Leadership 9: Making Active, Intentional Listening Part of Your Daily Routine.

Art Credit: LookupQuotes

“Listening is the golden key that opens the door to human relationship.”  Willam Ury, TEDxSanDiego, The power of listening

In a Nutshell:

In the previous section we saw how important listening can be in building trusting relationships on a team.  To implement our strategy to listen well, we need a tactical plan, what are the steps to get from here to there?  There are seven steps in active, intentional listening, I will provide a handy map which you can post on your wall to act as a reminder. Review them, learn them, and then practice putting them into action, and they become second nature. You may find the steps difficult to do at first because we are used to interrupting a conversation the first chance we get and offering our show-stopping solutions. (Men in particular, you know who you are, I am still occasionally guilty of it, too.)  I suggest you just glance at the map now, don’t spend a lot of time on it before you read the post, think of it as the program they hand you as you enter the theater before a performance, something to glance at so you see where today’s presentation will be taking us.  When you use these steps, you will invite a team member to share, you will sit quietly, with the occasional prompts or questions for clarification, you may end up not really saying anything and the speaker will walk away thinking you are a terrific conversationalist and counselor.

Leadership principles for making leadership listening part of your daily routine.

Follow the 7 steps to active intentional listening to build a stronger, more loyal team.

1. Create a safe environment where you won’t be interrupted or overheard.

Create Space

Take the time

2. Listen without interrupting.

Get yourself into the zone

Listen between the lines

Use encouragers to show you are listening

3. Listen without judging.

4. Mirror what they said.

5. Ask questions for clarification.

Labeling feelings

6. Summarize to see if you heard correctly.

7. Determine if advice or suggestions are wanted or appropriate.

 But before we look at the chart, let’s have a quick peek back the scene from “Upload” which we will be dissecting to help illustrate the seven steps. The video is from an episode of “Upload,” Season One, a 2020 series on Amazon prime video. 

At this point in the series we know a bit about Nora’s backstory, she works as a customer service rep (“an angel”) for people whose consciousness were “uploaded” to a virtual world just before they died. She has the normal struggles of a living person, her social life, (she refers to ‘Nitely’ which is a dating app that has not been working out that well for her) her job, where she was recently scolded for not getting enough 5-star reviews after her interactions with her other uploaded customers, and most importantly, her dying father who has misgivings about being uploaded to a digital afterlife.

As this scene begins Nora is annoyed after receiving a 3-star rating from another uploaded customer, and she appears as a hologram when Nathan summons her. He has called her because he has sensed that she is upset, and, in a role reversal, rather than asking her for help, Nathan wants to help her.  (This is an example of our third form of listening as a leader, responding to an unspoken plea for help, in this case Nora’s abrupt treatment of her customers has alerted Nathan that something is wrong, so he invites her to share.) Nathan begins by giving her 5-star reviews for doing absolutely nothing, just to improve her average and cheer her up.

This is such an excellent example of active, intentional listening, so let’s look at the 7 steps which Nathan is using to help Nora release her stress.

1. What are the 7 steps to active intentional listening to build a stronger, more loyal team that we saw in this video?

1. Create a safe environment where you won’t be interrupted or overheard.

You want to create a space where your team member feels safe and in which they can be more open, where they can drop their defenses because no one else can hear, they open themselves up and are able to express their feeling, and saying it out loud helps them feel, identify and understand the emotions that have them in turmoil. Nathan has picked a perfect place.

They are in a peaceful spot, open, they cannot be overheard by the people walking by, which is probably for the best because Nora (a customer service worker) is certainly not supposed to be interacting with Nathan (customer) in this way, sharing her personal issues.  And the space also lets Nora pace which can be helpful when the speaker is so wound up.  When people came to me to talk and they were particularly agitated, I would often suggest we walk around the block or take a short stroll through the pocket park next door – we were in public, but would not be overheard, and they could burn off some adrenaline as they walked and talked their way through their issue.

