The Art of Listening and why so few have it

Just so we’re all clear, I would like to start by saying that I have not mastered the Art of Listening nor am I suggesting that I have become a guru in the topic. In fact, if my wife happens to be reading this right about now, she will be as shocked by those statements as you would in learning that a Double Big Mac is not a healthy alternative to Salad.

Mind-Boggling, I know!

Having said that, I understand first hand how important this is, not only as a skill but as a prerequisite to management and leadership.

This topic has been written about in countless journals, magazines, blogs, books, white papers and even thoroughly discussed in the fields of psychology as well as business. The consensus? We all suck at it!

Have you ever tried to get someone you’re arguing with to just listen to you? What happens when you stop talking? They start up again, as though they simply hit the pause button on whatever they were going to say and when you finished they pressed the play button again!

This is widespread, while I don’t have any scientific evidence I am almost tempted to call this an epidemic based on what I see around me.

Everyone is so concerned with being heard, everyone wants to have it their way, nobody wants to “back down” or “let someone else win!” and this is affecting our professional lives and our personal lives.

There are among us those who believe that they have every right to be stubborn in an argument because “they are right”. That they don’t have to listen, or compromise or back down because they know that the facts are on their side. So they will argue their point, and if the other person doesn’t agree, they fall back on their support structure. In business, this can mean escalations, complaints, filing grievances, etc…

The fall back mechanism is to walk away from the person you are having a disagreement or argument with and recruit as many people as you possibly can to your side, for the sole purpose of re-launching another offensive that will forcefully (through ultimatums, or power hierarchy) get the other side to “listen” to them.

This also happens in personal relationships, and its not uncommon for people to “check-out” or stop talking to one another until enough time passes for them to simply ignore or put-aside their disagreement – without dealing with it.

The term ‘Listen to me’ or ‘Listen to what I’m saying’ has now morphed in meaning to “Do as I say or else…”

If you ever worked with or know someone who happens to be a great listener you will find that they have a specific kind of character trait about them. They are more interested in achieving a win-win scenario, they are not only interested in “getting their way” they want to make sure that the other person is equally satisfied with the decision as they are.

Great listeners don’t come to the table with an agenda, or with a specific message that they plan to enforce onto others. Yes, they may be forced at times to deliver directives from higher up – we see this a lot in business – but they are quick to ask others how they feel and what they can do to mutually deal with this situation so that impact (if negative) is mitigated as much as possible.

This is why it’s so difficult to be a great Listener. It’s because it requires people to be as equally concerned in the other person’s interest and well-being as they are of their own.

In brief, great listeners are not selfish or self-absorbed, they truly believe that life is not a one-way street, and while the compromise maybe longer, harder, and less convenient than your way, it is ultimately the way that will lead to mutual understanding, happiness and respect. Qualities that I’m sure we can use a little more of nowadays.

Office Gossip: How to stop it from spreading, and look good in the process.

I was recently asked by a very observant colleague “How do you handle gossip in the workplace?”  She was growing increasingly frustrated and demoralized whenever she participated in meetings or discussions where others began to gossip about other coworkers, colleagues and managers – not even executives were spared the verbal lashing!

The most frustrating part for her is perhaps knowing that when she was absent from these calls or meetings, she was the victim of their verbal onslaught.  After all, “if it’s being said about someone else, it’s probably being said about you”.

I’m sure everyone has dealt with this at some point during their career; some may have even participated in it so it’s fair to say that regardless of what we do people will not stop gossiping.

This doesn’t mean that we should become hopeless, give up and accept this reality.  At the same time, I am not so naive as to suggest that you should disengage from every discussion that includes some form of gossip because 1) this will not stop gossip from happening, and 2) it will quickly alienate you from your colleagues and will only promote this habit from happening behind your back. 

Instead when you hear your colleague(s) gossip about someone in the office, try to balance the discussion by pointing out something positive about that individual.  For example, if you heard your colleagues complain about Susan and how she’s perpetually late getting to the office, you might want to say “Yea, I definitely noticed that but I know that Susan drives her kids to school in the morning and commutes in to work, she’s also in the office very late after everyone’s left for the day.” 

By saying that, you’ve acknowledged the reason of their gossip (Susan being late) but you’ve countered with a comment that perhaps makes it harder for them to continue gossiping about Susan’s lateness. 

But let’s be fair, some times we may not have anything substantial to defend our colleagues with, we may not know enough about them or we may find that the gossip has some sort of merit.  In this scenario I would acknowledge that the behavior is “out of character” and that perhaps “they are experiencing some difficulties lately”.  This comment essentially says “I know my colleague did something to cause some frustration or anger or disappointment, but I am not ready to write them off and discount their character just yet.” 

Remember that it is never beneficial to engage in gossip no matter how justified you maybe, it may endear you to a certain group of people, it may even help you vent but it doesn’t solve the problem and in doing so you are always chipping away at your own character.  In the end you have the choice to raise the moral standard of those around you or to go with the flow hoping that one day you are not the target.

The Art of Escalations: Knowing when pull the trigger and how…

Believe it or not, we have been escalating since the age of 4-5 and surprisingly we haven’t become good at it over time, in fact we haven’t changed much since the good ole’ “MOM! DAD! Bobby hit me!!” days.

We learned to escalate when we realized that involving someone else into our problems will result in action far greater than any we ourselves could exert or apply.

This worked for us as kids because it played out as a defense mechanism “I’m gonna tell mom if you hurt me” or a threat mechanism “If you do that I’m gonna tell dad”.

