It’s interesting that one of the most consistent comments I get at the end of my Rewired Conversations program is ‘I didn’t realise what a bad listener I was!’
Our perceptions of what constitutes a good listener have changed over time. Consider this gem from the 1980’s…
1. Sit up
2. Look interested
3. Lean forward
5. Act interested
6. Nod your head to show that you are tuned in
7. Track the speaker with your eyes
These ideas are focused on what you do, and what you are seen to be doing – sadly with no mention of the purpose or process of actual listening. I would call this…listening without substance!
Great listening, or listening WITH substance is focused on who you are in a conversation and how you are showing up. You can show up as a Consultant to the thinking of others, or you can show up as a Facilitator of great thinking for all.
Let me explain the difference…
When you show up as a Consultant, you show up with the purpose of being the expert in the conversation or meeting. You have content expertise, or a leadership responsibility that brings status and responsibility and feel compelled to bring that into the conversation, or you have experience or insight into the situation at hand that could be helpful. That’s fine, but the risk of showing up with a Consultant mindset is that you might listen for:
• The problem you know how to solve (which may not be the problem they need to solve)
• Opportunities to share your expertise or experience (when that may not help the situation)
• The information that supports your thinking on the matter (to make you feel useful and valued)
• Information that you want to know or that might be useful for you (to benefit your KPI’s or desired outcomes)
The Consultant mindset is normal for us because it satisfies a number of our motivational needs. Our need for Status (a feeling of being valued and respected); and our need for Predictability and Control (when we are in control of the situation, we feel secure). The dopamine hit we get when we contribute or solve a problem for others is addictive, but not always useful.
On the downside, our tendency to make assumptions and to want to jump straight into the satisfaction of solution mode mean that we miss discovering the real issues that need to be addressed. Mostly, we talk a lot and waste a lot of time.
When you show up as a Facilitator, you show up with the purpose of skilfully enabling great thinking – both yours and others. My definition of a powerful conversation is one where…
“Everybody leaves the conversation with different thinking than when they came!”
This requires a different level of listening. As the Facilitator, your focus and expertise is on the quality of thinking you and others are engaging in. Your energy is focused on what is going on with others in the conversation, not just what is being said. You might listen for:
• Emotion and energy (where does the truth and the real issues lie)
• Patterns in language (is there an unseen pattern that needs to be highlighted for greater clarity)
• Choice of words and focus (is there a repeated word, or theme, or a tendency for negative over positive that tells a story)
• Ways to help the thinking (what curious questions need to be asked to help clarity)
• What others need to be fully focused and present in the conversation (is the conversation going off on tangents)
When you show up as a Consultant, it’s all about you and your needs. When you show up as a Facilitator of Thinking, it’s all about others and the greater outcome.
The thing is, leaders have KPI’s, targets and desired outcomes to meet, and the reality is that in order to achieve those, they need to mobilise their teams and colleagues. And in order to make it work for you as a leader, you need it to work for them. And you need to listen in a different way if you are to have any chance of figuring out what ‘working for them’ looks like.
Test yourself today on whether you are showing up as a Consultant, or a Facilitator of Thinking. Would love to hear your thoughts…
If you would love to delve much deeper into the idea of listening, I can highly recommend the latest book from my friend and colleague, Oscar Trimboli – ‘Deep Listening’. You can access it on Amazon here… or from Oscar’s website.
As I have become older, and busier, and more distracted in my work and home life, my capacity for making decisions has felt really challenged, and from my conversations with colleagues, it seems I am not alone in that challenge. There are a number of things that can get in the way of making decisions.
I often say to my clients…’people don’t tell the truth and they don’t know what they want’. This is not intentional, but our natural cognitive bias and subjectivity get in the way. We are not good at challenging and stretching our thinking (which is why having a great coach is invaluable) so what we think we want and have articulated is often not quite right and there is a need to reflect deeper.
Another of our human challenges is our relative incapacity to manage complex and conflicting data, or simply volume of information inside our heads. When it gets too much, it’s overwhelming and the brain interprets this as threatening and pulls back it’s thinking in favour of protection.
