Tag Archives: mindfulness

Listening Deeply–Essential for Leading

Considering that it is so essential for leadership, listening deeply sure is hard. I catch my mind wandering during meetings—making a grocery list, thinking of errands. I hear my inner judge evaluating instead of listening to the person talking to me. Sound familiar?

Four Levels of Listening

Recent work by Otto Scharmer sheds light on why really listening is hard. Presenting at a recent Community of Practice meeting, my colleague Cathy Geib explained Scharmer’s idea that there are four levels of listening.

  • At a superficial level, we hear through thick filters of assumptions, judgments, and confirmation bias. Instead of hearing the other person, we are locked inside the mind’s distorting echo chamber.
  • To go to deeper levels of listening, we have to listen with curiosity, seeking information that disconfirms our biases about the other person or point of view.
  • This curiosity, and the new perspectives it yields, prepare us for the fourth and deepest listening level, where we bring an open mind and can co-create real dialogue.

Heightening Self-Awareness

I’ve been using these levels of listening to heighten self-awareness and, using the practices I am learning, to help my clients. Heightening self-awareness begins with watching how we listen to our own thoughts and feelings.

To speak of my own journey of learning: I’ve lately been paying attention to my grief-transition process since losing my husband to cancer. One inner conversation goes like this. One voice says, “All the changes, all this newness, together with grief, tire me out. My old, striving life just doesn’t fit any more.” “Yes, but,” a second voice responds. “I’m a goal setter and achiever; I plow through to-do lists no matter what.”

The second voice often prevails because I’m very attached to achieving, having learned this “should do” script from my dear parents. I quickly label and then dismiss new needs for rest, a pause, and re-inventing my life. I am only listening to these emerging needs at level one, in other words, not listening at all.

A Way to Listen More Deeply

How can you and I dive below the surface to deeper listening? A practice of loving kindness helps re-pattern the mind. It works like this. Bring loving kindness to each thought—in my case, to both voices in my head.

Whatever is “loving kindness?” First, I acknowledge that both voices are real and true. Secondly, I gently accept both. Both voices are part of me; what if I were to accept and even welcome them? Embracing both voices frees me to accept my new needs for rest, for pause, and for re-creation. Acknowledging my goal-setting voice releases its defensive stance, and thereby loosens my white-knuckle grip on achievement as the one right way to live.

As a coach, going to and staying in a generative, deep-listening place is a core competency called “coaching presence.” To earn and maintain an International Coaching Foundation professional certification, coaches have to demonstrate skill in this and all thirteen other competencies. Check out the fourteen competencies. They are useful reminders for all supervisors and leaders.

The Simple Kindness of Human Connection

caring-handsAfter my husband died last fall, my world changed. Undergoing and guiding change, both of which are central to my work as a leadership coach, suddenly took on new dimensions. I have new appreciation for the simple kindness of human connection.

One of the most powerful frameworks for helping us go through change comes from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grieving. Kubler-Ross realized grief is a process of changing. Later, William Bridges made the connection between grieving for a lost loved one and making changes at work—losing a colleague, reorganizing work operations, reconfiguring offices space, or growing a company. Change interrupts the familiar patterns of work. Change involves loss: that is the central insight Bridges got from Kubler-Ross.

In this post I’ll share my reactions to what people say when they learn I’ve lost my beloved. I hope telling you what helps me will also help you help others who are going through change.

A simple acknowledgement of my loss is very helpful. Colleagues, neighbors, customer service people (for insurance, credit cards, tech support, etc.), and even townspeople have greeted me by saying, “I’m sorry about your loss.” Their simple human kindness says, “I have heard.” It acknowledges loss that is always in my mind and heavy on my heart. The kindly sentence is sincere, simple, and direct.

Other people’s well-intentioned reactions hurt or stir my anger. I have learned from books on grieving that these unhelpful responses are common.

Playing down the loss is not helpful. “Well, at least he didn’t suffer for long,” some people have said. A workplace version might be: “Come on, it’s just different office space, for goodness sake. No big deal.”

Comparing suffering is not helpful. “I lost my brother last year, so I know how you feel.” A workplace version might be: “Once I had to take on a second job role while keeping the one I had, so I know exactly what you are going through by starting over in a new job.”

Comparing suffering is similar to presuming to know how somebody else feels. “I lost my brother last year; I feel your pain,” someone said to me. A workplace version? “I know, you are shell shocked because you are brand new to the department. I feel your ‘overwhelm.’”

“You’re strong; I know you’ll make it” may also not help. The risk with this compliment is that it doesn’t allow the other person to also be vulnerable, raw, disoriented, off-balance and/or other natural responses to change. In many workplaces, strength and toughness are prized and rewarded; vulnerability is viewed as weakness. To not allow or even to “disappear” vulnerability drives underground the range of responses to loss that helps us get through it.

For me, something simple and direct, like, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sorry for this hard time” is the most helpful. It says,

  • The loss is present and real.
  • We are connected.
  • Simple kindness matters, even for the well-trained customer service people who know they have to move on to address the reason for my call.
  • For people who are closer to me, simple human kindness opens a space for what else might arise, such as,  “And how are you doing today?” or “Can I help in some way?” or I might say, “Thanks. It’s the hardest time, ever.”

Leadership Secrets

Poet William Blake’s poems are full of leadership secrets. Let’s find practical wisdom in this verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Seeing a world in a grain of sand invites us to appreciate a single grain as a whole and as part of a system of beach, sun, perceiver and perceived. In our organizations, we have talented, accomplished staff all around us. How can we more clearly see three things: the light in individual colleagues; their contribution to the whole enterprise; our helpful influence when we pay attention to them?

One CEO I work with — no matter how busy he is — takes time each week to have substantial conversations with several staff members. What are they working on? How is it going? What are the challenges? What excites them? As leaders, we can also take this opportunity to express our appreciation. When you meet with direct reports, periodically ask them how you can support them.

To see heaven in a wild flower, we have to have an image of what we aspire to. We have to believe this aspiration is possible in order to create paths to go there.

We can start with a simple aspiration to see beauty around us every day. One young leader I know ends the day by taking five minutes to consciously reflect on her “daily delights.” Chester Nez, the Navajo World War II code talker, wrote in his memoir that during bombardments, he lay in his foxhole repeating his people’s prayer,

I walk in beauty. Beauty is around me.  Beauty is above me, beauty below me.

The Englishman William Blake and Chester Nez would have gotten on well. When Blake says, “to hold infinity in the palm of your hand,” he partly means that we have to believe in possibility — beyond whatever foxholes we find ourselves in — and also believe we can seize that better possibility. Furthermore, we have infinite possibility within us.

In our organizations, one way to discover and attain positive possibility is to use the frameworks and methods of Appreciative Inquiry. Invite stories about strength and success, and from these appreciative stories, glean visions, paths and practices for your team or organization. Find more ways to use Appreciative Inquiry at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

spiderweb in sunlightTo hold eternity, we must know how to be present in the presence of another person in the present hour. Leading an organization and living our days can be like a race. Try looking around in the airport at people running, ears to cell phones. Now try looking into the face of each colleague and passerby. What do you notice?

There is another leadership secret in Blake’s poem. Notice how he sees opposites as dynamic, back-and-forth possibilities, as both-and paradoxes instead of either/or. Try this experiment. Next time you catch yourself saying “but,” back up and substitute the word “and.” Do you notice a shift?