Are you listening?

dreamstime_132351051How well do you listen? This is an important question for all of us. I’ve been thinking about listening a lot this week. It is certainly a critical part of my work as an executive search consultant and also in the work I do teaching and coaching. Listening is the most important activity for creating conversation and intimacy. It’s an underutilized “muscle” and therefore it needs strengthening in most of us.

I was interviewing a candidate for a sales position and I was struck by his understanding of the value listening brings to his ability to sell. He described his sales methodology and it was all about his being with prospective customers as an active listener. Because we both approach creating conversation with a shared understanding of the critical importance of listening we were able to create rapport and connection that is a rewarding and valuable aspect of the interview process. I am not surprised that this sales executive has consistently overachieved his targets!

Yesterday I led a workshop for the International Class of the East Side Institute, an international training center led by my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman. I decided to spend most of the workshop leading the participants in an exercise to help strengthen their listening muscles.

I had two participants begin a conversation. The “rules” of the exercise include not asking leading questions and actively listening for “offers” – gifts that we receive in conversation – that when accepted, acknowledged, and responded to will build closeness, rapport, and intimacy. All too often we listen for opportunities to say what we have to say then we ask the question that will lead into what we have to say, rather than responding to the other. That is what I mean by a “leading question”. In our overly-individualized culture the voice we listen to the most is often our own internal voice rather than giving our full attention to the other who is speaking.

When a participant did ask a leading question or was not accepting and building with offers, I would tap them out and bring in a new conversant to pick up and continue the conversation. After a few rounds the conversation deepened and the participants – both the conversationalists and observers – were able to be closer to one another. I was improvising my role as teacher. I was listening to the students and creating with what they gave me.

Lois was also participating in the workshop and when we had a debrief about the experience she observed that we were learning to speak as a creative activity. We were listening to the activity, not the words that were spoken. I found Lois’ response wondrous, unexpected and enormously helpful.

I hope this is a useful guide to active listening. Give it a try and discover
how this valuable skill enhances your professional and personal development.

Heard Any Offers Lately?

International class

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to train the International Class of the East Side Institute http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/Training.html.  The students are learning the Institute’s approach to human development and community building; the group included people from Bangladesh, Serbia, and Brazil, as well as the Director of the Institute, Lois Holzman (pictured above). 

We worked on applying the basic tool of improvisation – yes and – to two-person scenes, which helps strengthen listening skills and, most importantly, the ability to build relationships and intimacy.  Because these students are engaged in learning a performance-based methodology they were very eager to both experience and understand how to apply improvisation in their work.

After some warm ups I had the students perform a series of two-person scenes beginning with the words, “It’s Tuesday and…”  As is often the case with improvisation, the scenes began with rather mundane comments and then, with my coaching, the students created relationships and, in some instances, a great deal of intimacy. How did that happen?  It happened by actively listening in order to hear the “offer” that was given and responding to that offer.  As both people feel heard by the other intimacy is slowly created, offer by offer.

My job as the coach was to stop the players to have a look at a missed offer or that someone negated an offer.  I gave the players my offer that they focus on deepening the relationship by accepting and building with each and every offer.

What matters In theatre and in life are relationships. Sadly in our culture we often end up thinking about the next thing to say, rather than actively listening to the other person and responding to them, not to the voice in our heads.

You might be reading this and wondering how this is applicable to a business setting.  As an executive coach who uses improvisation as a tool for growth and development, it is often the case that business people need and want to strengthen their ability to be active listeners.

Managers, in particular, want to develop these skills in order to further develop their team and thereby the team’s capabilities.  We work on creating conversation by slowly building with whatever “offers” are given.  If  team members are making “offers” and managers are negating them (by saying “no but” rather than “yes and”), relationships will suffer and demoralization can easily set in.

One of the interesting questions we explored in the International Class training is whether you can say “no” when you are playing a “yes and” game/scene.  As is often the case with rules, once you’ve mastered “yes and” it is possible to say “no” in a “yes and” manner.  In other words, if your team member makes a suggestion that you cannot accept, for whatever reason, there is a way to accept that offer without negating the suggestion and thereby the person who suggested it.

By working hard to have a positive “yes and” response – by virtue of putting your focus on the other – everyone feels appreciated and heard.