Listen to Christmas

This is the Monday before Christmas, 2019. What are you thinking about? If you’re like me, you’re thinking about a lot of things. One of the things on my mind is this post. What should I write about? I decided to see what I wrote about last year at this time, so I went back and discovered last year’s pre-Christmas post came out on Christmas eve. I didn’t write anything about the holiday. I wrote about “Barriers to Good Listening.” It was part of a series on “Listening: The Super-Power You Didn’t Know you Have.” You can find the posts listed on my “Posts By Category” page at engagerdynamics.com.

Listening seems like an appropriate topic for our thinking at this time of year. We “listen” to our family and friends, for example, when they tell us what they want for Christmas. Our son Justin’s Christmas list is a much anticipated piece of holiday literature each year. It’s a humorous proclamation of his “demands” with corresponding “consequences” should they not be met. If you knew Justin, you’d get how funny such an approach is.

My point is that we demonstrate how we’ve listened by the actions we take about those Christmas wishes. I call it Listening with Your Hands and Feet. What I’m thinking about now is, What does Christmas want from you? Strange question? Maybe. We hear a lot about “The Magic of Christmas” and “Christmas Miracles.” I believe the things we put into those categories are the result of someone’s answer to my question. This season asks something from us. As a person of faith, I think of it as “The Reason for the Season–Jesus” who is doing the asking. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, this season asks us to change our attitudes and actions.

As we wrap up the possibly frenetic activities leading into Wednesday, Christmas Day, let me challenge you to listen to the season. What does it want from you? I encourage you further to listen with your hands and feet.


How to Successfully Navigate the Chaos of Change

This week I’m posting an article I ran across awhile ago. This article, by Steven M. Smith, effectively applies a family therapist’s change model to the business environment. I’ve reprinted it below for your convenience.

Improvement is always possible. This conviction is the heart of the transformation system developed by family therapist Virginia Satir. Her system helps people improve their lives by transforming the way they see and express themselves.

An element of the Satir System is a five-stage change model (see the picture) that describes the effects each stage has on feelings, thinking, performance, and physiology. Using the principles embodied in this model, you can improve how you process change and how you help others process change.

Stage 1: Late Status Quo

The group is at a familiar place. The performance pattern is consistent. Stable relationships give members a sense of belonging and identity. Members know what to expect, how to react, and how to behave.

Implicit and explicit rules underlie behavior. Members attach survival value to the rules, even if they are harmful. For instance, the chief of an engineering group has an explicit rule — all projects must be completed on schedule. When the flu halts the work of several engineers, the chief requires the group to compensate by working ten hours a day, seven days a week. After experiencing too many crises at both work and home, the engineers begin to bicker and the project falls apart.

For this group, the chief’s explicit rule about deadlines is their Late Status Quo. They don’t necessarily enjoy the amount of work they had to do, but they know and understand what is expected of them. The team feels the pressure from the chief’s rule about deadlines and compensates accordingly. The pressure works for small problems. With a major problem, like the flu, the group cannot cope with the chief’s expectations and a pattern of dysfunctional behavior starts.

Poor communication is a symptom of a dysfunctional group. Members use blaming, placating, and other incongruent communication styles to cope with feelings like anger and guilt. Stress may lead to physical symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal pain that create an unexplainable increase in absenteeism.

Caught in a web of dysfunctional concepts, the members whose opinions count the most are unaware of the imbalance between the group and its environment. New information and concepts from outside the group can open members up to the possibility of improvement.

Stage 2: Resistance

The group confronts a foreign element that requires a response. Often imported by a small minority seeking change, this element brings the members whose opinions count the most face to face with a crucial issue.
A foreign element threatens the stability of familiar power structures. Most members resist by denying its validity, avoiding the issue, or blaming someone for causing the problem. These blocking tactics are accompanied by unconscious physical responses, such as shallow breathing and closed posture.

Resistance clogs awareness and conceals the desires highlighted by the foreign element. For example, a powerful minority within the marketing department of a tool manufacturer engages a consultant to do a market survey. She finds a disturbing trend: A growing number of clients believe that a competitor is producing superior quality products at a lower price. Middle and upper management vehemently deny the findings and dispute the validity of the survey methods. But after a series of frank discussions with key clients, upper management accepts the findings. They develop a vision for propelling the company into a position as the industry leader in product quality and support.

Members in this stage need help opening up, becoming aware, and overcoming the reaction to deny, avoid or blame.

Stage 3: Chaos

The group enters the unknown. Relationships shatter: Old expectations may no longer be valid; old reactions may cease to be effective; and old behaviors may not be possible.

The loss of belonging and identity triggers anxiousness and vulnerability. On occasion, these feelings may set off nervous disorders such as shaking, dizziness, tics, and rashes. Members may behave uncharacteristically as they revert to childhood survival rules. For instance, a manufacturing company cancels the development of a major new product, reduces the number of employees, and reorganizes. Many of the surviving employees lose their ability to concentrate for much of the day. Desperately seeking new relationships that offer hope, the employees search for different jobs. Both manufacturing yield and product quality takes a nosedive.

Managers of groups experiencing chaos should plan for group performance to plummet during this stage. Until the members accept the foreign element, members form only halfhearted relationships with each other. Chaos is the period of erratic performance that mirrors the search for a beneficial relationship to the foreign element.

All members in this stage need help focusing on their feelings, acknowledging their fear, and using their support systems. Management needs special help avoiding any attempt to short circuit this stage with magical solutions. The chaos stage is vital to the transformation process.

Stage 4: Integration

The members discover a transforming idea that shows how the foreign element can benefit them. The group becomes excited. New relationships emerge that offer the opportunity for identity and belonging. With practice, performance improves rapidly.

