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.

Yay, We Made A Mistake!!

Embracing Discomfort

Yesterday I was part of the East Side Institute’s Winter Institute: Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones (Together) led by Cathy Salit, CEO of Performance of A Lifetime and Christine LaCerva, Director of The Social Therapy Group centers

Cathy led us in a fun game where we had to use a different name for ourselves (our middle name or nickname or a made-up super hero name).  We formed circles of 10-11 people around the room and had to quickly tried to learn everyone’s name.  Then each person  pointed to another in the circle and said their name.  If someone hesitated or said the wrong name they threw their arms up and said, “We made a mistake!” – then the others in the group responded with throwing their arms up and adding, “We did!” and then we all applauded and cheered and then the person who made the mistake moved to another circle.

The discussion/debrief about this game was quite rich.  This was a new experience, to  find ourselves in a situation in which we said “We made a mistake!” when someone in our group made a mistake.  The attendees shared many responses to making mistakes, to others making mistakes and what that looks like in many contexts, business being one of the more difficult environments for making mistakes and embracing the social activity of mistake-making (vs the blame game).

LaCerva was encouraging workshop attendees to get out of our comfort zones by embracing discomfort, embarrassment and the embarrassment of others, and our weirdness in the face of being outside of our comfort zone.  The activity of embracing the mistakes we make and others make as our mistakes is weird, uncomfortable and embarrassing.  LaCerva reminded us that in our culture we are “addicted to thinking of ourselves”.  She suggested that we, “go beyond the tyranny of the normal.” It turns out, as  people shared, that it is freeing and less constraining emotionally to allow ourselves to have our relationality, we are social beings; we cannot do much of anything without others and that includes making mistakes.  

My colleague Lois Holzman is writing a book called The Overweight Brain.  She posts the book, chapter-by-chapter, for all to read on her website: 

In Chapter 2, which Lois just posted, she introduces people to Lev Vygotsky, a “revolutionary scientist” and early Soviet psychologist.  Towards the end of the chapter Lois quotes Vygotsky: 

Somehow our society has formed a one-sided view of the human personality, and for some reason everyone understood giftedness and talent only as it applied to the intellect. But it is possible not only to be talented in one’s thoughts but also to be talented in one’s feelings as well. The emotional part of the personality has no less value than the other sides, and it also should be the object and concern of education, as well as intellect and will. Love can reach the same level of talent and even genius, as the discovery of differential calculus.

In thinking about “we made a mistake” and our difficulties with embracing our failures (large and small), this notion that we could also be talented in our feelings as well as our intellect, makes it easier to radically accept our mistakes as being human.  Sadly our culture devalues our emotions and doesn’t allow us the room to embrace our feelings of embarrassment, etc. when we make mistakes. Instead the norm is to have to find someone to blame.

I learned and experienced many things in this workshop.  Perhaps the most important was that certain mistakes, often the larger, more challenging/upsetting mistakes that we make happen because we’ve grown.  We put ourselves in more challenging positions and therefore we make bigger mistakes.  We spend so much time berating ourselves for our mistakes, or blaming ourselves or others, that we totally miss that because we’ve grown and developed so the stakes are higher.  That turns mistake-making on its head!

Or, as Lois puts it:

We’re always making something new out of what exists. We transform the very circumstances that we’re in. We engage in becoming.

Granted, it might be hard to throw your hands in the air and cheer, “We made a mistake!” at the office but the next time you or a colleague makes a mistake, try a new performance and see what it’s like to not have to blame anyone and thereby engage in becoming.  It might just make your overweight brain a little lighter!

Can the workplace be joyful?

In discussions with various executives I’ve been hearing a lot about their difficulties building positive relationships with work colleagues and/or with their teams.  This very crucial element of our work life — relationship-building — is often ignored or under-valued.

Managers can forget that the people they manage… are people.  We are a social, relational species.  The social environment that is created in the workplace can foster innovation, creativity and collaboration or it can foster demoralization, competition and isolation.

I’ve been reading the myriad of articles about Steve Jobs that have appeared this week.  In creating this blog post I was reflecting on this quote from Roberto Verganti’s HBR blog post, Steve Jobs and Management by Meaning :

“Managing by meaning” is recognizing that people are human: they have rational, cultural, and emotional dimensions, and they appreciate the person who creates a meaning for them to embrace.

An executive shared with me that she is tasked with building a team within a corporate culture that is very individually oriented where competition rules.  As is  often the case in this type of corporate culture, managers do not step back and think about how to engage their team members.  There is very little listening going on and it’s often the case that managers engage in sarcasm or are overly critical in trying to move work forward.  As she puts it, “everyone is speedy and every conversation is rushed.” The emotional dimension of who we are as human beings is so often left out of the equation. Play, improvisation and performance are a critical tool in creating the conditions for collaboration and creativity.

Here’s a valuable quote from Lois Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play:

One of the values of bringing improv to the workplace is its potential to impact on conversation, not only to minimize such unpleasant exchanges but also to give people a method to transform it into something closer to the creative meaning-making activity it is with babies (but in an adult- and workplace-appropropriate manner).  This is exceedingly difficult for adults to do with any consistency.  To get good at it requires a lot of practice, not only in speaking but also in listening, because in ordinary conversations, including those at the workplace, people tend to listen very selectively to what others are saying –  to hear something they agree or disagree with, to assess the “truth value” of what is said, to size up the speaker and try to figure out what she or he “really” means, to plan a comeback, to hear the pause that signals “it’s my turn now” – or all of the above.  “Yes, and” exercises are the main way improvisors practice listening.

Saying “yes and” instead of “no but” is how we build with each other.  It is a recognition of the “we” who work together to accomplish whatever needs to be done.  Listening is a critical tool, as is a recognition that how we say what we say impacts on “the other” – the “creative meaning-making activity”.  Having our focus on “the other” or the “we” is where creativity and collaboration lives. We are meaning-makers. Perhaps this is what Verganti was referring to in saying that Steve Jobs was “managing by meaning”.

Another executive I’ve been working with shared with me that he attended a company-sponsored communication workshop where there was discussion about the fact that people have different personalities and styles of working.  He became aware that he could get better at understanding how he needs to talk to someone and anticipate how they will hear what he’s saying. If a colleague is very analytically-oriented, he cannot come at them with a 30,000 foot view idea — he needs to come to them given what they need and how they see.  We are developing his performance to improve his ability to talk and listen in a new way.

Can the workplace be joyful?

In my work as an Executive Clown I teach executives the value of pointless play and improvisation so that they can utilize the improvisors tool-kit everywhere they find themselves (including the workplace) to live more productive, creative, joyful lives.

Yes and…

Perform Leadership

What a great Management Tip from Harvard Business Review – Become A Leader Before Others See You As One! Here’s a valuable quote:

Experience and legitimacy are helpful, but they are not prerequisites to leadership. Take a look at the informal power you have — gained through your network, your ability to influence, or your passion — and begin using it now to make change in your organization.

One’s passion is a powerful tool that is often unrecognized by others and under-utilized in the workplace. This makes me think of performance – I think we have to perform leadership.

We under-utilize this human capability to be who we are not and to perform “a head taller” than we are in the workplace (and elsewhere)*. If we perform as a leader, regardless of how we feel or tend to behave we can and will become leaders.

Is there a need to create the environment and conditions for that to happen? Absolutely! I imagine that collaborative, non-hierarchical environments will foster more opportunities for the performance of leadership to occur.

* For more on the methodology surrounding performance in the workplace see my colleague Lois Holzman’s book “Vygotsky at Work and Play”