Tag Archives: communication

Not Enough to Listen Attentively

Isn’t it funny, in school, when we think of the three “R’s,” only one starts with an “R.” (Reading, writing, arithmetic) Isn’t it funny, when we think about Communication in the organization, it’s always about talking, presenting and writing.

  • “How many of you, at some point in school, learned how to write?” All hands go up.
  • “And how many of you, at some point in school, learned how to read?” All hands go up.
  • “And how many of you, at some point, took a class in debate or public speaking?” Many hands go up.
  • “And how many of you have take some formal class of instruction in listening skills?” Few hands go up.

Let’s examine different levels of listening.

  • Level I – Ignoring (my wife says, I must be good at this, as much as I practice)
  • Level II – Pretending to listen (my wife says my skill definitely exceeds the ignoring level)
  • Level III – Selective listening (I always hear the part about the score of the football game, yet miss the part about taking out the garbage)
  • Level IV – Attentive listening (finally, some serious listening happening here)

It is only with Level IV that we are able to make headway to improve the quality of communication. Yet, most of our attentive listening consists of eye contact, some positive body language and focus on the other person’s lips, waiting… waiting… waiting… for them to finally take a breath, so we can break in and… respond. Most attentive listening is listening to respond.

To improve the quality of communication, attentive listening must move to a deeper level, listening for understanding. It is only at this level that we begin to truly understand the other person. Listen for understanding.

Yet, take it one level deeper and you will see exponential benefits from your conversations. Listen for discovery. Discovery is that intersection of the other person’s direction and your direction. That point of intersection is communication magic. It’s like that common ground you find when you discover that both parties grew up in Texas. The conversation changes, a new level of trust occurs. The real discovery, however, the true payoff, is the discovery of intersection in the future. In what direction is the other person headed? What direction are you headed? Where, in the field, will you meet up? Listen for discovery.

Overwhelmed Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span for the position is longer than the Time Span of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!

Not a Communication Problem

“I am a bit confused,” Sarah explained. “As an executive management team, CEO included, we were frustrated about some issues that were not going well.”

“And, what did you do?” I asked.

“We thought it best to take a survey, kind of a company climate survey, to let everyone chip in and express their opinion about things gone wrong and how to fix them,” she said.

“And, what did you find out?”

“Just as we expected, a large number, more than 50 percent described our problems, related to productivity and morale, as a communication issue.”

“And, how did you go about addressing the issue?” I pressed.

“We hired a communication consultant, and held a series of communication seminars, so everyone could attend,” Sarah stated flatly.

“And, the results?”

“It’s been two weeks. At first, everyone was fired up. People were being nice to each other, but, here we are two weeks later and nothing has really changed. Productivity statistics are unchanged and we still experience heated exchanges about who is to blame.”

“Do you think communication is really the underlying problem?” I wanted to know.

“When you use the word – underlying, it leads me to believe I am looking in all the wrong places,” Sarah sighed. “So, is communication the problem, or only a symptom of the problem?”

“Let’s assume, for a moment, that communication was accurately identified by your survey as a symptom of the problem,” I floated. “What might be the underlying cause of the problem?”

Sarah had to stop, a bit of silence. She finally spoke, “Some people in the survey said they were unnecessarily blamed for things going wrong, that it really wasn’t their fault. Others said that if productivity was really wanted, that the incentive program should be changed. Some said they knew how to fix some of our problems, but they didn’t have the authority to make the decision, they were overruled by their manager.”

“I think we are moving away from the symptom, and getting closer to the cause,” I observed. “Most people, when they call me, tell of a communication problem. After some time, I can usually convince them that communication is not their problem. It’s usually an accountability and authority issue.”

I Must Be Crazy, or an Idiot

Working with groups on communication, I often take an opaque card, draw a circle on one side and a triangle on the other. I hold in front and ask people what they see. They say, “I see a circle.”

I say, “No, I see a triangle.”

Quizzical looks from the group, like I must be crazy, or worse, an idiot.

“No, you must be wrong,” I repeat. “I see a triangle.”

“No, you must be wrong,” they say emphatically. “We see a circle. And, since we, as a group, outnumber you, we must be right.”

You can see where this is going.

“The understanding of a circle and a triangle is simply a matter of perspective,” I say, flipping the card to reveal the other side.

Imagine where the possibilities of a circumstance are more complicated than what has been drawn on one side of an opaque card.

Why People Don’t Listen

“They just don’t listen,” Roy complained. “You would think they would have some respect. After all, I have been doing this job for more that 15 years.”

“It’s because they have a dot,” I replied.

“What do you mean they have a dot?”

“A dot. Everybody has a dot. Your team members, each, have a dot. You have a dot. Only your dot doesn’t match their dot.”

Roy was quick. “Okay, but if their dot is wrong, why don’t they listen to me?”

“I don’t know, why do you think?”

Roy was ready for bear. That’s a Texas expression that means Roy wanted to argue. And he was perfectly willing to go first. “Sometimes, I think they are just pig-headed, stubborn. My logic is easy to see, but if I point out they are wrong, it seems they cling to their ideas even harder.”

“Imagine that,” I pondered out loud.

Whose Problem is It?

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I said. “Rachel has an 8-hour shift. For the past two weeks, she left early, with work undone. The first Saturday, you were furious. The second Saturday, you were calm, but she still left early. What will be different tomorrow?”

