I KNOW I was tone deaf as an elementary school kid, trying to be in the church choir. After the first rehearsal, the choir director asked me to stay behind. I don’t know about you, but I have never really liked getting called onto the carpet. Being asked to stay behind at choir felt like there might be trouble coming.
I don’t really remember how he started the conversation; what I do remember is his patience, as he asked me if I had ever tried to match my voice to the sound coming from the piano.
He gently encouraged me to hear what he heard. He would play a note and ask me to make my voice match the note. We went up and down the scales, as I learned to hear and respond with matching sound.
Before this session, he could hear me NOT matching the notes among the other voices in our little choir. In fact, I think it was so bad that he would have been hard pressed to call the sounds coming out of my mouth singing.
Choirs share beautiful harmonies – they make music no single voice can do alone.
If our little choir was to live up to its potential, little Lynn had to learn to hear. So I got to be the one to stay behind that day. The choir director let me stay in the choir and we eventually did a performance that was heard by hundreds of people.
Much later in my career, I found another way to get called on the carpet. These were less surprising sessions, as they were called Performance Reviews. The boss would schedule them and tell me how I was doing in my job. Sometimes there would be 360 feedback from the people I worked with, also telling me how I was doing my job.
Throughout all the years I got feedback, there was one major theme. “Lynn”, they would say, “you need to learn to listen.”
I was tone deaf – and will probably never be able to count the cost of not being able to listen and hear what people were trying to tell me, especially when the messages were subtle.
How I wish I could tell you that all that feedback made me change. But I was tone deaf about being tone deaf.
Learning to listen has not been a flip of a switch for me. It’s been more like a dawning awareness of all that I was missing.
Thanks to having a series of coaches and teachers, I have learned a variety of ways to slow myself down and start paying attention to what’s happening right in front of me. When I came to realize the stunning array of subtle signals I was missing, listening suddenly became an interesting skill to learn.
For example, when I learned “getting on the balcony” from Ron Heifetz, meetings were never the same. Instead of paying attention to the words in a conversation, I started noticing the “music” under the words. Instead of judging people as right or wrong, I started getting curious about what was behind the behavior I disliked. Instead of focusing on what people were saying, I listened for the message they were sending.
In the almost invisible world I had been ignoring, a whole new world opened up for me.
Then I started working with horses and the world got bigger yet again.
Almost two years ago, I was riding on the trail with a friend when I got thrown off the horse. (The whole story will be told another time.) After that experience, I had a choice: Never get back on the horse or start over and really learn how to ride.
I’ve chosen to get back on the horse.
In one of my early lessons, Bruce Anderson, my teacher of “Natural Humanship” started me in a round pen. I’m in the middle and the horse gets to be where ever he wants to be. My assignment was to do achieve “movement” with the horse. At the first sign of movement. I was to immediately turn my back and let the horse be.
I won’t bore you with all the ways I had at my disposal to achieve that goal. It doesn’t matter anyway — because I WAY overshot the goal. The horses ear twitched and then he raised his head and I kept going. Pretty soon I had him walking along the rail. After a couple of minutes. Bruce stopped me and asked me how I did. I was so proud of myself. After all, I had that horse MOVING, thankyouverymuch.
Then he asked me to review what had happened and the signals I had missed. “Did you see the ear twitch?” “Did you notice his head come up?” “Did you notice him shifting his feet before he started walking?” Weeeellllll…Maybe?
“Did you not count the ear twitch as movement? Or did you not think you caused the twitch?” Truth be told, I was waiting for the kind of human signals that conk me over the head.
What has become apparent to me in working with horses is that they are sending signals all the time. And all the signals are important. The day I was thrown from the horse, I missed a hundred signals telling me something was up. Plus I sent signals that were totally conflicting.
My lack of listening told him he couldn’t trust me to hear him. Why then, should he trust me to be on his back?
In the context of being on a horse, the consequences of not listening are suddenly much sharper.
I’m coming to realize that the consequences of not listening are greater than I ever knew. Getting my point across is not nearly as important as understanding who is sitting in the room with me and what matters to them.
But here’s the difficult part: hearing means changing. With the horse, I had to stop pushing so hard. With people, hearing means I take heed to what they are saying. It can be a scary, vulnerable place to actually let it in.
When talking a corporate client through a disappointing negotiation, a sales call that failed or a team meeting gone wrong, we almost always discover that mood shifted way before the bad news was delivered.
We get so caught up in the visible, the provable, the incontrovertible that we forget that much of what matters happens in the invisible world. We have to learn to read the signals and then test them out. We have to be willing to change.
We can either be like the choir sharing beautiful harmonies that none of us can do alone, or we can be like the choir with voices that can’t match the notes. To create the beautiful harmony, we have to hear the subtle tones. We have to see the ear twitches. We have to notice the mood shifts.
It only works if we listen.
Where are you superbly tuned in to listening to the notes between the notes? Where do you need to listen more deeply? What must you change in yourself to allow yourself to hear?