Shut up and listen

Shut up and listen One of the hardest things for me to do is to shut up and listen.

“If I could give just one piece of advice to all medical students, I would say, ‘Show up completely, and then shut up for at least two minutes while the miracle in front of you tells you who they are and how you can help them.’ If every doctor did just that one thing, it would change medicine.”
Raymond Barfield, Professor of Medicine and Divinity, Duke University, from “The Miracle in Front of You”, January 2016 interview in The Sun

It’s hard for me to shut up and listen because

…I get sparked by what people say and I want to respond.

people often talk about their problems, and I love solving problems—even when no one asked me to solve them.

I have a need for connection with others and want to share who I am, sometimes more than is best for our relationship.

Yet, when I am able to shut up and give the gift of listening, the odds that the person speaking feels heard increases.

And, when I am able to shut up and give someone sharing a problem the space to say fully what’s on her mind, it’s more likely she’ll ask me what I think, and then, perhaps, I can help her.

And, when I am able to shut up and connect with someone through listening well, I’ll usually end up connecting with him more deeply.

Finally, of course, when I shut up and listen well, I’m less likely to miss important information that I need or want to hear.

We can all—especially me—benefit from shutting up and listening.

I’m working on it.

Ask, tell, ask

ask tell ask In his beautiful and insightful book “Being Mortal“, surgeon Atul Gawande describes a mistake clinicians frequently make. They “see their task as just supplying cognitive information—hard, cold facts and descriptions. They want to be Dr. Informative.”

Atul contrasts this with an approach offered by palliative care physician Bob Arnold:

“Arnold … recommended a strategy palliative care physicians use when they have to talk about bad news with people—they ‘ask, tell, ask.’ They ask what you want to hear, then they tell you, and then they ask what you understood.”
—Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, pages 206-7

“Ask, tell, ask” is great advice for anyone who wants to connect fruitfully in a learning environment. Personally, over the years, I’ve become better at asking people what they want to learn (ask) before responding (tell), but I still often omit the second ask: “what did you understand?

The follow-up ask is important for two reasons.

  • Without it we do not know if anything we told has been heard/absorbed, and whether the listener’s understanding is complete and/or accurate.
  • Asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately. This not only improves the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allows him to respond to what he has heard and deepen the conversation.

Ask, tell, ask” assists transforming a putative one-way information dump from a teacher to a student into a learning conversation. I will work to better incorporate the second ask into my consulting interactions. Perhaps you will too?

Photo attribution: Flickr user mikecogh

The importance of modeling listening

modeling listening Recently I was sitting in a plane about to take off and noticed something interesting during the usual safety instructions video. And I learned something about the importance of modeling listening.

Did the flight attendants travel up and down the aisles checking that I’d fastened my seat belt and my personal item was fully under the seat in front of me? No, they didn’t.

Did they retire to their little jump seats, while the locations of the exits were described in a comforting baritone narrative they’d heard a thousand times before. Nope.

Instead, the crew stood, unmoving in the aisles, facing the passengers for the whole three minutes. The conscientious ones stared at the nearest monitor. Even though they couldn’t see what’s on it because they were looking at the back!

Why did they do this?

My flight attendants were modeling listening.

Why? Well, if they appeared to be ignoring the safety video (which they could probably repeat backwards perfectly in their sleep), here’s the message that I would receive:

You don’t need to listen to this.

And my interpretation would be:

Not only is this stuff they’re telling me not important, the flight attendants think it’s a waste of time too.

Let’s face it; listening well is something that’s extremely hard to do for any length of time. During the facilitation of a large session that lasts a couple of hours, I find it impossible to do perfectly. But even though, at times, I revert from listening to hearing, I always try to model listening. As the facilitator, if I appear disengaged from what participants are saying I send a message, not only to the person who is speaking but also to everyone present, that what is being said is unimportant. Such behavior, dis-empowering in so many ways, can seriously weaken the building of connections and intimacy amongst conference participants.

I hope I never need to urgently know the positions of the six emergency exits on an Airbus A320. But if that day comes and I do, it will be due to the consistent and persistent modeled listening of the flight attendants on all the airplanes I’ve traveled on over the years. Thanks guys!

Are you willing to be disturbed?

Holding hands

Working on a video trailer for my book recently reminded me of Margaret Wheatley’s beautifully written turning to one another and its short chapter entitled willing to be disturbed.

She points out how we’re not trained to admit we don’t know, and how difficult it is for us to give up our certainties. Margaret believes, as do I, that curiosity about what others believe is what we need, and that we need to be willing to admit that we’re not capable of figuring out things alone.

She recommends that we listen for what surprises us. If what you say disturbs me, she says, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position.…If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them.

When I talk about attendee-driven conferences, while some people “get” the inherent possibilities, many find it hard to believe that a group of people can create a rich, optimal agenda for the event within a few hours from their initial meeting. Sustaining such disbelief is uncomfortable, and one common response is to stop listening for differences. Although I often feel frustrated when I sense that people aren’t listening in this way, I do my best to continue to listen to their truth, because that’s how I can stay open to learning from them.

Margaret concludes: I expect to be disturbed by what I hear from you. I know we don’t have to agree with each other in order to think well together. There is no need for us to be joined at the head. We are joined by our human hearts.

Are you willing to be disturbed?

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The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine babbage_3737229915_350a489ece William Gibson & Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine introduces us to an alternative world where electronics was never discovered, where computers are made of polished brass and powered by steam.

Sometimes I dream I’m living in an alternative conference universe where we’ve never discovered that people who travel thousands of miles to be in the same room with one another don’t want to spend most of their time just listening to people at the front of that room.

Then I pinch myself, but I don’t wake up. Uh oh.

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The gift of listening


“Patiently Smiley waited for the speck of gold, for Connie was of an age where the only thing a man could give her was time.” from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carré

I was facilitating a peer conference roundtable recently when a young man began to speak. He was obviously nervous: his voice a monotone, when it wasn’t quavering. I was peripherally aware that some people didn’t seem to be listening. He paused for a moment and his eyes swept around the circle, searching for a sign that anyone cared about what he had to say. He found me.

I was leaning forward, looking directly at him, giving him my full attention. Our eyes locked and I nodded slightly. He took a breath and continued. His voice became stronger. I saw people turn back to him and he finished well.

I had just given the gift of listening, and this young man had been nourished by it.

When I am facilitating it’s my responsibility to actively listen to what is going on, focussing my full attention on what others say and do. When I’m successful, those who are present know that there is at least one other person who is listening to them and who takes seriously what they have to say.

Listening like this is hard work. To conscientiously listen to participants for over two hours at a large roundtable is extremely challenging for me. But it’s very important. People need to be heard, and if they believe they will not be heard, why should they bother to speak? By offering good listening at the start of a peer conference, I model and encourage a conference environment where openness twinned with receptiveness becomes a safe option for participants.

There’s a wider benefit from the cultivation of this skill. Practicing listening when required by my role has helped me to be a better listener during all the times when I’m not facilitating—when I’m a participant, or with my family, or as a customer. You, too, may find that developing your ability to fully listen pays rich dividends.

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