What are you Listening for?

When engaged in conversation, humans don’t listen to something; rather they listen for something. At the beach, we listen to the sounds of the ocean. At a concert, we listen to the music. Something changes when we listen to another person, especially when that person is responding to a question we’ve asked.

To say that we “listen for” something is to call attention to the fact that when we pose a question, we are meeting a need.

In conversation with someone, you are attentive in different ways based on the context of the interaction and the life experience responsible for the thoughts and feelings that accompany your listening. The police investigator listens differently to the question, “where were you last night?” than a concerned friend wanting to know why you didn’t come to her party. Imagine you have just returned from a tour of wineries in Bordeaux, France. You are standing with a group of people at a dinner party and you strike up a conversation with someone you have just met. You ask, “How do you know our host?” The person tells you that she met the host at a wine and cheese tasting event at the museum of modern art. Odds are that the reference to “wine and cheese” will be more salient than the reference to “modern art.”

The questions we choose to ask are windows into our thinking. What we listen for is influenced by the interplay of who we are and how we are thinking and feeling. The questions we choose to ask are in turn, influenced by what we listen for. Getting stuck often means that the information you get from the questions you ask does not alter anything about who you are and what you think and feel about the situation. If we are not changed by the information we are getting, we won’t change what we are listening for. If we don’t change what we are listening for, we won’t be able to think of better questions. I refer to this simplified version of confirmation bias as, “the inquiry loop.”

To illustrate how the Inquiry Loop influences the emergence of information and options, let’s deconstruct two possible versions of an interaction between a manager and a team member during a one-on-one performance discussion.

Manager’s Inquiry Loop

Version One

Manager’s Inquiry Loop

Version Two

Manager’s thoughts and feelings about the situation This will be a short meeting; getting information from Barry is like pulling teeth. He gets his work done and doesn’t complain. No point in making this conversation awkward for either of us. I feel like I count on Barry year after year, but I don’t really know much about him. He never speaks up in staff meetings and I sense that he finds these annual one-on-one’s uncomfortable. I’m going to challenge myself to break the pattern and see if we can’t build rapport.
What the manager is listening for The information I need to complete the performance development form Something I never knew before about Barry that might spark an idea for how to make work better for him and maybe even help him be better at what he does.
Question

(Asked by the manager)

“I can’t believe it’s been another year. OK, Barry you know the drill. What are your three goals for the coming year?” Barry, before we get to the form I wanted to ask you something. The other day I went by your desk and saw a picture of you and maybe some friends dressed in some elaborate costumes. Forgive me for being nosey, but I was wondering what was going on in that picture?
Information

(How the team member answers the question)

Barry slips a piece of paper to his manager, “I answered all the template questions in writing to save us time.” Barry blushes and looks away. After a moment he says, “It was a cosplay competition at an Anime convention. I actually won an award for that costume, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about the weird stuff I do on the weekends.”
Given, the team members’ response, the manager’s thoughts and feelings  

I knew he hated these conversations as much as I do. Maybe next year, we can get this done by e-mail.

 

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but obviously there is a passion for creative expression that we are not tapping into.

 

Of course, things get complicated when you consider that there is an inquiry loop at work influencing what the other person in a conversation is thinking, feeling and listening for. For our purposes, it is enough to develop our awareness of what influences our own questions and to develop our own ability to listen for a change when we feel stuck.

If you are a student or a practitioner of improvisational theater, you already know the emphasis improvisers place on the skill of listening. For the uninitiated, it may seem counter-intuitive that actors and comedians engaged in improvisations would prioritize listening over having something interesting to say. Keith Johnstone is a British theater director, author, playwright and teacher who pioneered a number of theater exercises and techniques. Johnstone’s philosophy of improvisation has a spiritual quality to it. For Johnstone, the great improvisers are channeling an emergent creation by being attentive, not by being prepared. In Johnstone’s view of the art form, improvisers don’t get stuck because they run out of things to say, they get stuck because they try to be clever and impose something on a scene and end up losing the thread of what is being created. Even when listening, we can impose ourselves. If I’m improvising onstage and eager to try out the Russian accent I’ve been practicing, I will listen for an opportunity to introduce a character from Russia. Johnstone beautifully described what great improvisers and great listeners are listening for. He wrote,

Instead of telling actors that they should be good listeners (which is confusing), we should say, ‘Be altered by what’s said’ (1999, page 59)

When we listen with an intention to be altered, the unstuck strategies disrupt the stabilizing effects of the inquiry loop by allowing a better question to prompt new information that in turn alters our thoughts, our feelings, and ultimately what we are listening for.

Johnstone, K (1999). Impro for Storytellers. New York, NY: Routledge

Get Lost

Making Discoveries by Losing your Way

A standard compass is a device that helps you get oriented to your location because the needle of the compass points north no matter what direction you face. Being oriented means that you have a way to understand your position even when you are in new or strange surroundings. A traditional compass works because the location of magnetic north is fixed.

UM Compass

When it comes to orienting ourselves to our workplace dilemmas, we treat the assumptions that guide our traditional problem solving approaches like an immutable “magnetic north.” Unfortunately, the rules of the game in business by which we steer our organizations are shifting.

When your tried-and-true routines for making progress stop working and you can’t understand why, you become disoriented. If despite your best efforts a problem persists or you see an opportunity, but have no idea how to pursue it, your orientation to the situation may be part of the problem. The Unstuck Minds Compass is a tool to help you evaluate your orientation to your situation by pushing you to ask questions you have not been asking.

 

In today’s volatile, hypercompetitive environment, we can no longer set our course by the rules of the game that served as “magnetic north” since the emergence of the modern corporation. As an example, consider one magnetic north assumption that has oriented business leader’s thinking for generations, namely an organization’s relationship to its competition. One guiding assumption of business has been, “protect your secrets.” The formula for Coca-Cola must be kept in a vault. The source code for our software cannot be shared. Lately though, attitudes about competition and collaboration have begun to shift. A 2013 Harvard Business Review article written by Ben Hecht, the President and CEO of Living Cities declared, “Collaboration is the New Competition.” In his 2014 book about the emergence of new organizational forms called, “Reinventing Organizations,” Frederic Laloux wrote, “when an organization truly lives for its purpose, there is no competition. Anybody that can help to achieve the purpose on a wider scale or more quickly is a friend, an ally, not a competitor” (p. 195).

You can agree or disagree with what may seem like radical attitudes about competition. More importantly, you may want to ask yourself, “Which set of assumptions about the competition do I want to steer my organization by?” When your guiding assumptions become ineffective, you may need to start by letting go of your assumptions. Instead of getting oriented to your situations, you may need to start by losing your way. A standard compass keeps you oriented to predictable options, the Unstuck Minds Compass gets you reoriented so that you can venture into territory that presents unpredictable options.

Photo Credit: Peter Bernik