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.

Learning to fail properly

Thomas Edison is a great inventor and an important figure in our history. Remarkably, his greatest asset (beyond innovation) was how he viewed failure.

Its been said that in his attempt to create the incandescent light bulb he experienced close to 10,000 failed experiments. Half way through his attempts to innovate this “miracle” light source, the local newspaper decided to write a satirical piece about Mr. Edison in an effort to depict him as the wacky and perhaps senile man whose failures to that point (close to 5,000 failed attempts at the time) have taught him nothing!

The local journalist asks Mr. Edison “After failing to create your incandescent light bulb 5,000 times, at what point will you realize that this innovation is simply an impossibility”

Mr. Edison responds in what perhaps is the most telling statement about his attitude to failure “Oh but you are mistaken Sir, I have not failed 5,000 times for I have discovered 5,000 ways in which the incandescent light bulb does not work!”

To Mr. Edison failure was a critical part of innovation because he viewed his failures as discoveries! They did not discourage him, de-motivate him or cause him to quit – this is evident by the remarkable number of failures he incurred not only in creating the light bulb but in every other innovation he had made from the Electrographic vote recorder, to the motion picture.

Thomas Edison knew how to fail properly. He understood how absolutely essential it was to fail, he accepted it, he embraced it but most of all he made sure that every failure was a stepping stone towards greatest.

We’ve all experienced failure at some point in our lives but the most telling trait about you is how you’ve responded to those failures.

Some of us are so adverse to failure that they are not willing to try anything or risk anything that might lead to failure. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” J.K. Rowling

I was one of those people, I felt that my life will only be defined by the successes that I gain and soiled by the failures I experience. I soon found myself doing nothing. I was not challenging myself; I was not growing or developing my capabilities. I simply existed day-to-day, taking refuge in my false sense of “success”. The key here is that I was not challenging myself.

To challenge yourself is to grow, and to grow is to fail! This is an inevitable reality, this is what Thomas Edison understood so well, failure is a basic and fundamental ingredient to success.

This principal is so important to understand because it applies to every part of your life both personally and professionally.

I have made a habit out of asking to be assigned to the toughest and hardest projects at work – projects that others were running away from! I can tell you for certain that there have been many times where I experienced failure, but I did not fail, I grew in ways that surprised even myself!

Never give up on yourself, keep pushing, keep battling! It’s not easy but the best things in life never are. You never know, maybe one day you’ll find yourself in the company of Success … but only if you hang on long enough!

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up” Thomas Edison.

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 Power of ‘I Don’t Know’

If I think back to all the great leaders (whether by title or otherwise) that I have had or come across in my life they all have one thing in common – they frequently admit to what they don’t know.

There were many instances where throughout a meeting or a discussion someone would direct a question (usually to the leaders in the room) to which the response would be a mystifying “That’s a great question, I don’t know”.

At the time I didn’t know why hearing that phrase from these people made me more inclined to listen to them, more inclined to follow them and more inclined to emulate them.

After all, leaders should know! Otherwise, how did they become leaders in their profession?  These were basic questions that I grappled with very early on in my career.  The problem was that this perspective wasn’t only limited to the workplace, I simply deemed anyone who frequently used the phrase “I don’t know” as an amateur, and discounted him as being a ‘well-informed individual’.

I realized later that this is due to the way I was largely conditioned throughout my academic life.  In academia knowing is succeeding.  To know is to pass! To not know is to fail! Simple!  Therefore, those who knew were automatically labeled ‘Smart’ and those who didn’t know were labeled …well, you get the idea.  As students we strived to know everything, and we were expected to know everything.  In my final capstone course of my Bachelor’s degree we had to deliver a thesis-like presentation for an hour, after which several faculty members would grill you about this topic.  The idea was to stand there for as long as it took answering every question they throw at you, not knowing was not an option.

It’s no surprise that when I started my professional career I would take it upon myself to know all the answers, and at times fake the fact that I know all the answers because God forbid should someone find out that I don’t know I wouldn’t have much of a career!!!

That’s when I started to notice 2 things

1)      I wasn’t particularly well-liked among my peers – for reasons beyond me at the time, and

2)      I began to notice that successful, well-liked leaders, managers, and people in the organization were quick to admit to not knowing when they didn’t know.

After many years of closely observing these successful people and at times working with them I’ve realized that they placed a greater emphasis on working collaboratively than knowing the right answers.  As in, it wasn’t so important to know, as it was in how you go about knowing.

But there is also something to be said about the modesty of it all.  We naturally gravitate towards people who are down-to-earth, who are humble and admit that they do not know everything.  It also displays a great deal of confidence because as we all know, its not easy to say ‘I don’t know’ in front of others but both confidence and honesty are factors that attracts us to others. Especially leaders, because it “brings them down to our level” we’re able to relate to them a lot better and THAT is what attracts us to them.

Reality is we don’t know everything, and we don’t have all the answers and that’s OK!

Not knowing is the first step towards discovery, and exploration.  It’s the ice-breaker to great team-work and the spark for collaboration.

So the next time you’re asked something you don’t know, acknowledge that it’s a great question (after all it stumped even yourself) and ask an ever better question “How can we figure that out?”  

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.



For some time now I’ve been debating whether to launch my own blog and the biggest questions i had were 1) what would I say? and 2) who cares? no really, who out there really cares?

I was having this discussion with a colleague of mine and he said (as far as what I’d say) “it has to be something you’re very passionate about, something that makes you get up off your seat to debate” and quiet honestly I didn’t know what that is until I found myself a few minutes later speaking with him about accountability in the workplace.   That word gets such a bad reputation.  For most, accountability is another word for blame, so to ask “who is accountable for this?” is to essentially ask “who can i blame for this?” or “if this thing tanks who’s responsible”?  Notice how the context is always negative?

The result is a work-force that gets starry-eyed every time the question of accountability is brought up and when your work-force shys away from accountability they distance themselves from the end the result.  They become disconnected, and quiet frankly, they stop caring because they don’t want to be responsible for anything “if it goes bad”.

Unfortunately, poor leaders and poor managers are to blame for how this word is used today.

Accountability is meant to inspire ownership, take command, and lead the effort & strategy to create change or impact.  This can only be achieved through collaboration.  Think of the captain on a ship, while he/she is accountable for the ship, he/she engages his/her co-captains, his/her crew and even the boatmen so that he/she can ensure that the ship is safe and on-course.  While it’s possible that we may not succeed in what we are accountable for, nevertheless, we will be in the best position to explain the decisions made and the inputs that were considered to create those decisions.  This in a nutshell is accountability!

If you can get your workforce to start thinking about accountability in this way, you’ll find an immediate improvement in soft areas such morale, team & personal engagement, as well as the technical areas of risk analysis and quality control. 

I am a strong promoter of accountability in everything you do and I have built this blog to talk about the many areas of leadership and project/team management that require a strong sense of accountability.  This is what motivates me, its what gets me up off my seat to debate and I hope it inspires and motivates.