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Listening, Learning and Leading
Technical Skill and Motivational Art

There are several ways to enhance listening effectiveness, especially in an emotionally charged exchange.  A fundamental technique is "Active Listening" with its four components:
1) Clarifying. Asking the other party to provide more information, to elaborate upon their statement or answer specific questions.  Sometimes, a clarification question also seeds an idea or suggestion,
2) Paraphrasing. Repeating the other's message in the person's words or your own words, to affirm, "Message sent is message received,"
3) Reflecting Feelings. Inquiring about or acknowledging overt or underlying feelings that are attached to the other party's communication; a tentative or tactful approach is often best:  "I know you are on board, still it sounds like you have some frustration with the decision.  Care to discuss it?"  Also, especially regarding the emotional component of messages, both listening and looking for verbal and nonverbal cues - voice tone and volume, facial and other bodily gestures, eye contact and physical distance - will facilitate more accurate reflection.  And,
4) Summarizing.  Reviewing and pulling together such problem-solving elements as mutual agreements, outstanding differences - factual as well as emotional - action plans to be executed, time frames and follow-up.

Here's a scenario that illustrates the four "Active Listening" tasks in an encounter between a supervisor and an employee.  Only the supervisor's words are provided verbatim.

Background. 
On Tuesday late afternoon, Supervisor Pat invites relatively new and youthful Employee Chris into her office.  Pat had been expecting a status report by Monday Close of Business Day.  While usually reliable, Chris has been late on occasion in completing tasks.  The meeting begins with mutually pleasant greetings and, then, Chris apologizes for not turning in the report by Monday pm.  Chris mentions that Supervisor Joe (in another department) pulled him away for another project.

Clarifying.
Pat:  "Chris, did you inform Joe that you were working on a deadline project already?"

When Chris sheepishly says, "No," Pat asks in a straightforward manner, "Why not?"  After Chris shares not feeling he had the authority to turn down or negotiate with Joe, Pat continues.

Paraphrasing.
Pat:  "Sounds like you believed you were caught in the middle of two work demands."

Reflecting Feelings.
Pat:  "That position certainly can be awkward and feel frustrating.  And, of course, it's not uncommon for a new employee to be in this situation.  Were you left wondering, 'What should I do now?'"  Chris non-verbally concurs.

Clarifying-Suggesting.
Pat:  "Chris, had you considered calling me or suggesting that Joe call me before putting aside our work and taking on his project?"

Chris acknowledges having briefly considered this, but had assumed after talking with Joe, that Joe's work would not require much time.  Chris recognizes that he miscalculated.

After affirming that a desire to be helpful is a good thing, Pat begins to reach for closure, asking Chris what he's learned for the next time he's working on deadline.  Chris asserts his intention to both ask for guidance and to be more selective when assisting others.  Pat reaffirms the following key points.

Summarizing.
Pat:  "So when Joe or another supervisor asks you to take on a new project when on a deadline:
1) assuming that the new project won't be a major distraction can be a problem,
2) our communicating about the request or having the supervisor or manager call me is vital,
3) for any reason, when you know you'll be late on a deadline, give me a heads up by the end of the day, and finally
4) with time, I believe you'll strike a good balance between being focused and timely on our projects and being helpful with others.

Hopefully, this scenario brings to life these Four Active Listening-Questioning Skills.  One last point…don't expect the listening/questioning to always unfold in the sequential order of Clarifying, Paraphrasing, Reflecting Feelings and Summarizing.  Though one good thing about the order is the acronym CPR and S.  These tools definitely can revive communications and relations that are cycling towards cardiac arrest.

Active Listening:  Science and Motivational Art

Yet effective listening is not just a technical skill.  It is also an art form and a motivational bridge for learning about team members, modeling being a leader and, ultimately, sharing leadership with others.  Here are three listening and leadership concepts I strive to uphold in decision-making and dealing with conflict:
** Demonstrating an understanding of people's positions and predicaments, pains and passions                      
** Reducing, whenever possible, the obvious status and power differential between yourself and other(s)
** Enabling people to accept gracefully their vulnerabilities, errors and imperfections. 

And, if I can recognize any humorous aspects or stimulate some laughs by poking good-natured fun at myself, at my partner in conflict or, even, our power struggle...so much the better.  Let me illustrate through my work with a small department of the Peace Corps.  Tensions were increasing between a new senior staffer and a veteran regarding qualifications and promotion issues.  And both were angry with the Director for her inability to resolve their conflict.  Almost everyone in the office was walking around on "ego shells."  Upon the recommendation of two staffers whom I had previously trained, the group reluctantly agreed to hire me as a consultant.

The Director, herself, did some Organizational Development work.  Her pride was a bit wounded that an outside specialist was needed to tackle the in-house conflicts.  The Director had announced that she wouldn't stand in my way, but she wasn't going out of her way to help me, either.  (Not surprisingly, the intractable interpersonal issues were taking a toll.  She was pretty burnt out.)  Nonetheless, the Director was true to her word.  She didn't sabotage my interventions, which, gradually, started paying dividends.

One day, the Director acknowledged that laughter had returned to the halls.  She then invited me into her office for our first one-on-one discussion.  The Director immediately commented that I was "a really good listener."  This had not been an easy step for her, especially in light of the competitive issues.  I wanted the Director to know how "big" I felt her acknowledgment was.  I pounced on the "good listener" compliment.  After thanking her, I said, " You know, a high school French teacher helped me develop that skill.  This was when I was down on myself, my life, including school and French class.  The professor, Monsieur Gaston, during class unexpectedly addressed me:  'Monsieur Gorkin, I don't understand the problem...You have such intelligent looking ears.'  So to achieve some balance between form and function (and to prevent future public humiliation) I guess I developed my listening skills."  Well, the Director smiled broadly, then thanked me.

My personal anecdote had achieved the three aforementioned "listening and leading" objectives.  First, I empathically acknowledged my own history with depressed moods and difficult periods.  Second, using her compliment to poke fun at myself made me a humble winner.  And finally, by helping the Director save face, she could accept my support and eventually return to her rightful active leadership position.

In summary, by practicing "Active Listening" along with the "Art of Listening" you just may transform listening into a dynamic process of learning, leading and laughing!



Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized speaker and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building and HUMOR!  The Doc was recently featured on CBS TV's Newspath segment -- Workplace Violence.  He is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ with a USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com.  For more info, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.