Another Kind of Listening

We had a weather warn day here in the mountains of North Carolina this week. Actually, we had three of them. The weather forecasters at our local station started informing us that a massive storm was coming and that initially we would have rain and then we would have extreme wind, along with falling trees and power outages. All this talk took my mind into “don’t-go-near-the-edge” land and I vowed to stay home.

With a 16-month-old puppy, staying home carries its own risk. Every day, I get her out to exercise. Catching the frisbee is her favorite thing to do. We have an indoor version of the game, which moderately works on burning up super-duper extra puppy energy. However indoor frisbee is hell on my wood floors and things on shelves tend to topple. Outdoor frisbee play is far preferable.

On the first day of said massive storm, my stay home vow lasted until 9:30 am. That’s when I decided I really needed to make a hearty, nutritious soup to stave off the cabin fever that was sure to arrive after 2 days stuck at home. Feeling a little like I was sneaking out of my parent’s house at midnight, I loaded Piper into the car. My grand plan was to get her some rain-soaked exercise at Mystic Waters before my grocery stop. I dressed in full rain gear, prepared to get soggy, and mentally apologizing for…what?

As I pulled my car out of the garage, I realized that I had totally overreacted. We were experiencing a nice, light rain, not the torrential rain promised on the news. A quick look at the radar app confirmed what my eyes were seeing.

I had listened to the news and failed to listen to the rain.

My stay home vow was an overreaction to the truth of the situation. These days, I pay closer attention to when I’m over and under reacting. It’s an indication that I’m in my “proving mindset,” which simply means that I’m not paying attention to what’s happening right now. Instead, I’m trying to show someone else – the proverbial THEY – that I’m doing it right. My mental apologies to the weathermen who had deemed this day a “weather warn” day is a silly but illustrative example. Somewhere in the Carolinas, they WERE experiencing the kind of torrential rain that would logically keep me from doing unnecessary risks. However, Lake Lure was on the western edge of the storm.

A few years back, I was at an outdoor event here in Lake Lure. My dog Xena and I were sitting lakeside, watching the festivities when I looked west and saw a thunderstorm swooping down the gorge. With the wall of rain getting closer by the minute, I put my camp chair in the case, threw it over my shoulder and began walking with Xena back to our car. One of the men sitting near me asked in a condescending tone “Where are YOU going so fast?” I pointed down the gorge and said “There’s a storm coming. I don’t want to get wet.” He said “Nobody has told us we have to leave, and the race is about to start. I’m not going anywhere until they tell us we have to.” Lots of people overheard our conversation. Not one of them moved.

I got back in my car and decided to wait out the storm. It wasn’t long until the storm hit, and I must admit to feeling a little self-righteous as I sat in my dry car, watching everyone scramble in the lightning, wind and rain. I also wondered where the man’s obstinance came from. Could he not see the storm? What would make him wait to be told what to do? I also wondered why the event kept going with the obvious threat bearing down on us. Should I have gone to the organizers and pointed out the storm? What kept me from giving them that heads up?

Looking at both situations, I’m deepening my understanding of the practice of discerning signal from noise. I’m especially noticing the deep underlying assumptions that drive so many of my actions. (Example: Mentally apologizing to the weatherman because I wasn’t listening to his forecast.) In my book The Elegant Pivot, I wrote an entire chapter on it. The chapter starts with this:

“We live in a world full of noise of which there are two primary sources. First, there is external noise. People are vying for our attention every day through the news media, social media channels, advertisements, and more. In our work lives we have a constant stream of meetings, task lists, emails, chats, phone calls, and messages that never stop. We have project deadlines, office politics, customer demands, bosses always asking for more, resource constraints, and more.

Second, there is the internal noise. This is the self-talk, physical sensations, and emotions going on inside of us. Internal noise is especially notable under pressure. Our internal noise informs how we approach what we are doing more than almost anything else.

Here’s the key thing to understand about internal noise: it is mostly interference from our past.”

During this week’s rainstorm, I started out paying attention to only to the media. However, the true signal came from the rain that we were having here. It was the rain that told me what to do. What fell from the skies here was minimal. In the storm all those years ago, again it was the storm that sent me the signal for what was happening. I did not look to the organizers of the event to tell me what to do. The storm told me what to do, and in this case, it was to get in my car if I didn’t want to get wet.

