Flooded by words
Renée didn’t like to complain.
A senior vice-president in the finance division of her bank, Renée had an orderly mind, a tidy office and a positive outlook. Even when managing problem performers, she exuded kindness and warmth. ‘Sunny’ and ‘optimistic’ were words from her 360-degree feedback report.
But she had trouble maintaining her positivity when she talked about the new CEO, Jordan.
“You know,” she said, giving the table an emphatic slap of her hand, “I used to think it was me. I used to think he was so smart, I just couldn’t understand him. But the more I listen to him, it’s not me. It’s him. He doesn’t make sense a lot of the time.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “I find myself zoning out when he’s talking. Not a good thing – zoning out on your CEO!”
I understood Renée’s frustration. Jordan and I had talked briefly on the phone about his goals for Renée’s coaching. He told me he wanted her to have more executive presence, but, by the end of our conversation, I wasn’t at all clear what he meant, despite asking several different ways.
I asked Renée, “Do you know why you zone out?”
“He does this stream of consciousness thing. I swear, I ask him one question and he talks for like ten minutes.”
“Does he have a focus?” I asked.
“How do you mean?”
“Is he lecturing? Is he sharing vision? Is he teaching some idea? What does he talk about?”
“Anything! Whatever comes into his head. It could be weather patterns in the Caribbean.”
“And where does he end up? Does he end up wanting an agreement? Giving you an assignment? Asking for new information? What’s his point, in the end?”
“A lot of the time, I don’t have a clue! I end up asking my question a second time or a third time. Sometimes, sometimes, I get a good answer. But sometimes I walk away thinking, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just go with my instincts and if he doesn’t like it he can tell me later.’”
“Does that end you up in hot water?”
“No,” she said with a dismissive wave. “He talks a lot, but I don’t think he keeps track of what he’s saying. Usually, even if there was an agreement, he doesn’t remember it.”
I gave a sly little smile and asked, “Do you ever tell him he said something that he didn’t really say?”
She laughed. “No! But I probably could!”
“Are there times when he does remember what he talked about and it’s really important to him?”
“Yes, some of the time. I wouldn’t say most of the time.”
“Would it be fair to say he thinks out loud?” I asked.
Laughing, she said, “I’m not sure I would call it thinking! Really, Tom, he’s not being thoughtful. He just spews.”
I nodded. “He’s a verbal processor.”
“Yes!” she said.
Out loud thinkers
“And I understand why he’s hard to listen to. I used to be a verbal processor,” I said.
“Like Jordan? No way!”
“I certainly talked a lot! That whole stream of consciousness thing? I did that. And I thought I was really well spoken. But, looking back, I’m pretty certain I was hard to listen to a lot of the time.”
Brightly she asked, “Could we make this part of the coaching? Could you help me listen to Jordan better so I stop zoning out?”
“Sure!” I said.
“Renée, before we jump in, I really want to appreciate what you just did. You asked if I could help you listen to Jordan better. You didn’t ask about making Jordan better. I really appreciate your sense of ownership about the issue.”
“Well, he’s not going to change!”
“He might,” I said, “but not because of anything you and I do during your coaching!”
She laughed merrily. “Yeah! He can get his own coach!”
“You’d be surprised how many people want coaching so other people will change.”
“Sounds like my twelve-year-old,” she said. “She’s always telling me what she’s going to do so her friends will do this or her teacher will stop doing that.”
“And what do you tell her?” I asked.
“Good luck with that! Let me know how it goes!”
She asked, “So what about me listening to Jordan? What could I do better?”
“Well, let’s start with this idea that you’re listening to someone who processes out loud.”
“And how does that help me?”
“Can I tell you a story?”
“Sure,” she said.
Talking to think
“A friend of mine, a fellow coach named Pam, is brilliant with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Years ago, when I was trying to learn more about Myers-Briggs, she and I were talking about people who fit the Myers-Briggs definition for being an extrovert.
“I remember Pam smiling at me and saying, ‘You! You’re the classic extrovert. You don’t know what you think about anything until you say it out loud.’”
