I Love That Idea!

Think of something. Anything. Chances are, whatever you thought of started with an idea. Someone, somewhere said, “I have an idea.”

“Everything begins with an idea.” — Earl Nightingale

Your organization started as someone’s idea. The screen you’re reading this on started as someone’s idea. The way you do a certain thing is a manifestation of an idea about how it should be done. In my post on the Engager Dynamic called “Solicit,” I talked about where the best ideas about improving work come from. They usually come from your front-line employees. The ones who have their hands on the work every day most often have great ideas about how to make it better, easier, more efficient, higher quality, safer.

Glum (Character on the show “Gulliver’s Travels”)

We all know what often happens when someone brings up an idea. The Glums in the room usually speak up first. One might say, “We already tried that and it failed.” Another Glum response is, “That will never work and here’s why.” Sometimes you don’t even get the “… and here’s why!” Pessimism abounds. Sometimes it’s not just pessimism, it’s pride. Many people don’t like your idea just because they didn’t think of it.

One famous example of a great idea that was initially shot down is Fred Smith’s 1965 Yale University term paper. Fred had what he thought was a revolutionary idea that would change the way the world does business. His professor didn’t think so. He got a “C” on that paper. Fred later turned that “average” idea into FedEx.

I’m Lovin’ It

Innovation, creativity, market disruption can only happen when ideas are allowed to flourish. I had a client who mandated that their team “love every idea for 5 minutes.” What do you do when you love someone, especially a child (an idea is like someone’s child)? You feed them, you care for them, you foster their growth and development. When you love an idea, you do the same thing. For this client, the team discussed all the ways the idea could bring benefit and how they could implement it to realize those benefits.

You might not employ the “love every idea for 5 minutes” approach. You may create a no “No” zone, a place where the word “No” is not allowed when brainstorming or discussing ideas. Whatever your approach, making it possible for people to discuss wild ideas safely builds trust. Trust engages people. Engaged people come up with better ideas. Eventually your organization might just become the next FedEx.

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!

Serving as a Leader

I used to work for a large company based in the Chicago area. There was a statue outside their corporate headquarters’ front door. The title of the statue was “Servant Leadership.” It was a modern style depiction of Jesus washing his disciple Peter’s feet. It wasn’t the one pictured here, it was a sleek all-white marble statue and it made a statement to anyone who walked through the front door.

Once inside, the statement continued. Carved in a large marble wall in the main entryway were the publicly traded, multi-billion dollar corporation’s four corporate objectives. They were:

  1. To Honor God in All We Do
  2. To Help People Develop
  3. To Pursue Excellence
  4. To Grow Profitably

When you talked to people inside the organization, you learned they further understood their objectives as “Purpose Objectives” – Why we’re in business (To Honor God, To Help People Develop) and “Means Objectives” – How we stay in business to accomplish our purpose (Excellence and Sustainable growth). This company was about serving. It even had “Service” in it’s name. From the CEO all the way through their management academy, serving was the soul of the firm.

A Key to Serving as a Leader

In his 1970 seminal essay on “Servant Leadership” called “The Servant as Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf made the following observations:

One of our very able leaders recently was made the head of a large, important, and difficult-to-administer public institution. After a short time he realized that he was not happy with the way things were going. His approach to the problem was a bit unusual. For three months he stopped reading newspapers and listening to news broadcasts; and for this period he relied wholly on those he met in the course of his work to tell him what was going on. In three months his administrative problems were resolved. No miracles were wrought; but out of a sustained intentness of listening that was produced by this unusual decision, this able man learned and received the insights needed to set the right course. And he strengthened his team by so doing.

Why is there so little listening? What makes this example so exceptional? Part of it, I believe, with those who lead, is that the usual leader in the face of a difficulty tends to react by trying to find someone else on whom to pin the problem, rather than by automatically responding: “I have a problem. What is it? What can I do about my problem?” The sensible person who takes the latter course will probably react by listening, and somebody in the situation is likely to say what the problem is and what should be done about it. Or enough will be heard that there will be an intuitive insight that resolves it.

Turning the Key

The company I mentioned above emphasized listening to employees and listening to customers as keys to pursuing excellence and growing profitably. Robert Greenfleaf’s comments put listening at the heart of servant leadership.

Employees across companies around the world cite “poor communication” as a major issue in their organizations. With our modern communication-enhancing capabilities like text messaging, email, social media, and video conferencing, how can this be? Another answer to Greenleaf’s question, “Why is there so little listening?” may be because there is too much talking. You see, when everybody’s talking, nobody’s listening. We would do well to consider the proportion of our ears to mouth when we engage with others, and listen twice as much as we talk.

