Provision #715: Listening Matters

Laser Provision

When your mother exclaimed, “You’re not listening to me!”, what do you think she meant? If your mother was anything like my mother, chances are she meant that you were not doing what she wanted you to do. But there is another and, for leaders, a more important meaning to the word “listen” that lies beyond the notion of “heeding” or “obeying.” Listen can also mean to “pay attention for the purpose of hearing and understanding.” That’s what great leaders do when it comes to working with people: we listen and seek to understand the heart of what they want us to know. How can such understanding serve the purposes of leadership? This Provision seeks to connect the dots.

LifeTrek Provision

We’re back from Asia and an exciting trip it was. Hong Kong. Taiwan. Malaysia. And then San Francisco on the west coast of the USA. Fourteen presentations in fourteen days, all on the transformational power of coaching in society and in schools. Our own coaching model, evocative coaching, featured prominently in most of our presentations and it was very well received. Given the challenge our model presents to conventional bureaucratic administrations, we were both surprised and delighted by the response. People are apparently hungering for a better way to respond to contemporary problems in education.

Then came the book review from Peer Resources that I highlighted for many of you in last week’s edition of School Provisions (you can sign up for that yourself by Updating your Profile). It was a fantastic review by an instructional coach that really caught hold of our point: it is better for coaches to listen than to talk, to ask than to tell, to reflect than to comment. It was such a delight to read the reviewer’s personalized appropriation of our message: “I will incorporate this idea by asking the teachers I work with to tell me a story about why they are in this profession, what motivates them to get up in the morning, what keeps them up at night, and how they react when a student ‘finally’ grasps a concept.”

Such listening is transformational. When we pay attention to what people are saying, not only to the surface meaning of their stories but also to the deeper level of their feelings and needs, new horizons open and new possibilities emerge for constructing better approaches, relationships, and even organizations.

Therein lies the connection between great listening and great leadership. By listening to people, great leaders become not only more aware but also more creative in the search for strategies that work.

While we were in Asia, my wife, Megan, and I had the opportunity to climb to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu. This was no small endeavor. Although the summit is only 4,095 meters, or 13,435 feet, the mountain is the 20th tallest mountain in the world by topographic prominence. That means we had a long, steady climb to the top, with no breaks or down hills along the way. No one ever told these folks about switchbacks! It’s just a seemingly endless trail of steep steps, rocks, and boulders all the way to the top.

The first day of the climb, up to the Laban Rata lodge, took place below the tree line. We saw lots of lush vegetation, including endangered species of large, insectivorous pitcher plants, as well as occasional wildlife, such as frogs, leeches, and worms. We even saw a leech eating a worm! We also saw lots of rain. In the spirit of global climate change, our marvelous guide, Richard Adeh, was both confused and concerned by the weather. The rainy season was supposed to have stopped more than one month ago. This year, however, the rain has not stopped • as we can testify. It rained daily, making our trek up the mountain all that much more challenging.

The second day of the climb, up to the summit of the mountain, took place above the tree line. We left the lodge at 3 in the morning, hoping to summit the mountain and catch the sunrise by 6 AM. Steep granite faces of rock, with strong attached ropes for support, were the order of the day. We could have never made it to the top without those ropes.

Many climbers never made it to the top even with those ropes. Some 160 people took off for the mountaintop that day; only about 60 managed to reach the summit due to a variety of factors including altitude sickness, weather, fatigue, and motivation. I mention motivation because the mountain gods did not do their part when it came to the sunrise and all those allegedly spectacular views. We made it to the top in time for the sunrise, although we saw nothing other than a gradual lightening of the clouds that surrounded us.

If the climb up was strenuous, the climb down was treacherous. The water made the steep rocks even trickier to navigate. Our guide was quick to show us the way, alerting us to hidden dangers and making frequent suggestions as to how best to handle the different sections of the climb. We certainly could not have been successful without him, and we might well have been hurt or even killed based upon our lack of experience with mountain climbing in general and that mountain in particular.