If your team member is going to feel free to share something emotional it shows they trust you and they must not be overheard by anyone else.  I usually used my office, although sometimes we might step into an empty meeting room if someone stopped me in the hallway and asked me if I had a minute.

The key steps here: safe, no interruptions, can’t be overheard

Avoid outside distractions.

Some leaders I know will put a “Do not disturb” sticky on their closed door when they are about to talk with someone. My office door had a window next to it and my team knew that when my door was closed (which was rare) they should look in the window.  If I was at my standing desk, they could knock and I would signal to come in, but if I was sitting down next to someone, they would know that listening was in progress, and they should not knock and return later.

In addition, my cell phone was always on mute and I left it on my standing desk.  My computer was also set so that incoming mail was not announced with a “ding.”  Once my team member started talking, I did not want anything to distract them.

Adopt a posture which signals your undivided attention.

When someone appeared at my office door I would drop whatever I was doing, invite them to be seated, move away from my standing desk to sit next to them, put my elbow on the armrest, chin on palm, keep my gaze locked on them, giving them my undivided attention as I listened intently to their question or concern.

In the video Nathan is sitting on the swing, his hands folded, and his gaze is following Nora as she paces back and forth. 

When she sits next to him, he looks at her.  His postures demonstrates relaxed attention.

Establish that you have the time to talk.

Active, intentional listening requires time because the speaker is working through some complicated and often confusing thoughts and emotions. The speaker must feel they have all the time they need to release the flood of feelings and worries they have bottled up inside. Only when they release this log jam of emotions they are finally able to have clarity in their thoughts and see the path forward.

In the video, Nathan established this perfectly.

Nora: “Okay, seriously, what can I do for you? Just ask me anything.”

Nathan: “You know what you can do for me?  You can tell me what is wrong. Cause you have been like all URRRRRRR! all day.”

Nora: “You got an hour?”

Okay, granted, you don’t have infinity.  But the type of situations that calls for this type of active, intentional listening, the kind that demands our total attention, that will take a while, these situations rarely arise, and when they do, we must signal that we have the time to listen, because they are such important trust-building opportunities.  There were times when I really didn’t have the time to listen, I had some deadline to meet.  But I would always ask myself, a year from now which thing will be more important?  Supporting my team member in this moment, or that deadline?

This is an example of implementing one of my leadership principles: “Always put the welfare of my team ahead of any particular task.” When someone’s body language signaled they did not want to impose, or they seemed hesitant, “You’re busy, I’ll come back.” Or “I don’t want to waste your time.”  I would respond, “If you need to talk, I want to listen, and this will be the most important thing I do all day.”  And I meant it.  They would drop into the chair, I would sit next to them, and the floodgates would open.

2. Listen without interrupting

Get into the neutral zone.

I know you are thinking, here we go again with the hippy-groovy “mood” business when we talk about getting into a neutral zone. (And yes, a crystal in your pocket is helpful, Just kidding about the crystal.  Not sure if they really work. Yet.) But your attitude is important because the goal in active, intentional listening is to hear their words, to open your mind and heart, to feel what they are feeling, so that you can understand and appreciate the reality THEY are operating in at the moment. To do that you want to listen to the words, check to see if the tone they are using matches the emotion of the words, watch how their body is reacting to what they are saying.  You may be sitting in a relaxed, attentive position, but you heart and mind are open and working hard.

Credit: Credit: Phillip Wright

Manage your emotions, get yourself into neutral mood, if you feel emotions rising (what happened to them makes you mad, or they say something you strongly disagree with) control yourself, subtly take a few deep relaxing breaths, watch your body language so the speaker doesn’t notice you are fighting an emotion of your own, at this point it is not about what you think or feel, it is about letting the speaker get express their feelings.  The speaker is going to be watching you for any signal that you are judging them or disapproving, you need to appear neutral but interested or they will stop dead in their tracks.

And you may recall my confusion about being called “the kindest person I ever met.”  People called me that because I cared about them enough to listen, and when you listen to your team, they will begin to notice that you too are the kindest person they have ever met.  If people are going to call you names, being labeled “kind:” is not a burden to carry.

