What do you do to engage someone more fully? So often when I’m talking to someone at work (or home) I find that we’re not engaged in a conversation or a dialogue but actually dueling monologues- just waiting for the opportunity to speak. Do you have any advice for listening and engaging? ‘Avoiding the trap of just waiting for your turn’?
MINDY DANNA: James, the first thing that popped in my mind when I read your question was a phrase we use sometimes: listening to reload.
TOM HENSCHEL: [Laughs] That’s a great phrase!
MINDY: The first part of your question was about ‘how do you engage someone more fully?’ I would turn the question to you and say, ‘James, when you’re listening to someone, to what extent are you engaged in what they’re actually saying?’
Listening is a mindset, first and foremost. It requires standing in a mindset of, ‘I really am curious about what this person has to say and I’m going to engage myself fully.’ If it starts with you demonstrating that, it may be reciprocated. What do you think, Tom?
TOM: I’m delivering a course called ‘Improv for Leaders’ with a guy named Jeremy Rowley who’s an actor, creator, writer, artist. He’s deep into improvisation as a theater craft. Jeremy has been studying this for years, and he teaches it to non-actors.
There’s an exercise that sounds incredibly simple. It’s called One Word Story.
Everybody’s in a circle. Jeremy would say to you, ‘I’m going to give you a proper name.’ You say the name and turn to the person next to you. That person has to add one word to build a story. That person turns to the next person who adds one more word and so on around the circle.
It sounds easy but it’s not, because what we do is we watch it coming towards us like a wave in a stadium. It’s coming close and I think, ‘Oh! I know! I’ll say ‘bulletin board.’ That’ll be clever!’ Then it gets to me, and it’s like, ‘Oh no! ‘Bulletin board’ doesn’t work!’ But maybe I say it any way. It’s clear I wasn’t listening.
Jeremy told me that his colleagues, who’ve all been studying improv a long time, can stand in a circle and do this and it almost sounds like one person talking because they have learned to listen in such a free way. They can zip the story around the circle. That’s a completely different kind of listening and it’s a learned skill.
MINDY: It really is! I’ve played that game and it’s painful. I usually blame the person right before me. ‘I had a perfect story and you just screwed it up for me!’
MINDY: I think it was Carl Rogers who said, ‘We don’t really listen to other people because we’re afraid if we really listen, we might actually have to change. Or change our minds.’
MINDY: I’ve observed that in coaching others. And in myself. If I really listen to what you’re saying from your perspective, not mine, but yours, it challenges my sense of who I am.
In addition to ‘listening to reload’, there are three other levels of listening that we talk about and teach. The first one is Listening To Win. That probably sounds familiar: you’re listening to collect information so you can either discredit or dismantle or win in the conversation you’re having with that person.
MINDY: The next one is Listening To Fix. It’s applicable when there is an answer and we actually know what the problem is. But there are times when we really don’t know what the problem is and we don’t even know that there is an answer. That’s when Listening To Learn is really powerful.
TOM: Is that the third one?
MINDY: That’s the third one. Listening To Learn. That’s driven by genuine curiosity and openness to the possibility that I might actually be changed by really listening to you.
TOM: Listening To Win; Listening To Fix: Listening To Learn.
TOM: That’s so helpful. Thanks.
I’m about to take over a new team for the first time and I’d love your thoughts on developing a good way to approach this.
TOM: Then Colin, with great clarity, wrote about the many factors he felt were critical to the team’s success: processes and people, functions, values, communication, rapport. He was thinking very broadly about this thing called team leadership and then at the very end he simply asked this:
What can I do to be the best leader out of the gate?
MINDY: Colin, I think you are already off to a really good start because you’re giving it depth and breadth of thought. I really appreciate that.
The first thing I would say is it’s a really big shift in identity from, ‘I’m rewarded for doing the work myself’ to ‘I’m now rewarded for helping others build their capacity to do the work themselves.’ I think that’s an important first step.
TOM: Colin, there’s no ‘right’ way to do this. You’re going to do it your way. You’re going to be your version of a team leader. You’re trying to find your voice, your footing, your style, your manner of leadership.