For instance, an experienced accounting group must convert to a new computer system. The group resists the new system fearing it will turn them into novices. But the members eventually discover that skill with this widely used system increases their value in the marketplace. Believing that the change may lead to salary increases or better jobs, the members begin a vigorous conversion to the new system.

Awareness of new possibilities enables authorship of new rules that build functional reactions, expectations, and behaviors. Members may feel euphoric and invincible, as the transforming idea may be so powerful that it becomes a panacea.

Members in this stage need more support than might be first thought. They can become frustrated when things fail to work perfectly the first time. Although members feel good, they are also afraid that any transformation might mysteriously evaporate disconnecting them from their new relationships and plunging them back into chaos. The members need reassurance and help finding new methods for coping with difficulties.

Stage 5: New Status Quo

If the change is well conceived and assimilated, the group and its environment are in better accord and performance stabilizes at a higher level than in the Late Status Quo.

A healthy group is calm and alert. Members are centered with more erect posture and deeper breathing. They feel free to observe and communicate what is really happening. A sense of accomplishment and possibility permeates the atmosphere.

In this stage, the members continue to need to feel safe so they can practice. Everyone, manager and members, needs to encourage each other to continue exploring the imbalances between the group and its environment so that there is less resistance to change.

I’ve observed groups, after many change cycles, become learning organizations?they learn how to cope with change. The members of these organizations are not threatened or anxious about the types of situations that they used to experience as foreign element. Instead, these situations excite and motivate them.

For example, the customer services group of a computer manufacturer learns to adapt their repair policies and techniques to any new product. Supporting a new computer system used to scare the group but not anymore. Management communicates and reinforces the vision of seamless new product support. Some members influence the design of support features for the new products. Other members plan and teach training courses. All members provide feedback to improve the process.

Postscript: Coping With Change

Virginia Satir’s Change Model describes the change patterns she saw during therapy with families. In my experience, the patterns she describes occur with any group of people when confronted by change.

I use this model to select how to help a group make a successful transformation from an Old Status Quo to a New Status Quo. Table 1 summarizes my suggestions on how to help during each stage of the change model:

Stage Description How to Help
1 Late Status Quo Encourage people to seek improvement information and concepts from outside the group.
2 Resistance Help people to open up, become aware, and overcome the reaction to deny, avoid or blame.


3 Chaos Help build a safe environment that enables people to focus on their feelings, acknowledge their fear, and use their support systems. Help management avoid any attempt to short circuit this stage with magical solutions.
4 Integration Offer reassurance and help finding new methods for coping with difficulties.
5 New Status Quo Help people feel safe so they can practice.
Table 1. Actions for each stage that will help a group change more quickly and effectively.
The actions in Table 1 will help people cope. Actions that inhibit coping retards an organization’s ability to make core changes. These organization are resisting the fundamental foreign element of change. But organizations that create a safe environment where people are encouraged to cope increase their capacity for change and are much more able to respond effectively to whatever challenges are thrown their way.


Well Known?

Socrates said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” John C. Maxwell said, “You have to know yourself to grow yourself.” Self-knowledge or self-awareness is essential to healthy relationships on the personal level and at work. The question is, “How well do we know ourselves?” the “Johari Window” is one tool that can help us consider an answer to that question. This tool was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (Jo-Hari, get it?) in 1955. The Window into our relationships with ourselves and others has four panes.

The Arena

This is what everyone knows about us. “Everyone knows Jane is a free spirit.” “Everyone knows John is analytical and reserved.” It’s our public self, we are very aware of it and others can easily see it. It’s how we present ourselves in public both automatically and intentionally. By automatic I mean our habits of interaction with others. By intentional I mean what we make a concerted effort to be sure people see about us. The Arena is not the whole story.

The Facade (Mask)

This is the “us” no one else knows about, the hidden us. It sounds ominous and almost sinister, but that’s only true of those who are hiding evil or criminal thoughts and intentions. For most of us, we keep fears and dreams here. Ironically, we keep dreams here because of fear of ridicule for having such dreams.

We can have different masks at work or at home. We may behave differently in those arenas. In that case the mask at work may simply be that our personal interests are none of anyone else’s business, but our family knows all about them. So, masks are not necessarily bad, they are just part of how we control the arena. This is like when someone at work discovers on social media that Bill plays in a band and says, “I had no idea he was a musician.”

The Blind Spot

This is the opposite of the Mask. It’s what everyone else knows about us and usually wishes we knew. Obviously, there is no self-awareness in this pane of the window. Here is where we have the greatest opportunity to grow.

A few years ago my wife started taking a medication. One evening a couple weeks after taking it, she was re-reading the documentation and asked, “Have I been aggressive lately?” The entire family answered in unison, “YES!” It was a side effect of the medication but she hadn’t been aware of it. When she asked and learned the answer, that knowledge moved from the Blind Spot pane to the Arena and she was able to manage that side effect very well.

The Unknown

This is the adventure of self-awareness. When my wife and I first began to date, almost everything was in this pane of the window. The excitement and fun of the last decades together has been discovering things about ourselves and each other.

The same can be true for other personal and work relationships. Making the unknown known is the adventure of the journey.

Practical Steps

Looking through the Johari Window is a step toward self-awareness and growth. The exercise of thinking about things in different ways expands our thinking and provides growth.

There are other practical tools that can help as well. One is the DISC Model personality test. I’m a certified trainer in the DISC Model and would be happy to help you and your organization work through the assessment. It will help you gain a clearer understanding of your personal patterns and how they effect your communication and interaction within your work environment and/or family.

There is a small fee for this service. Please feel free to contact me at jim@engagerdynamics.com.

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.


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.”


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.

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?


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.


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.


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.