“Ew!” she said, recoiling. “Not a very nice thing to say!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Makes you sound like an airhead. You don’t know what you’re thinking unless you’re talking out loud?”
I laughed. “But she was right! Talking helps me clarify my thinking. Talking helps me learn. I process my thoughts out loud. And I suspect Jordan does, too. If you knew he was a verbal processor, would it change anything?”
“If I thought he was getting to some point! But, really, he bounces from one topic to the next like a pinball. He’s impossible to follow. His thoughts must be so jumbled up. Maybe he’s ADD!”
“That’s an interesting thought,” I said, nodding. “Would that idea make it easier to listen to him?”
“It might!” she said. Then, looking at me, she asked, “Didn’t you experience any of this when you talked with him?”
“I did,” I said. “I told you, I never completely understood his goals for the coaching. But I didn’t zone out on him.”
“Well, there you’ve got me! So what’s the trick?”
“I’ll tell you my method. You can tell me if it works for you.”
“Does this method have a name?”
I laughed. “It doesn’t! At least not yet. Maybe you can give it one.” I said, “I made up this method because people like Jordan were hard for me, too. But, being a verbal processor myself, I thought maybe I could reverse engineer the whole thing.”
“Let me have it!”
Sorting while listening
“I’m going to start by explaining what it’s like to be a verbal processor. Suppose someone asks me a question. Their question triggers an idea in my head, so I start by talking about that. And I get excited. Which sparks another idea and I talk about that. Which sparks another idea, which sparks another, until I run out of steam.”
“Yeah, but nobody can follow all that!” she said.
“But I can! If I’m the verbal processor! My thoughts are flying out in front of me down a big, wide straightaway. But what I learned is that, for the listener, it’s a labyrinth. Right?”
She laughed. “Right!”
“Which is what gave me the idea of this method. See, when I would listen to other verbal processors, I knew that in the other person’s head all those random ideas were connected. But I couldn’t see the connections. So in this method, I make it my job to just figure out when a turn occurs, but not to worry about connecting the turns. All I wanted to do was notice what was being said. Not how it all connected.”
She nodded for me to keep going.
“When I’m listening to a verbal processor, I picture the words coming out of the person’s mouth as a big gushing flood from a hydrant that’s all jumbled together.
“My job as the listener is to grab the different chunks and separate them. ‘Oh, look, he’s talking about Board meetings!’ I grab that chunk and put a pin in it that says, ‘Board meeting.’ When the topic changes, I put the Board meeting chunk to the side and listen for the new topic. ‘Oh! Look! He’s talking about the SVPs now.’ I put a pin in that saying ‘SVPs,’ then get ready for the next chunk. For everything he says, I’m listening and pinning.”
“It sounds exhausting,” she said.
“It just takes practice,” I said. “I find that listening this way helps me think more critically so I don’t go down rabbit holes. As I put pins in, I think to myself, ‘That’s not on my main road. We don’t have to talk about that.’”
Before our next conversation, Renée tried sorting and pinning when she was listening to Jordan.
“It felt like time slowed down,” she reported happily. “I kept imagining it was like a softball game in slow motion. I’m the catcher, he’s the pitcher. He throws this pitch towards me, and while it’s coming, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, he’s talking about our growth goals.’ The pitch keeps coming until he changes topics. Then, bang! The ball hits my glove. I shove it in my pocket and focus on the next pitch. Then, whatever that’s about hits my glove and goes in my pocket and I turn to what’s next. I had so much time to think about what he was saying!”
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“Yes, because I was listening,” she said. “You know what else it allowed me to do? Instead of just waiting for him to stop talking, then asking my question again, I could actually pull some of his own words out and use them back to him. I could tell he liked that.”
“Oh, good!” I said.
“You know what else?” she asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Listening this way, this slow motion softball way, works with anybody. Even people who aren’t verbal processors. It helps me pay attention no matter what I’m hearing. I like it.”
“That’s great, Renée.”
“By the way, I named it. I call it ‘Slow-pitch Listening.’”
Renée found ‘slow-pitch listening’ infused her with The Look & Sound of Leadership.”