weekly open informational meetings to keep staff informed of milestones
  • Solicitation and implementation of quality and process improvement ideas from staff
  • Compensation validation for one of the departments
  • I kept my door open during the work day.

You read that last point correctly. No one had said anything about it specifically during the survey process, and I did it because it’s the way I’m wired, but I received more positive feedback on my door being open than almost anything else that was changed. People appreciated access to leadership and they appreciated being heard. It wasn’t long before the atmosphere changed. People began to have fun at work and our outcomes improved. Staff and customers alike often commented on the transformation.

[Note: this post and next week’s are re-published from a Linkedin article I wrote a couple years ago. I broke the article into two parts for readability]

Listening Exercises Part 3

Have you seen either version of the movie, “Karate Kid?” If you have, you understand what it means to practice even if you never participated in a sport or played a musical instrument. In the first version of the film there is the famous “Wax on, wax off” move. In the later version it was “Take off the jacket, put it on.” In both cases the karate kid was practicing moves that would eventually become part of his Kung Fu. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was making a habit of things he would later use, without thinking about it, to win.

That’s what we’ve been discussing in the last few posts. I’ve presented some “drills” you can use to make a habit of skills you can incorporate into you overall super power listening. In this post let’s look at three more.

Listening with your Heart

In my original post on Listening with your Heart I suggested the following practice to help you “hush” your own emotions.

Try keeping track of your daily encounters for a week. Jot down how you felt in every encounter. Name the emotions (Anger, Fear, Excitement, Confusion, etc.). Look through your list at the end of each day and try to decipher the triggers for each of those emotions. What caused you to feel that way in each encounter? This exercise will help you become more aware of your emotional responses. Being more aware will help you take control.

Now, same drill, different focus. This time keep track of your encounters for a week and jot down how the other person felt during every encounter. Some people have very sensitive emotional antennae, others do not. This is mostly a function personality type. But, don’t be discouraged if you’re not particularly sensitive to the emotions of others. You can “pump up” your sensitivity. That’s what this exercise is for. Depending on the nature of the relationship, I would recommend checking yourself by asking the person how they’re feeling during your conversation. You may find you’re read on their emotions is not accurate which would be a valuable thing to learn.

Listening with your Mouth

If you follow the link in the heading and read the original post you’ll find that listening with your mouth is about actively engaging in the story of the speaker. Think of it a little like being a reporter who is trying to find the details of a good story. How does a reporter get the details? There’s one way, they ask questions. What questions? There’s another one! Reporters are interested in

  •  Who were the people involved in the story?
  • What did the people do? What Happened?
  • When did the event(s) take place?
  • Where did the event'(s) take place?
  • Why did they do the things they did? and
  • How did they do it?

Practice using those questions when you’re listening. There is a fine line, though, between being an engaging “reporter” and being an “interrogator.” A reporter invites more information, an interrogator is trying to solve a crime. The approach feels different and the interrogator approach can shut people down. If you have or have had teenagers, you may know what I’m talking about.

There is another very specific use of questions. Organizations use it when they want to understand the root cause of something. It’s called “5 Whys?” The name is pretty descriptive. It starts with a problem statement like “My car won’t start.” Then you keep asking “why” until you find the root cause.

  • Why? The fuel gauge is on empty.
  • Why? I didn’t buy gas.
  • Why? I don’t have money.
  • Why? I got fired from my job.
  • Why? I never showed up for work.

Listening with your Hands and Feet

This is about taking action on what your hear and then closing the loop. Sometimes just listening is all a person wants. But, many times they are telling you because they want to see something done, especially at work. The initial good feeling of being heard quickly morphs into frustration if they believe nothing changed.

An exercise to help with this is to identify an action to take during each conversation you have whether the person is asking for one or not. After the conversation, take that action. When it makes sense, find a way to let the person know what action you took.

The other day I was waiting on something with a colleague. We were engaged in “small talk” while we waited. During that conversation, he mentioned a movie he had seen a long time ago and said how much he liked it. I made a mental note to look up the movie and try to see it. That night I did look it up. As read about it I noticed one of the actors had the same last name as the person who had told me about the movie. So, the next day I teased him that he had only told me about the movie because his relative was in it. He thought that was funny, but he also knew I had listened to him. I still want to see the movie and when I do, that will further close the loop.

Over the last three posts I’ve suggested practice drills for improving listening skills. I would love to hear feedback on how you’re doing.