The leader Greenleaf refers to above was successful because of what he learned. He learned because he listened. When we’re talking, we’re not learning.

What the Best Bosses Do

I was talking to a colleague the other day about where I came up with the name for my management training program. I call it “Best.Boss.Ever. Training.” The name comes from a question I use whenever I’m interviewing a candidate for a job. Whether the candidate is applying for an entry level position or a management position I always ask this question, “Could you tell me about your best boss?”

I learn a lot about a candidate when they answer that question. I also learn a lot about some of the great bosses that are out there. I ask a follow up question about the worst boss and, unfortunately, there are a lot of them out there as well. The training is designed to help leaders become the best boss their people will ever have . . . hence the name.

Do they Listen?

Back to the conversation with my colleague, when I told her about my interview question, she asked, “How many times do they say it’s because the boss listens?” The answer is, in one way or another, almost always. Great bosses are great listeners. I asked her to elaborate on what she meant. She talked about someone who respected her experience in the job and listened to her ideas. They didn’t look down on her, thinking that because they were the boss they knew best about everything.

The best bosses are engagers. One of the dynamics of engagers is that they not only listen when their people bring them ideas, but they actively solicit ideas from them. They recognize that the people doing the work probably know it best and therefore usually have the best ideas about how to improve the work. Many times people are afraid to share their ideas out of fear of rejection or worse . . . being ignored.

How?

If you’re a leader, try asking your people how things might be improved. Instead of asking the generic, “How’s it going?”, make it a habit to ask the following questions during every employee encounter:

  1. What’s going well right now?
  2. Is there anyone you’d like to recognize for doing great work?
  3. Do you have everything you need to do you job right?
  4. What’s one thing we could do to improve our operation?

Listen with an open mind and don’t be afraid to try some of those ideas. You will improve the business. Even if the ideas don’t work, the fact that you asked and listened will improve engagement. Increased engagement will show up in your other important metrics. You will also move the needle toward becoming your people’s best boss ever.

[NOTE: This post is re-published version of a LinkedIn article I wrote a couple years ago]

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]

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.

Listening Exercises Part 2

Before we talk about exercises for Listening with your Brain and your Gut, it would be a good idea to strengthen the focus of our Bonus Brain Time. Follow the link and read that post if you’re not sure what I’m talking about. In short, it’s the ability we humans have to think about our listening while we’re listening.

During your next three conversations ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is my facial expression saying to the person who’s talking?
  2. What is my body language saying to the person who’s talking?
  3. What is the person who’s talking trying to accomplish with this conversation?

Ask yourself those questions while still listening to the person who’s speaking. You actually do this automatically most of the time because of the nature of Bonus Brain Time, but we want to sharpen the focus of this skill so we can harness it to become Super-Power Listeners. After each conversation, write down the answers to your questions. Then decide to do something different with your facial expressions, and body language during the next conversation and add the question, “What differences do I notice in this conversation?”

This exercise has the double benefit of helping focus your Bonus Brain Time (BBT) and improving your overall listening as well. The improved BBT focus will be helpful for the next exercises.

Listening with your Brain

This is a little like putting together the pieces of a puzzle until you get the full picture of what’s being said. The more pieces you have the better your understanding. So, it’s a good idea to constantly broaden your exposure to different things through reading, travel, and interaction with a variety of people. But, I digress. Let’s look at some exercises.

Attend a festival of a culture with which you’re not familiar. Read a little about the culture before you go to pick up a few puzzle pieces ahead of time. Then attend and observe, talk to people, ask yourself questions about the culture and find the answers. Ask questions like, “Why do they greet each other that way?” or, “What does that expression mean?” or, “Why is this food part of their cuisine?”

My family recently attended a festival put on by the local Greek Orthodox Church. There was Greek food, beverages, cultural dancing, and a market. We took a tour of the church and listened with fascination to the history of the denomination and the local congregation.

This kind of activity helps open your mind to how differently people see and understand things and how different does not equal wrong. This expanded capacity allows you to listen with more openness. The more open you are when you listen, the better you will hear what the other person is trying to say.

If you want to take the exercise to the next level, try attending a festival or event where everything is done in language you don’t understand. Learning to “negotiate for meaning” is another good way to grow your ability to listen with your brain.

Listening with your Gut

Some have said that your “gut” is like a second brain so I put these two together in this post. When you listen with your brain you’re paying attention to your thinking. When you listen with your gut you’re paying attention to your body and how it responds to what’s going on around you.