“Lots will be different,” Karyn replied. “I took what you said about seeing Rachel as a person, instead of as an employee. As long as I saw Rachel as an employee, her leaving early was my problem. Only when I saw Rachel as a person, did I realize it was her problem. I also realized, if I saw Rachel as a person, why would I wait until Saturday to help her, when I know that is the day of something going on, in conflict with her schedule at work. So, I asked her to lunch on Friday.”

“And?”

“At first, she thought it was a trap, but she agreed to show up. And, we just talked about her. She is in a custody battle with her ex, and she is losing. Three weeks ago, she was late to soccer practice because we made her stay over 15 minutes. So, her ex took the child and she missed the one night a week she has with her kid. She vowed to herself never to let that happen again. She was embarrassed to ask for the time off, but the tension on Saturday, knowing if she was late, that she would not see her kid for another week, it just came out.”

“And?”

“I am the manager. I control resources and scheduling. I asked Rachel, if I could schedule her to leave a half-hour early, if that would help? Turns out, Rachel’s behavior had nothing to do with me, or respect, or authority.”

“I know this conversation seems to be about Rachel and what we learned about her, but what did you learn about yourself?”

Do You Think the Race is Over?

“I changed,” Karyn replied. “But the outcome was still the same. Rachel left early and the work was still undone.”

“Do you think the race is over?” I asked. “What will you do this Saturday?”

“Yelling didn’t work, being nice didn’t work. I don’t know.” Karyn was stumped.

“Were you just being nice, or was there a more subtle shift in you? During all the yelling and Rachel leaving in a huff, how did you see Rachel? Was she a vehicle for you to get stuff done, or an obstacle in the way of getting stuff done?”

“Both,” Karyn flatly stated. “She was supposed to get stuff done, and left it all in my lap when she left.”

“And, last Saturday, you had an early conversation during her shift, when things were calm. Who was Rachel to you then?”

“Well, I treated her more like a person, then.”

“She was no longer something you were driving or an obstacle in the way? She was a person?”

Karyn did not respond to the question.

“You changed,” I said. “You made a shift in the way you saw Rachel. Who are you going to be this Saturday?”

She Still Left Early

“What was different from this past Saturday, than the Saturday before?” I asked.

“The Saturday before,” Karyn started, “Rachel left early in a huff. This Saturday, I talked to her early in the shift, in a calmer conversation. She still left early, but not in a huff. So, I don’t know that I made any progress. She clocked out early and left work to be done.”

“And, how did you feel about yourself, from one Saturday to the next?”

“What’s the difference in the way I felt? The outcome was the same.”

“How did you feel about yourself, from one Saturday to the next?” I repeated.

“A week ago, I was pissed. As the supervisor, I was disrespected. I lost control. I am certain my manager was disappointed with me. The weekend work was left undone and we had to double-up on Monday to catch up.”

“What was different this past Saturday?”

“I thought I headed things off by having a calm conversation. I acknowledged there may be circumstances outside of work that were having an impact inside at work.”

“You were the same two people, on the same Saturday shift, Rachel still left early. Between the two of you, who was different?”

“Well, I was much calmer,” Karyn replied.

“What changed in you?”

Third Leg on the Stool

“More?” Phillip asked.

“Phillip, one of the biggest mistakes a company makes when it hires people, is underestimating what is required for the person to be effective in the position. The role of a Project Manager requires a new skill set, a skill set that most companies never train.”

“We talked about schedules and checklists, but you said there was another tool, a third leg.”

I nodded. “Perhaps the most important tool. Meetings. Most PMs know they need to have meetings, but they just gut their way through. Nobody likes their meetings. The team would skip them if they could. Participation by team members hardly exists.

“Think what a meeting could be. It makes communication consistent because everyone hears the same thing. It provides the opportunity for interactive participation and questions. It encourages participation and promotes buy-in. It can be used as an accountability tool.

“But effective meetings rarely happen, because most managers don’t know how.” Phillip’s turn to nod. It began to sink in. Running the job is completely different than doing the job.

Twinges in the Stomach

Charlie was in my office yesterday. We talked about mostly nothing for a half a minute, when I suddenly became uncomfortable. Something happened inside of me, mostly with my stomach. I wasn’t in discomfort, but there was a significant twinge.

The twinge in my stomach was caused by a short silence, a white space in the conversation. I asked a question about Charlie’s last meeting with his boss. There was no response from Charlie. Silence in a conversation often causes a momentary awkwardness.

I don’t know where this conversation is going next? I thought I knew, but I don’t know now. I wish I knew, but I still don’t know. I hope this conversation get some direction soon, because this awful silence is killing me. BOOM. My stomach told me we were talking about something more important than the weather.

My automatic (unconscious) reaction was to avoid. Do anything to make this feeling go away. The silence was awkward. The automatic (unconscious) response was simply to “talk.” Make the silence go away. If I talk, the silence will be gone, the awkwardness will be gone and I won’t feel this way. Talking would also likely steer the conversation back to a discussion of the weather.

Channel the reaction. My bio-response to Charlie was a twinge in the stomach. The twinge told me that this conversation had potential to be more meaningful. I could avoid it or I could engage. Avoidance would be easy, simply talk to fill the silence, talk about anything.

OR,

I could engage, and let the silence continue. I could let the silence do the heavy lifting to move this conversation to the next level. Something significant had happened between Charlie and his boss and Charlie needed to talk about it. We could have talked about sports, or we could have engaged in a meaningful discussion that had real impact on Charlie.

The twinge in the stomach gives the Manager a heightened sense of intuition and the possibility to channel the reaction to a more productive outcome. Listen to the twinges, watch for white space in conversations.