What Are You Listening For?

Vignette #1: He said he wanted to watch the evening news so we turned on the TV and settled onto the couch. Not 30 seconds into the “breaking news” segment, he was nearly yelling at the TV, upset by the positions reportedly taken by the newsmaker du jour…

Vignette #2: She opened the meeting smiling affably into her monitor camera, as the virtual staff meeting commenced so she could get to know better the team she’d inherited in her new role as organization president five days prior. Having announced her open door shared responsibility management style, she waited (impatiently?) for participants to share their respective sense of the current situation before excitedly describing what she believed to be the big issues facing the organization. The longer and stronger she spoke, the more I watched participants sitting back in their chairs, eyes just slightly looking away…

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Each of these vignettes illustrates some habits one might strive to overcome if committed to authentic leadership. 

Vignette #1: – Positional listening.
Unconsciously, I listen for information that crosses my line (the line); that seems to violate my position. It triggers me. Out of habit (lazy preference?), I cry out with umbrage, all the while feeling superior and vindicated; I’m sticking up for what’s right.

What might be going on?

  • I’m attached to a position to which I cling dearly (and probably unconsciously). I’m reinforcing a preference to hear those things that echo my own thinking, deflecting, dismissing, or attacking other views.
  • I’ve surrendered by thinking mind to the possible manipulation of the distribution platform (all forms of media). I take the bait, getting drawn deeper into my “opposition” mind. Believing my own superior truth, I stop asking why someone might hold this different view; wondering what assumptions may give fuel to this disdainful opinion; what lived experience could foster such a contrary perspective. 
  • I’m feeling increasingly tight, tired, agitated, and sullen. I’ve reinforced a list of things I don’t like. Time for that tall glass of wine (maybe 2…more?)

What might you want to practice?

  • Ask yourself why you’re watching the news. Sure, to know what’s going on around you. I get that. However, you can find out the events of the day in many different ways, served up via many different portals. What else is out there? Have you selected this information source because you like the point of view? OK…and…what else is out there? What would somebody holding a very different view be watching? 
  • Try being the news instead of consuming the news. Wait; what?! Alternatively, try 15 minutes of journaling about the day before reaching for your news device. Ask yourself what you noticed today—from the momentary and seemingly inconsequential to the lasting and grand—that’s good, better, best. See if you can list five things (or more). Sit silently and review each item you listed, pausing to recall that moment and what you were feeling at that time. After reflecting on the whole list ask yourself what news would most inform and nourish you right now? Go there…or just continue to sit contemplatively. Perhaps in this way you get beyond information to insight to clarity.

Vignette #2: – Listening for my turn to talk.

I’m self-aware enough to realize it’s a good thing (for me and for everybody) to be accessible to the team I’m privileged to lead. They expect it and I want to hear their ideas. Yet despite that conscious overlay, I assert myself in a way that unintentionally conveys that I (alone) have the answer.

What might be going on?

  • I’m unconsciously behaving like “the boss” and aren’t bosses supposed to know exactly what to do…always? Anyway, that’s my unchallenged assumption and the mountain of management literature seems to continually reinforce this myth of the leader’s invincibility and all-knowingness. So when there’s a pause, I can (finally!!) jump in to share my diagnosis and put the whole team on the right track. Then, it’s straight to implementation. Ready. Go!
  • I’ve defaulted to my familiar constructs. In my earnest desire to make an impact, I’ve inventoried the things in my new situation that conform to past experience and, now that I recognize the pattern, I can articulate the path. Everyone should be happy, right, ‘cause that’s what I’ve been hired to do?
  • I’ve undercut the very thing I espoused: an open door shared responsibility style. That’s what I said. However, what I did was to convey that your insights and opinions may have to take second fiddle to mine. Regrettably, the staff (by sitting back and looking away) are signaling their perceived disconnect between word and practice. Worse yet; trust shrinks. Even worse? All future problems will be owned by me because that’s what I’ve signaled I’m capable of. Yikes! That seems unwieldy for the long haul.

What might you want to practice?

  • Listen to the deeper level of the situation. Most issues and situational problems will be related to some type of individual, unit, and/or organizational activity. These activities form patterns of behavior over time. What does the pattern look like and what is it producing?
  • Lead (and stay) with questions. If you seem habitually drawn (or trained) to look at things through a problem solving lens (spoiler alert: that’s NOT the only—or most effective—management lens!), you’ll want to acknowledge that the problems that manifest in the regular behavior are products of the relationships, policies, and practices in place (aka, the way we do things around here). Go deeper still. Explore what might be the unarticulated shared assumptions that drive those policies, practices, and relationships? How might we have come to those widely shared mental models? This is the context that silently (and relentlessly) shape the relationships and results in the activities we see.
  • Consider the notion that leadership is a relationship, and every relationship is a conversation. It’s got to be reciprocal. Everyone has something to teach and something to learn. You alone can’t be the sense-maker. In many situations (not all; not in crisis) the diversity of perspectives builds resilience…and ownership that will certainly be necessary for effective implementation. If you approach your leadership role as if it’s a relationship with the context, you’ll stay in conversation; you’ll want to stay with inquiry; you’ll always invite a shared sense-making posture. If this becomes what your team witnesses you doing, you won’t have to make announcements about your “open door policy”—you’ll be living the openness.

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What am I listening for? 

This is a question I’ve learned over time to trust and honor. It shapes my way of being in the work and in the world. It is a self-reminder to remain humble, to be an intentional learner, and to celebrate the rich tapestry of opportunity that I encounter. 

My consulting and coaching practice has evolved with my style of listening. I’ve concluded that people seldom ask directly for what they really want. They’ll ask for help around a particular activity or relationship that is currently troublesome, inconvenient, under-developed, or missing. What they really want is much deeper—often wrapped up in their own vulnerability or tucked away in their blind spot. I’m listening for the deeper need/desire. I find myself listening for the best of what is trying to emerge.

It often has little to do with me. I’m the vehicle through which the moment gets reinterpreted. Years ago, I wrote a paper titled (cleverly, I thought) “I am Midwife to a Future Trying to Emerge.” What that means to me is that something that will occur naturally may still need a loving hand to ease it into being. Such is the case with individual and organizational growth and development.

This mindset has informed how I approach the widely diverse requests and expectations of my consulting practice. I strive to always enter the work as a partner; a compassionate coach of positive possibilities. 

So I listen for the best of what is trying to emerge. Whether the situation is described to me in terms laden with fear, frustration, anxiety, resignation…urgency, zeal, determination, excitement, hope….I am listening for a deeper understanding of the prevailing mental models (world views). I am listening for my partner’s sense of self-awareness. I am listening for what we might potentially co-create together through the work, in service of elevating and accelerating pursuit of illuminated possibilities springing from seeds of past triumphs, however tiny.

This intentional posture of listening (variably called appreciative, heart-centered, attentive, active, etc.) begins and continues through questions. My teacher often says, “you inherit the world your questions create.” Believing that, I want my questions to identify, magnify, and amplify the good, the better, and the best. 

What questions are you asking?