Do not interrupt

When you interrupt, for whatever reason, you are indicating to the speaker that you are more important than they are. It is an absolute communication stopper. If you think of something to say, save it for the end when you may, or may not, choose to share it.

Listen between the lines

Listen to the tone, listen to the words, watch the body language, is the whole thing matching up, or are there gaps? If something seems to be missing, you can ask for more information.

Use encouragers to show you are listening “Ah” “Yes” “OK”

As much as you might want to jump in and save the day with the perfect solution, don’t do it. Just listen, keep eye contact, make small noises that show you’ve heard what was said.

Nora: “Yeah, it sucks. And-and my mom died unexpectedly a few years ago.

Nathan groans.

Nora: “Exactly!

Or when Nora has finally drilled down and discovered what is her deepest fear.

Nora: groans softly and moves over to sit by Nathan. She sighs. “I guess my biggest fear is he’ll die, too.”

Nathan looks at her, but doesn’t speak.

Nora: “and my last connection to childhood is just gone. And I won’t ever find anyone who…understands me like that or…loves me unconditionally.”

Nathan responds:

Nora: Sighs deeply. “Well, thanks. I feel a lot better.”

Nathan: “I didn’t do anything but listen.”

Nora mimes giving him a rating.  “Pretend I’m giving you five stars.” She smiles and her hologram disappears.

3. Listen without Judging

Keep an open mind, the person may take a while to get all the facts out, wait for the complete picture. It is also important to remember that active, intentional listening is not a conversation, it is not a debate, it is simply allowing the other person to describe how they are feeling, as fully as they need to, so they can understand their feeling to give them a better idea of what they need to do. Whether you think they are right or wrong is immaterial as they speak.  In particular, don’t shake your head when you disagree because such actions can shut down the speaker’s flow.

Most of us engage in conversation as if it were a competitive event. We listen just long enough catch the drift of where the speaker is going, then our focus shifts from listening, to devising out solution or witty interjection, then our focus shifts back to the speaker, not necessarily listening to the words, but intensely following the flow of words so we can catch the speaker inhaling, then we jump in and give our response.  That is not a conversation, that is a duel of words in which the focus is on our thoughts, our self.

In active, intentional listening, the spotlight stays on the other person, they are on stage, and we are a supportive audience.

4. Mirror what they said

Mirroring is simply repeating last few words the other person said, for example in the video example there could have been this sequence:

Nora: “My dad.  My-my dad’s dying.”

Nathan: “Your dad is dying?”

Nora: “Yes, and it scares me!”

Mirroring lets people know you are listening and paying attention without interrupting the flow of their thoughts.

“I am so mad, I never want to speak to her again.”

You can repeat, “You don’t want to speak to her again.”

“Would you?”

5. Seek clarification when something important seems to be left out.

Nora: “Yeah. Exactly. And I can’t walk away from the job.

Nathan: “Why not?”

Nora: “My dad.  My-my dad’s dying.”

Use open ended questions to seek more information.

Open ended questions invite the speaker to expand their thoughts:

“Tell me what happened then.”

“How did that make you feel?”

Use silence.

This is an old lawyer trick.  People hate silence, they become very uncomfortable when they are sitting across the desk from someone who is looking at them, but not saying anything.  If you suspect they are holding something back, if you just sit there in silence and keep eye contact, most people will start talking again to fill that void.  This is particularly useful after you ask a question. Let it sink in, and wait for the silence to do its work and the answer may come.

In our video Nathan rarely says anything, but to Nora he is engaging her in the conversation because his eyes are following her as he sits silently.

Labeling feelings

Because one of the goals of active, intentional listening is to allow a person to get in touch with how they are feeling, it is often help to see if they agree with what you believe they are feeling. 

Speaker: “Sometimes I could just . . .when they won’t make a decision . . .” they pause and clench their fists, “Ahhhh!:

You: “You sound angry.”