Surprisingly not much as changed as we grew older and moved into the workforce except for added subtlety and sexy business lingo.  Perhaps you have come across this defense mechanism at work “If we have to take on any additional work we’ll have to have a discussion with [insert manager’s name]” or perhaps you’ve heard this threat mechanism “[insert manager’s name] has committed to this being done by end of day, if its not we’ll have to take it up with although I’m sure he’s not going to be happy”.

We have almost conditioned ourselves to think of escalations as a win-lose scenario!

But when you’re running projects and trying to influence positive change – whether at work or otherwise – a win-lose scenario can only get you so far without adding some resentment and friction to the relationship.

The key to escalating without implying a win-lose scenario is to level-set up-front the reasons and benefits of escalating.  For example:

  1. Escalations are meant to move us forward as a team
  2. We always escalate issues NOT people
  3. We, collectively, will make a decision to escalate to ensure we’re all in agreement
  4. Escalations are a last resort after we have exhausted other options within our control

Simple, right?

One of the biggest traps that we fall into is inconsistency.  What we escalate today may not be what we escalate tomorrow, and unfortunately the speed with which we escalate may depend on WHO we’re working with.  Another common pitfall is NOT communicating (to your team) your intention to escalate and that can catch them by surprise and further fuel an us vs. him/her mentality.

By doing this, we lose credibility among our peers when we escalate, even if we’re right in escalating.  When you realize this, you need to pull yourself out of that trap and re-focus on the issues and facts.

Stay consistent and always ask yourself tough questions “Would I escalate this issue if my friend was working on it?” or “Would I escalate this issue if I had a different manager”,  “Why am I escalating this now?” and most importantly “have I explained to my team the need behind this escalation and my intention in doing so?”

The answers to those questions should give you some insight into whether this escalation will result in a win-lose or a win-win scenario.

After all, that dorky tattletale kid may have been right but he always ate lunch alone.

Problems are always resolved, people’s feelings on the other hand…

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” Maya Angelou

A really good example of this (assuming you’ve been out of school longer than Justin Bieber’s singing career) is to recall your favourite teacher in school or university.  Now hold on to that name for a second, try to recall why that teacher was your favourite?  What exactly did they do? What did they say? Can you remember the situation? Can you remember something they said to you?

For many of us, our memory would only serve us as far the name is concerned.  That’s not to say we have poor memory but it’s a strong indicator that our feelings are hardcoded in our memory.  We remember good and bad.  We may not remember why and quiet frankly that may not be important.

When you begin to realize this, it starts to have a profound effect on the way you deal with others – and believe me I haven’t mastered this, I’m very much still learning!

In today’s corporate culture of high delivery, fast pace, ultra commitments and perhaps careers “on the line” it’s easy to get worked-up over the problems we face day-to-day.  We’re easily overcome with anger, frustration, and a mis-placed feeling of wanting someone to blame.

When that happens….Pause.

Keep saying to yourself “my problem will be resolved”

You may not know at that moment how or by whom, in fact, you may not even have control over that other than taking the appropriate measures and steps to resolve it.

What you can control however, is how you treat people when this happens!  Because everyone you’re working with will not remember this situation or this problem 4 or 5 or even 1 year down the line but they will remember how you made them feel when it happened.

Stay Calm, Cool and Composed.

The key is to control your emotions rather than having them control you.

You maybe accountable for delivery, but you are also accountable for how you behave and work with others and if you have a short fuse you’ll quickly find that not many people will want to be around you to solve the next problem that occurs.

Communicating Urgency (with a sense of urgency)

Imagine for a second that you’re on a moving train travelling at 200km/h now imagine that 10km ahead there is another train also travelling at 200km/h heading in the opposite direction and on same track – a collision course!

If you could only communicate with the conductors via email, how would you frame it?

The way you frame emails today is very important, your first goal shouldn’t be to warn them, it should be to ensure that the email gets read!

1) Start off by including the right names in the ‘TO’ block, NOT the ‘Cc’ block.

Suppose you receive a letter in your home mailbox but you don’t find that it is addressed to you, do you open it to figure out whether your name is inside?

2) The subject line needs to communicate this urgency with tags such as URGENT:… or IMPORTANT… you can also mark it as such MUST READ…or YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED.

The first thing a person reads when they get an email is the subject and that determines the likelihood of whether that email gets read, shelved, or not read at all.

3) The body of your email needs to be short, concise, and to the point.

4) The body of your email needs to be short, concise, and to the point.

5) The body of your email needs to be short, concise, and to the point.

6) Make sure that you utilize the font edit tools available to you to make sure that the impact pops out at the reader.  For example,

In looking at track conditions ahead we determined that your train is on a CRASH COURSE with Train B.

Please STOP your train IMMEDIATELY.

Now read only the BLOCK letters.

7) Tag the email as urgent before sending and always follow up the email with a phone call to make sure that the recipient is aware that there is a critical email that should be arriving at their mailbox and it requires immediate attention. Also follow up an hour later to make sure they’ve read it and actioned it.

One mistake that people are caught doing when conveying urgent information is that they attempt to overload the email by providing greater context, some history, their interpretation of why this occurred and some where between the middle to end of that email they will convey any action plans or response strategies (if any).

The reality is, busy executives, directors, even project managers may not get to the bottom of that email after reading the first few sentences (or anything that appears beyond the preview pane), simply because they read emails to spot urgency, action items, decision points or other specific info.  If they can’t gauge this information from the first few lines then the email drops down on their priority list or read at a later point.

REMEMBER, if the situation requires immediate attention, you may want to convey the action plan first and then follow up with another email providing the additional contextual information.