At one point, as we descended a particularly steep part of the mountain while holding onto the ropes, I got ahead of the others and started to move in directions that concerned our guide. “Stay in the crack,” he shouted, “stay in the crack.” I listened to what he had to say, looked down at my feet, and shouted back, “I am in the crack!” He repeated his warning and I repeated my reply. After one more such exchange, Richard waved me on while watching with a measure of concern. He apparently wanted me in a different crack, but I made it all the same.

That’s the way great listening works. It alerts us to things that are important and leaves us at choice as to how best to proceed. Great listening doesn’t demand compliance; it rather increases awareness and invites responsibility. In the end, I had to make it down the mountain on my own. Richard could not do that for me. He could just alert me to the danger points and make suggestions as to how to handle the climb and descent, based upon his experience. Those alerts and suggestions were invaluable, especially since they were offered in the spirit of gift. 

Had they been offered in the spirit of demand, everything would have changed for the worse. Had Richard tried to force me to listen to him, to do it exactly his way, it would not have been any fun and it could even have been dangerous. By sharing his wisdom and yet giving me the freedom to figure things out for myself, Richard proved to be an excellent coach. We not only accomplished our goal; we also had a great time and learned a lot about ourselves in the process.

Performance. Enjoyment. Learning. What more can we hope for from a coaching experience, the success of which revolved around listening. Richard was listening to us and we were listening to him. At the start of the climb, I asked Richard, “How long do you think it will take?” His reply: “I’ll tell you after a kilometer.” Richard was sizing up our interests, abilities, style, and pace. Were we super fit and driven to get there in record time? Were we out of shape and content to rest at every opportunity? Were we somewhere in between?

Richard was a good listener. By the end of one kilometer, he had a pretty good idea as to who we were and what he had to work with. “You’ll do just fine,” was his reassuring conclusion. “We’ll be to the lodge by around 4 PM.” He got that pretty close. The next day, as we came to the higher elevations, he made a suggestion: “I don’t want to push or worry you,” he said, “but it will get cold, wet, and windy as we get closer to the top. If you stop, don’t stop for more than five minutes, and drink only little sips of water. That will us to stay warm and hydrated.”

Now we were the good listeners. Even though we knew there was not much chance of seeing a sunrise, we decided that we had come this far and that we wanted the satisfaction of making it to the top. Since he was the veteran climber and we were novices, we were more than happy to take his advice. Slowly and steadily we pushed our way forward until we happily reached the summit marker: “Taman Kinabalu, Low’s Peak (4095.2 M).” Five minutes and five photos later, we were headed back down to the lodge and, eventually, to the gate where we started.

So what does this have to do with listening and leadership? A lot. Listening is not about heeding and obeying. Listening is about attending and choosing. That goes for leaders as well as followers. In the best of leadership dynamics, leaders and followers are listening to each other, reading each other, working together to achieve mutually important goals. There is no sense of demand or imposition. There is rather a sense of respect and invitation.

That was the kind of leadership dynamic we developed with Richard, and it took about one kilometer. Not every guide worked that well with their people. Some guides got separated from their people while other guides never seemed to offer much guidance. They were just there, walking along, available in the event of an emergency (for which there were stretchers in every shelter).

Not Richard. He never left our side and there was lots of communication. He would tell us what to notice along the way and what to expect up ahead. He gave us a strong, can-do message that combined our determination to finish with his understanding of how to get there. At points, he would make our jobs easier by carrying our climbing poles while we were hanging onto the ropes or by carrying our friend Lisa’s backpack after she suffered a fall. Best of all, he never left our sides • he would go as fast or as slow as we would go with no sense of inconvenience, impatience, or frustration. He was there for us, and that made all the difference.