Thirdly, our need to be ‘accepted’ is one of our strongest human motivational drivers, and the risk of making the wrong decision, or a decision that might negatively impact the favourable perceptions of others toward you, even if that risk is very low or indeed if the decision is necessary, will evoke an avoidance response and procrastination will ensue.
Here are three ideas you might like to consider in order to improve your decisiveness.
Figure Out What You Really Want
This is actually quite a tough one to do on your own, but take some time to reflect on the real outcome you are looking for. It may be useful to ask these questions of yourself:
- What are my big picture goals that relate to this, and to my life/career/role? Can I articulate them in one or two sentences?
- Is there a specific dilemma that is causing the need for this decision? Can I articulate it in one or two sentences?
- How do I feel about this issue and how do I want to be feeling around it?
- If resources were endless and there were no risks, would the decision be easier? If so, what are those risks and resource constraints and are they fixed or can they be managed?
- Is my gut/intuition telling me something that I’m not listening to?
- So, in one sentence, what is the specific decision I am needing to now make?
Investigate All The Options
Make a long list of options and alternatives. Consider including the options of doing nothing, going with your gut, and also the not so palatable ones like making the unpopular decision. Your first options will be the obvious ones…then ask yourself the following questions…
- What else could I do?
- What else could others do?
- What would Richard Branson do?
- What would X (important person you respect and admire) do?
Kill Off Choice
We live in a sophisticated, privileged and complex world with many, many options and choices. It’s overwhelming.
The latin word for decision literally means ‘to cut off’…or ‘to kill off’. Think about other words with that etymology…pesticide, suicide, genocide, insecticide…and fungicide (yes, that’s a word!).
Cutting off choices sounds severe, but is not liberating, it’s limiting. Making a decision frees you from the shackles of endless choices so that you can get where you want to go.
First list your options then connect back with your desired outcomes and bigger picture goals, and try to reduce the options to a maximum of 3…or less.
Hypothesise and Experiment
Your brain is not designed for, nor good at, absolutes. Your thinking comes from networks that are constantly active across all areas of your brain – an electrical storm of firing and connecting. The concept of stop, start and continue is more difficult than you think, the stop and start bit in particular. It’s a bit like when you don’t feel like going to a party or an event – it’s a real effort to go and would be much easier to just sit at home and watch TV, i.e., hard to get started. However, often, when you do make the effort you have a great time and then don’t want to come home – i.e. hard to stop!
Your brain loves to stay in it’s comfort zone because that is both non-threatening, and therefore energy efficient, both of which are of vital importance to your brain.
One way to overcome this is to adopt an experimental mindset – like a hypothesis. After gaining clarity, investigating the options, killing off choice, and connecting the most useful option to the desired outcome, you can then articulate the experiment that you (and possibly your team) are about to enter into.
“I have decided that we should ….my thinking behind that decision is …..l expect the outcome to be….but let’s treat it like an experiment and review it in two weeks to see if it has been the right decision”.
Pressure off…brain happy…you can move on to the next decision knowing that it’s not an absolute and reducing the risk of failure and humiliation.
Your team member falls into your office. They are emotional. Something has happened and they need to get it off their chest. You know that you just need to give them the opportunity to vent.
During that venting process, there is a lot of blaming, regret, frustration…but at least they are getting it off their chest. You look at your watch, an hour has passed, no sign of letting up, and you are feeling like crap now…the negative energy is contagious.
So here’s the thing…venting is not useful.
Yes, we have been taught that it is necessary and of value, but my belief is that it serves no useful purpose.
- It wastes valuable time that could be focused on moving to a solution or resolution – like when you stuff around getting ready to go somewhere, then are late and miss it anyway, so why did you bother – nothing gained.
- It reinforces the issues by going over and over them – like a child over-doing the colouring in to the point where the paper tears
- It reinforces and extends the emotional experience associated with the issue – by keeping it alive, even taking it to new levels of negativity – like when you use a magnifying glass to use the sun to set an ant on fire (no I never did that – someone told me about it).
So why do vent?
- It feels good. It feels like problem-solving. But it’s not.
- It alleviates stress and tension in the moment, but not long term.
