Provision #336: Listen Appreciatively

Laser Provision

Listen appreciatively. Remember that what you are hearing comes from a person of inestimable value and worth. Be open to learning new things and changing your mind. Approach life with curiosity and wonder rather than condemnation and ridicule. Be fascinated! This shift can make a huge difference in the stress you feel and the possibilities you discover.

LifeTrek Provision

My strong reply last week to a reader who took exception to Dr. Pearsall’s notion of the heart as more than just a pump prompted a lively and vigorous conversation among the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. Some praised my remarks while others thought I was badgering, overreacting, and being disrespectful.

The irony, of course, is that last week’s Provision was focused on listening respectfully. Did I step over the line and commit the very crime I was describing and confronting? One reader thought not:

“I was surprised by your reply but I don’t think you stepped over the line. Your emotion was strong. I could feel your anger at the attack on your words. But it was appropriate to inform your readers that being disrespectful is not acceptable. This reader was disrespectful not only to you, in his words, but also to your readers. The readers’ forum is an open forum, but disagreements should be written in a respectful way. Especially since Provisions is obviously such a personal part of you, that you are sharing with thousands of people. I am not sure how many folks realize the passion you have for this.”

That was certainly my hope in formulating my response. I was not setting up this reader as a straw dog against which I could rail. I was using his words to set some boundaries for better listening. One can be critical and even angry without being disrespectful. Consider the difference between saying, “You are stupid,” and saying, “That makes no sense to me.” The former is disrespectful; the latter may not be.

I saw elements of disrespect in the language of last week’s reader reply. And I wanted to illustrate how that gets in the way of better listening. If we do not hold our conversation partners in respect, then the space between us will be unsafe for listening. It’s one thing to question ideas; it’s another thing to put down those who want to explore them.

Respectful listening avoids put downs and dismissals, even when we disagree or have an alternative point of view. It is the backbone of civil conversation, in both public and private discourse. But we listen even better when we come from a position of appreciation.

The distinction is subtle but important. Respect implies deferential regard while appreciation implies high, positive regard. Both are based on critical assessment, comparison, and judgment. In other words, we cannot fake either one. But respect can come from fear just as well as it can from trust. Appreciation, on the other hand, is all about trust.

To listen appreciatively is to listen thankfully. How appropriate for Thanksgiving Day, the holiday celebrated in the USA on the fourth Thursday in November! Although it’s obviously easier to appreciate blessings rather than troubles, the foundation of this holiday encourages people to give thanks no matter what. It is a transformational posture that reflects our trust in the flow of life itself.

The same can be said for appreciative listening. When we extend not only deference but high, positive regard, when we move beyond tolerance to consideration, we change the conversational climate and, as a result, the possibilities for growth and development.

I see this all the time when I do relationship coaching. The air can be tense albeit respectful. People choose their words carefully. They don’t want to be rude, but they also don’t want to compromise their position. So a standoff develops that interferes with their ability to love and, ultimately, to sustain the relationship itself.

One way to break the standoff involves the expression of appreciation. Each person takes turns completing the sentence, “I appreciate it when you….” The other person then listens reflectively, repeating it back, before responding with an appreciation of their own. The exercise moves on to an expression of needs, but it only works when the expression of appreciation is genuine.

Fortunately, it’s possible to not only respect but also to appreciate those with whom we struggle and disagree. As the primary author and editor of LifeTrek Provisions, I appreciate our readers even when they question or reject our content. Critical replies are better than no replies, since criticism reflects engagement with the topic at hand and invites the possibility of continuing conversation.

In his classic 1963 book on dialogue, Reuel Howe writes: “Every person is a potential adversary, even those whom we love. Only through dialogue are we saved from this enmity toward one another. Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.”

“But dialogue can restore a dead relationship. Indeed, this is the miracle of dialogue: it can bring relationship into being, and it can bring into being once again a relationship that has died. There is only one qualification to these claims for dialogue. It must be mutual and proceed from both sides, and the parties to it must persist relentlessly.”

Howe goes on to describe how dialogue works, noting that each party must “speak honestly their convictions,” “discipline their subjective feelings,” “keep aware of the partner as another person,” and “keep open to the meaning of everything that happens in the relationship.”

In this description, Howe illustrates the distinction between respectful and appreciative listening. Respect involves honesty and self-discipline, but appreciation also includes benevolence and openness. Appreciative listening wants nothing but the best for our conversation partners and remains open to the possibility of discovering together yet more truth and light.

Without respectful and appreciative listening, dialogue breaks down. And without dialogue, we’re all in trouble. Howe makes it clear that dialogue is essential in every human endeavor, not just in our most intimate relationships. The hope of the future lies in respectful and appreciative listening.

Unfortunately, many people refuse to go there. We dig in our heels in scenes reminiscent of when we thought the sun revolved around the earth. Howe calls this “the dialogical crisis,” and he recognizes it as a threat to both personal and global well-being. It is a “self-defeating and self-destroying” posture where everyone loses.

In contrast, respectful and appreciative listening generates win-win solutions. Dr. David Cooperider of Case Western Reserve University has written of this in terms of “appreciative inquiry.” By asking positive questions, Cooperider believes that we can generate new images of the future without provoking as much conflict and resistance.

That’s how appreciative listening works. By approaching that which we do not agree with or understand with a sense of curiosity and wonder, rather than condemnation and ridicule, we lower our stress level and raise our imaginational intelligence. Instead of solving problems we explore possibilities. We shift into new ways of being. We become fascinated by the mystery of life itself.

Coaching Inquiries: How do you approach life? Are there more problems to be solved or possibilities to be explored? How could you be more appreciative of yourself and others?

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

Your reader that confuses life skills with quack metaphysics has forgotten the first rule of applied science: “We don’t know how much we don’t know.” “Teaching the operator and maintaining the equipment are two completely different fields of focus.” I think you do a wonderful job and a very great service teaching us life skills. Keep up the great work! And thanks for sharing.

I love your topic of listening respectfully. I almost didn’t read today’s email and am quite glad I did. Your comments are quite appropriate as we enter the holiday season and are bound to have run-ins with family members whom we have lifelong issues to master. I am committed to trying this with a relative of mine. It just might help.

I wonder, however, if other readers had the same feeling as I. Did you listen respectfully to the criticism of your reader? Had I been the writer of the email you discussed in today’s provision, I’d be feeling whip-lashed by your comments. I understand your intent to use a number of sources to defend your columns and your beliefs, but I feel that you could have printed a more effective column by refraining from what appeared to be bantering with this person. 

In your last Provision you wrote about how you tried to be respectful to your son when he failed to get a flu shot. I agree that honoring his work ethic and study habits is incredibly important. But in listening do we have a responsibility to share thoughts and ideas with the person we have listened to….maybe our intuition? Not in a disrespectful way or a “knowing” way but as a way to expand what we heard? Can we both share the honoring in what we heard and share our intuition of what we learned from listening? (Ed. Note: We can. But it’s not easy, as evidenced by this week’s uproar!)

This week’s Career Pathway is so applicable to my “now space” • I appreciate this resource • will continue my readings and reaching for excellence in my life trek. Your Web site is a wonderful resource for me and one I recommend to others. Again, thank you! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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