Would that we could all be leaders like that! Instead of evaluating performance and demanding compliance, we could be offering encouragement and inviting responsibility. Instead of telling people what to do, we could be learning what people want to do. Instead of talking we could be listening, thereby modeling the kind of posture that generates success for leaders and followers alike.

Eight years ago, in 2003, I wrote a Provisions series titled Ten Keys to Better Listening. You can read that series on line or, if you like, you can purchase the eBook and Audio Series for $10. Eight years later, that series continues to be one of our most popular offerings. It also formed the heart of the first part of our evocative coaching model, Story Listening. There’s no way to be a great coach or a great leader without being a great listener. What does that mean? Here’s a quick summary of the ten keys:

  • Listen Attentively. Instead of multitasking, great listening requires mindful focus.
  • Listen Actively. Instead of sitting back, great listeners lean forward to discover something new.
  • Listen Reflectively. Instead of commenting or criticizing, great listeners summarize and paraphrase what people are saying.
  • Listen Deeply. We don’t just listen to the story; we also listen to the back story. What needs are most alive?
  • Listen Slowly. There’s no way to listen well and be in a hurry. Slow down.
  • Listen Connectively. Great listening stimulates important connections of meaning, hope, and awareness.
  • Listen Openly. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That is the only agenda of great listening.
  • Listen Respectfully. We don’t have to agree with people to be respectful. Listening communicates respect.
  • Listen Appreciatively. Great listening listens for the best in what people have to say and offer. The best is always there if we have ears to hear.
  • Listen Intuitively. Great listening often involves hunches or inklings as to the measure of what someone is saying.

Those were the listening skills that I encountered on my way up to the top of Mt. Kinabalu. And those are the listening skills of great leadership. Fortunately, these skills are not inborn traits or aptitudes that only a few chosen individuals carry around with them. They are universal abilities and practices that can be learned and developed by anyone who sets their mind to the task.

That is one of our hopes for the Evocative Coaching Training Program. We hope it will increase the emotional intelligence, the EQ, of people by cultivating an awareness, developing a vocabulary, and practicing an approach for better listening. Whether we are leaders or coaches, listening matters. The more we dedicate ourselves to improvement in this important arena, the more effective we will be.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of listener are you? Are you more concerned to understand what someone else is saying or do you want them to understand what you are saying? Is listening, for you, more of a necessary evil or a joyful opportunity? How could you come to value and prize listening more highly? Who listens to you most frequently and deeply? What would it take to turn the tables such that you would listen more fully to them?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

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 Form or Email Bob.

I enjoy reading Provisions each week. Thanks for reminding us of your poetry. “Smile” was delightful. Can I reprint it in the Church Newsletter that I produce once a month? I was going to put it into March’s addition if I get your permission. (Ed. Note: Permission granted! Keep spreading the news.)

We just discovered David Whyte’s poem on your website, “What to Remember When Waking.” We all loved the poem, it is so poignant and hopeful. We plan on reading it in our worship service. It was inspiring to look through your website; very impressive content. Thanks for being such a good source and for all your wonderful work.

I am an LCSW and work in Mental Health at Charlotte Correctional Institution. I read the wonderful material on your website on •Reframing •Faux Feelings•, •Feeling Words•, and ‘the Wheel of Universal Human Needs.• Our therapy frequently focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy. These materials would be extremely helpful. I am requesting permission to print and use them with our population. (Ed. Note: Permission granted! Thanks for your great work!).

The book review in Peer Resources is wonderful and accurate! One sentence caught my attention: “Using the process of “Story-Empathy-Inquiry-Design” (S-E-I-D), an environment is established that leads to discovery. ” In my native language German “seid” is a form of the verb “to be”, conjugated in the plural – you are – vs. I am…and it struck me that the process you refer to as “SEID” is focusing on the group/or other person we are coaching, which leads to discoveries on both sides, the coach and the coachee. Language is fascinating and I do not believe in co-incidences. ☺ Alas an acronym that I can remember! 

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

Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services