There are two components of listening with your gut. One is identifying your “triggers.” What kinds of things cause you to feel that heat rise up the back of your neck and set your ears on fire? Or, What are the events that give you butterflies in your stomach or goosebumps? An exercise for these is to keep track of your physical/emotional responses to different situations and catalog them. When you can name the responses (fear, anger, excitement, joy, etc) and identify the triggers, you can learn to anticipate them and control them so they don’t create static that prevents you from listening well.

The second component is paying attention to those unexplained flashes of “a sense about something.” It’s those moments, for example, that alert you that you should switch from Empathize to Evaluate in your listening approach. He doesn’t call it your “gut,” but Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book, Blink: The Art of Thinking without Thinking. He helps his readers understand how it is we often make accurate assessments of people and situations in the blink of an eye. Gladwell goes on to argue that this ability can be developed.

An exercise for developing this component is similar to the last. Whether you call it your “gut,” your “adaptive unconscious,” your “intuition,” or your “spidey sense,” pay attention to it. Take note (literally) of those times when you get a gut feeling about something. Write it down and compare it to what you learn over time and with experience. For example, in his book, Gladwell tells of an experiment where students watched as little as 2 seconds of video with no volume of different teachers. Their assessments of each teacher’s effectiveness were almost exactly what was given by different students who took the class with that teacher for a semester.

Puzzle pieces and Spidey Sense are powerful allies in Super Power Listening. It’s worth the time to develop them.

Listening Exercises Part 1

Have you ever played a sport or a musical instrument? If you have, you know what practice means. It means you learn a new skill. At first, it seems awkward and unnatural because you haven’t done it before. But you practice it. You do it over and over until it starts to get easier. Eventually it becomes second nature and you are able to incorporate it into your performance without thinking about it. It has become your habit.

One cool thing about Super-Power Listening is that you can learn skills that will make you better at it and practice them until they become second nature. You will be an habitual Super-Power Listener. In this post I want to suggest a practice drill or two for each of the previous posts on listening.

Listening with your Ears

Ears are the most obvious listening body part. But, we take in so much more with our ears than just words. Try these drills to develop this listening sense.

One drill is to “watch” a TV show without the picture. In older televisions you used to be able to turn down the brightness until the screen was black. If you can’t do that, close the TV cabinet door or close your eyes or wear a blindfold. This works especially well if you “watch” a show you don’t normally watch so you’re not familiar with the characters and story lines.

During this drill, pay careful attention to what you hear. What words do the characters use and what impressions do those words give you about them? What else do you hear? What about their tone of voice? What about other sounds in the scene? Do they tell you anything?

Another drill for listening with your ears is to close your eyes in a crowd and pick out the sounds and conversations around you. Try it in a crowded coffee shop sometime. Try to be inconspicuous so people don’t ask you if you’re alright. But, close your eyes. What do you hear? Over there someone is ordering a drink. Behind the counter a barista is steaming milk for someone’s drink. On the other side of your table there is a casual conversation. Are they friends? Have they just met? What are they discussing? Don’t listen too long or your just eavesdropping. What about the people behind you? You get the idea.

Listening with your Eyes

This drill is the opposite of the last one. This time watch an unfamiliar TV show with no sound. No cheating, don’t use closed caption during this drill. Keep it on mute for the entire show. Pay careful attention to what you see. What can you gather about dialogue from the facial expressions and body language of the characters? What else do you learn about the story line from the setting and the props?

For both of the TV show drills it would be fun to record each show before doing the drill (use a different show for each drill). That way you can go back with the sound on or actually watch the show to see how accurately you understood the story line and the relationship between characters.

Here’s another drill to strengthen your eye listening. First, watch this video.

Once a day, make it a point to observe everything you can in the first 30 seconds of entering a space. It may be an office, someone’s home, or a store. Later, write your observations down in a journal. What did you notice? Also write down what you learned about the person whose space it was.

I live in California and we have to have our cars “smogged” every couple of years before we can get the registration renewal. I took my car into a local smog shop last time and instantly learned that the owner loves pugs. He had a bookcase in his waiting room with pictures and figurines of pugs all over it. That one was pretty easy. But, If you get really good at this, people might even think your psychic.

Watch for the next couple posts. I’ll be sharing some exercises for listening with the rest of your body!

Listening With Your Hands and Feet

The other day my wife, Suzi, and I were in the car. She said something to me about how she was feeling. I was thinking about something else at the moment and it took me too long to acknowledge her comment. I had heard her and was thinking about how to respond, but how would she know that? Even a simple “Hmm” would have sufficed in the interim until I could ask an appropriate question. Instead, she had to ask, “Did you hear me?” Not my best moment. By not responding to what she said, I had sent a message that I either wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care. Neither is the message I wanted to send. But it’s not about intention. It’s about action.