Letting the situation tell me what to do, when to do, how to do is a different form of listening, one that I talk about in my book Dancing the Tightrope. Rather than seeking a rebuttal or thinking that I have to have all the answers, I’m listening for clues in the situation. In his book Never Split the Difference, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss calls this approach “the art of letting other people have your way.” He tells many stories of the FBI doing things from a rational, proving mindset. Two examples where this approach failed miserably were Randy Weaver's Ruby Ridge farm in Idaho in 1992 and David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

The hostage techniques used in those situations, and in many more where the kidnappers had all the power - and were acting emotionally rather than rationally - had fatal outcomes because the negotiators assumed they were solving a problem. They didn’t understand what many poker players understand: rather than play the odds, play the person. The core message of Voss’s book involves teaching us to listen to the person or situation, rather than thinking we know what to do. This is completely counter to our educational system and most workplaces, where we are expected to prove our knowledge.

Here's how Voss described this kind of listening:

“Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there. By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing… This is listening as a martial art, balancing the subtle behaviors of emotional intelligence and the assertive skills of influence, to gain access to the mind of another person. Contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.”

If you have never tried to listen this way, prepare for a surprise. Every time someone says something that hits one of my “life-works-like-this assumptions,” I feel compelled to correct them. I sometimes have to put my hand over my mouth to stop the “I know it all” rebuttal from interrupting the other person. My lifelong training to prove myself is strong and deep.

What has helped me get better is to practice with the non-people elements of life, such as the rain.

This summer, I was at another outdoor event with a friend. Once again, I saw rain on the horizon and wondered if we were about to get wet. A quick look at radar indicated that the storm cell would move right over us in the next 15 minutes, and there were quite a few lightning strikes nearby. I don’t like getting wet but struck by lightning is a different story! The organizers did not appear to be monitoring the weather, so I turned to my friend, told her what I was seeing and asked how she felt. Should we stay or should we go? Her answer was a definitive GO. We had chairs to gather and a long walk to the car. Rather than just getting up and leaving, I turned to the organizer and said: “We are looking at the weather. There’s a lot of lightning in the area and it looks like it’s going to rain soon. We have decided to leave.” They asked if I thought they should move indoors as well. I told them it was not my decision to make, but showed them the radar and said “It’s your call.” They decided to move indoors, and my friend and I decided to head home. Sure enough, we later learned that the group that moved indoors was very grateful to get inside before the heavens opened up. My friend and I were also happy because we were able to put the storm behind us as well.

We listened to the lightning, the rain and ourselves to decide the best course of action.

But what happens when people (or animals) are involved? Doesn’t that get confusing? Yes. And no. A lot of the clients I work with are in leadership roles where they are both running the business and changing the business at the same time. Often, the changes they are making require a lot of buy-in from those in the organization who aren’t making the decisions but who are expected to make the change. That dilemma could be posed this way: Whose responsibility is it to make the change? The leader who has to decide which direction to go? Or the people, who must actually go that direction?

This week, I was speaking with a client facing that dilemma in a public context. He was responsible for making a change happen, but it was others who had to buy-in and do something different. The others were 100% against my client and angry. Typically, that is a recipe for a massive tug of war, where the victory goes to the side with most brute strength and commitment. (If you have ever wondered why so many mergers fail, corporate tug of war is one of the big reasons.) However, using the principle of “be the conduit”, which is a shorthand term for “let them tell you what to do, when to do, how to do,” he listened.

In his mind, there were not two sides. He was seeking the good of the whole organization. Given the anger, there was also not a rational problem to be solved. My client did not have answers, although he felt the pressure from the powers that be around him to prove he could find a solution to make the change the organization was seeking. He started the meeting by telling them he didn’t have answers, but he did have a clear vision of where they were going, and the vision including the angry crowd. He also said that they would be the ones to tell him how to get there. To his surprise, that comment disarmed them. The people who came in spoiling for a fight began to work with him to navigate all the metaphorical landmines to get from here to there. He didn’t listen to judge, to respond or to parrot back what they said.

This way of listening helped them bear their part of the responsibility to take action, because he wasn’t forcing anything.

Being able to listen this way is one of the most important skills of those leading adaptive challenges, those changes where there are no easy answers, and the end goal is not set in stone. Learning to be the conduit doesn’t come easy, mostly because it’s antithetical to proving something. When we are in uncertainty, how would we even know what to prove?

Listening as the conduit, we dance in harmony with the other, allowing for a generous give and take as we find the way forward together. We remember the good of the whole and share responsibility.

As the storm this week progressed from rain to wind, I continued listening. The wind made itself heard, and I chose my times to stay and to leave accordingly.

The soup was delicious.

As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn! I read every email.