Them: “Not angry, frustrated!”

Here you were interpreting their emotion incorrectly, but by trying to label how you think they felt you helped them correct you and properly label their emotion for themselves.

6. Summarize to see if you heard them correctly.

When it appears you are reaching the end of what they want to say, you can summarize what you believe they are saying and feeling to see if you have understood correctly.

In the example about we can use summarizing this way:

Them: “Sometimes I could just . . .when they won’t make a decision . . .” they pause and clench their fists, “Ahhhh!:

You: “You sound angry.”

Them: “Not angry, frustrated!”

You: “So you lose your patience when they won’t make a decision?”

Them: “Exactly!  Well, no.  I am fed up with them not even TRYING to help make the decision and that puts all the responsibility on me!  I just want them to try and help.”

7. Determine if suggestions are wanted or appropriate

My team members have complimented me on “great conversations” where I added exactly zero, just like Nathan.  I just followed the steps about, and at the end they felt they had truly been heard, they felt less stress from being able to talk something through, and they may have felt that their path ahead is clearer.

Sometimes the speaker is seeking your advice and, based on what you have learned to that point you might be able to help them clarify what several possible steps could be to help them narrow their focus, make a decision, and move forward.  But wait to be asked to give advice because premature advice giving can prevent the other person from figuring out the right answer themselves.

Credit: Buzzfeed

How Rebecka introduced me to active, intentional listening.

One Saturday afternoon Rebecka (with whom I am married) said she wanted to talk to me about a personnel problem at work. We sat down, I was mentally rubbing my hands together because leadership is my passion and I loved giving advice on how to be a better leader, how to handle “people issues.”  I sat silently, with an open posture, kept eye contact, and provided encouraging sound and words.  “Go on.” And clarifying questions, “Why do you think she did that?” Threw in the occasional mirroring, “She said she should have more challenging work,”  At the same time I was keeping a mental checklist of all the clever things I was going to suggest she should do to solve the problem and she would look at me in admiration, wondering out loud why she hadn’t thought of that, and she would acknowledge that I am a blooming genius.

What actually happened was  Rebecka recounted the whole story in great detail, I listened and mentally added steps for her to take for her new “as soon as I get to the office To Do List” and when she stopped talking and I saw my chance.  “Would you like to know what I would do?”

She thought for a moment, “No,” she said, stood up and started to walk away. “I just needed to talk it through, thanks for listening.”

That is empathic listening, doesn’t seem like it should be so hard, but it takes effort because we, men in particular, are used to interrupting and fixing the problem on the spot, even before the problem is fully explained.  Remember, we are not competing, there will be no grade for class participation. Just listen.

Empathetic listening is a skill and can become a habit with practice.

A note on the phrase, “Rebecka, with whom I am married.

I use the phrase, “Rebecka, with whom I am married,” rather than the more common, “My wife, Rebecka.” I use this phrase when I am about to launch into a story about Rebecka, or when I am introducing her to someone. Admittedly, it is a clumsy sentence construction, but it is part of an ongoing crusade for equality I have been waging since 1977. It started back in my days representing domestic violence survivors.  It made me sick to hear abusers stand up in court and shout, “Nobody can tell me what I can and cannot do to MY wife.”  After years of that I just cannot utter the words “Rebecka, my wife.”  It is not the word “wife” that bothers me, it is the possessiveness of the “my” that offends me.  Rebecka does not belong to me, in fact, I am beholden to her because she has been my partner in having such a wonder life, combining good work with adventures.  As I often say, “Rebecka saved my life and my daughters filled it with joy.”  To me she will always be, “Rebecka, with whom I am married.”

(People often look confused when I use that phrase during an introduction, they don’t know if we are married, or we were married, or we are married but it is in some limbo state, so Rebecka will jump in and clarify. “We are married, he just doesn’t like the phrase ‘my wife.’” She shrugs and the conversation continues.)

Coming Attractions: Leadership 10: Making your team members feel safe and calm.  It starts on Day 1.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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