Take Notes

Taking notes is one way to listen with your hands. This is a great use of that bonus brain time we talked about in another post. It’s also a great way to capture those words that so often vanish once they’ve been spoken. Taking notes also sends a signal to the other person that what they’re saying is important to you.

I have a colleague who works in Human Resources. Whenever she talks with employees she is always writing. Her notes are very detailed and she has a library of notebooks. Frankly, I don’t know how she finds her notes later, but she knows where everything is. You don’t have to go that far to make excellent use of this tool.

Try jotting down key words or phrases to jog your memory of the conversation. Another suggestion is to divide your note paper in half. On one side write the main idea(s) or concerns that are being discussed. On the other side record facts and details that support those ideas. Don’t get so lost in taking notes, though, that you forget to make eye contact and to pay attention to body language and other clues.

Take Action

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 (like me in my opening example). People say, “No one ever listens” at work 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.

Close the Loop

The important part of that story is that I went back to the staff and shared what I had learned and how it affected my decision. If I had not done that, the staff would have felt unheard and frustrated. They may have felt that the foreign director didn’t care about the local staff. That was the opposite of the truth.

When someone talks to you, listen for actions you can take to follow up on the conversation and take those actions. I just had a conversation with a guy who got the idea for his honeymoon from a passing comment his fiancee had made about something she always wanted to do. They did that, and the honeymoon was a huge success.

The action you take will not always be as obvious as a honeymoon based on a life-long wish. So, you will often have to make an effort to close the loop. Let the person or people know what you’ve done to follow up on your conversation. When you take action and close the loop, people know that you’ve listened.

Listening With Your Mouth

What? Isn’t that the opposite of listening? How can you “Listen” with your mouth? Didn’t you say that we should “hush” in order to listen? I hear the questions and I know it seems counter-intuitive. Let me put it another way. Awhile ago my wife and I were having a conversation with another couple who were friends of ours. At one point in the conversation the wife of the other couple said, “You guys are suckers!” Don’t be offended for us. She didn’t mean that we were gullible and easy to deceive. She went on to explain that she meant we “suck” information out of them like drinking through a straw. She meant it as a compliment and it was a way of saying we were good listeners.

Ask Questions

They way we “sucked” information out of our friends was by asking questions. It isn’t like an interrogation. It’s a natural way to find out more about what they’re saying. If they’re telling a story, we want to hear some of the details they may leave out to shorten the story. Or, we may ask clarifying questions about the setting or people in the story. How are they related to the main event? Did I get the sequence of those events and the cause and effect right? Then there are always the heart questions, “how did that make you feel?” “Was she angry?” You get the idea.

You can ask questions during almost any conversation. If you think about it, most conversations are a story of one kind or another. Even if a co-worker is giving you a report, the report is a story about whatever the information in the report is about. Asking questions is key to understanding the full story of the report. Questions help you find out more details behind the data in the report. They can also help you find out why the data is the way it is.

Reflect

This is the “R” in H.E.A.R. You may have heard terms like “Active Listening” or “Reflective Listening.” Those terms are describing this process. Reflecting can be very useful, but it can also be very off-putting if not done well.

The idea here is to let the person who is talking know that you’re listening and understanding by repeating back to them what they have said. It gets awkward and off-putting if it goes like this:

Friend: “I went to the store yesterday.”
You: “So, you’re saying you went to the store yesterday.”

If you simply repeat the words the person has just said, it seems contrived and the other person may feel manipulated. That’s counterproductive to good listening. There needs to be a finesse to using this skill. Reflect back the essence or a nuance of what they said. That way you’re not only signaling that you are listening, but it’s also a way of checking your understanding.

Try this exercise. Read the following sentence several times out loud. Each time emphasize a different word and notice how the meaning of the sentence changes.

“I never said he stole money.”

There are six different nuances to this sentence depending on the emphasis. Reflecting is a great way to get closer to the speaker’s meaning. For example, you might say, “So, it wasn’t you who made the accusation.” or you might say, “So, you think he stole something else.” It depends on how the speaker emphasized the sentence.

Final Thoughts

Let me leave you with two final notes:

  1. Context is always important to good listening. Pay attention to the entire scope of what’s being said. The answers to questions you might have may already be there. It reflects the opposite of good listening to ask a question the speaker has already answered.
  2. Asking questions is a refined way of reflecting. In the first example I gave you might ask, “Oh, which store did you go to?” That lets the speaker know you were listening. It also adds detail to the story.

So, you see, it is possible (read with an emphasis on “is”) to listen with your mouth. In fact, using your mouth is a critical element to super-power listening.