- An inevitable sympathetic response makes you feel better, like you are not alone.
I believe there are two things that are really happening here. Firstly, the ventor is avoiding the effort and accountability associated with owning the situation and owning progression to a solution i.e., they want to pass the buck. But most importantly…
‘People vent, whinge and blame because they haven’t felt heard!’
If you have a team of ventors, or whingers, or blamers…begin with taking the time to let them feel heard. Here are three steps you can take to help them feel heard and then redirect their energy to more useful places.
- Validate what they are saying, but ‘shrink wrap’ it into factual, manageable chunks – ‘So what you are saying is that John didn’t deliver for the third week in a row’
- Focus on their emotion, not the content – ‘I can see that you are disappointed in this outcome.’
- Redirect their focus – ‘So what is it you need to do to move beyond this…’ or ‘So what is the thinking you need to do, or action you now need to take so this situation changes?
You will find your own language around this, just follow the general approach.
Sometimes it’s useful to get back to basics.
On a daily basis I hear of the motivation and engagement challenges that leaders face. We live in an evolved, sophisticated social world, yet our brains have not evolved at the same rate and are still designed to survive and respond in a relatively primitive social world.
All humans have a one-track mind.
The fundamental role of the brain is to ensure the perpetuation of the species …
which is, actually, just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. To achieve this important goal your brain does two things:
it seeks to protect you from threat
(anything that might lead to your death or disablement), and
it seeks reward
(anything that will keep you alive and thriving).
When you are in ‘threat’ mode (i.e., checking to make sure everything is safe) your capacity for logic, creativity, seeing possibilities and being open-minded and curious is significantly inhibited. Your brain will instruct all non-essential functioning to go ‘on hold’ till the threat is managed or gone. It’s like a fire alarm or bomb threat in a high-rise building…until the ‘all clear’ is given, all non-critical work and activity (ie, except for getting people out of the building and making sure all is safe) is abandoned.
BUT…the circumstances that impact our perception of threat have changed significantly. The brain does not distinguish between physical and psychological or social threats – they are treated with a similar ‘threat’ response in the brain.
Primitive threats tended to be more physical and included …
- wild animals
- crazy neighbours with spears
- commonly occurring famine, floods and drought
- abandonment or ostracisation from the tribe which potentially led to no food, water or shelter.
The more common threats we experience today in a country like Australia tend to be more of a social nature and include…
- social or contribution rejection;
- discrimination, loneliness, embarrassment and humiliation;
- changing goal posts and the rate of change;
- lack of control over our work environments;
- financial insecurity;
- social media jealously (everybody looks like their life is better than mine);
- high social expectations and the impact of media on our sense of ’normality’ and our ability to achieve that normal (i.e., driving a fab car, huge house with a pool, looking like a model) and so on.
The problem is that the definition of ‘threat’ is ‘anything that is not expected’.
Think about it…how many times in a day do you experience something you didn’t expect? How many times do things not go to plan? How many times do you and others react in ways you didn’t predict? And as a result, how much time and energy in your day is channelled into making sure that these potential threats check out to be ‘ok’?
The answer: more than is useful in terms of us remaining productive and engaged. Way too much time in our day is ‘wasted’ on responding to the calls from our primitive brain. Until we feel physically and psychologically safe, we cannot function to our potential or learn or adapt.
The solution: we must understand and learn how to manage and change our habitual responses and shift to more useful ones. This is where taking a neuroscience approach to leadership can help.
The role of neuroscience is to explain behaviour in terms of the activities of the brain. And we now understand our ‘operating system’ so much more, and indeed enough to understand that we can influence and evolve it’s primitive processes to be more aligned and useful in today’s sophisticated social world.
Leading well requires mastery over the one-track mind. Mastery over one’s own mind, and the skill to support others to a level of awareness around their own primitive responses.
This is about increasing our human skills – our understanding of how humans are really motivated, how they tick. We need to bring back some substance into our leadership.
My thoughts around developing Leaders of Substance are outlined in this video.
The capacity to diagnose and respond effectively to a lack of psychological safety – in self and in others – is now a critical leadership skill. If you are not playing in this space…it’s time to at least take a look.