MINDY: There are a couple resources I would turn you on to, also.
One is a book by Linda Hill called ‘Being the Boss.’ It’s a really practical book for first-time managers.
The other one is — Google did an exhaustive study called ‘The Aristotle Study,’ because in their fashion, they figured, ‘Well, if we can figure out what makes the perfect team, we’ll build the algorithm.’
It was much more complex than they ever imagined, but one thing that was consistent across all high-performing teams is the element of psychological safety.
Colin, as you think about what you can do to create the conditions for your team, consider creating a sense of psychological safety that invites openness and learning and high levels of participation.
TOM: Thanks for introducing psychological safety. I have not used those words anywhere on The Look and Sound of Leadership yet, but they’re very meaningful. Great. Thanks.
When speaking with top executives I often feel ‘less than’ and doubtful of my opinions and thoughts. When I do not know an answer to their question, or when I get nervous, I seem to black out and just not say anything at all.
TOM: Wow! This was powerful for me. I think two different issues might be going on, but only one is probably applicable, but I don’t know which it is.
The words that concerned me were the words ‘black out.’ I mean, really black out? Like if I saw you after the meeting and said to you ‘Kaitlyn, what happened?’ would you say, ‘I don’t know’? Like you were unconscious?
If so, that’s alarming. That sounds like trauma to me, and I think you should find someone to help you because that’s serious. If you are truly blacking out of your life when stress gets high, you need to attend to that.
But if we take that little phrase out, then I say, ‘Okay, this sounds normal to me. This sounds like anxiety and stress about taking your place in the world.’
Much of The Look and Sound of Leadership has been about issues like that. The biggest challenge for people who are struggling with this issue is the concept of incremental improvement.
Here’s what happens.
Let’s imagine I’m coaching Kaitlin. I give her some tool to stay present or whatever Kaitlyn needs. Then she goes into her next meeting and she can do it a little, but then she can’t do it at all. Often she’s going to come out and say, ‘See! I suck! I can’t do this! I’m awful!’ And that justifies all her doubt.
At which point I go, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Stop! You have to think about incremental improvement.
‘You’re trying to overcome maybe decades of programming in your head, and look, you got it right for 90 seconds, maybe 30 seconds. That’s a big deal! You have to celebrate the win in order to allow the trajectory to keep going. You have to have a lot of compassion for yourself.’ That’s my thought. What about you?
MINDY: When I read the phrase ‘I seem to blackout,’ I interpreted it as there are times when we are in a high stress situation or we feel anxious and we experience an amygdala hijack. You go to that fight or flight part of your brain where you just can’t think because all the energy in your body is going towards fleeing or fainting or fighting. So it’s hard to think from the prefrontal cortex, from the executive function part of your brain.
I can relate to that. I’ve been in situations where I didn’t blackout but my mind went blank and that’s–
MINDY: Yes, the mind just goes blank. Then, because I’m in that hijack space, I can’t think of anything intelligent to say. Then it just gets into this doom loop of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to have to fake a seizure!’
MINDY: One technique we often use with an amygdala hijack, is the idea, ‘Name it to tame it.’ Name what you’re feeling. It gets you into a different part of your brain. Say, ‘I’m feeling anxious’ or ‘I’m feeling stressed.’
Another technique, Kaitlyn, if you feel that sort of minor panic, take a moment and take a big deep breath. That can often get your brain back online into the prefrontal cortex.
TOM: If I were Kaitlyn and I said to you, ‘But wait! They’re all looking at me already and I already feel like an idiot. Now I’m supposed to take a big breath? That’s just going to make me look more of an idiot!’ What would you say?
MINDY: I would say that actually I think that demonstrates you’re being thoughtful.
I would say, too, if you’re dealing with top executives, that the things they’re dealing with often are so complex, Kaitlyn, that there isn’t one right answer. They need a multitude of perspectives because it’s not possible for them to see everything that they need to see.
So your perspective is really valuable because it’s yours and that’s what they want. So take a minute and say, ‘Actually, my perspective has merit and value. They don’t know it and they’re asking me because they want to know it.’
TOM: And for this month, that’s The Look & Sound of Leadership.