Recently, in a consulting session, Paul had a breakthrough in how he listens to Margo*, one of his two supervisors.
Margo had given me feedback the week before about what Paul does well and what she would like to count on him for. Before telling Paul this, I knew I had to set him up to listen in a new way.
Sitting in his office overlooking a vibrant part of the city, we relaxed around his big conference table. I took a deep breath, leaned forward and said, “Paul, I need you to listen differently than you typically do.”
We reviewed the ways human beings normally listen to feedback. Mostly we listen to see if we agree with it or if it matches our own ideas, and, if it doesn’t or we don’t like it, we discount it or disparage the other person. In Paul’s case, it’s predictable for him to say “I already know this,” then launch into a story about why his supervisor says what she says.
I asked him to notice if the urge to respond that way arises, and if it did, to intentionally set it aside and simply listen–to listen as if he’d never heard the words before, to listen with a curious ear for a new possibility, for what more he could learn.
CURIOSITY AS A LEADERSHIP MOVE
I read her comments aloud, stopping to allow him to recreate each line of her message. At one point, he observed himself in action as he blurted out a comment about Margo and how she shows up in meetings. By putting his internal conversation on loud speaker, he saw how he creates a story in his head, believes it, and forgets he’s the one who made it up. In the process, he misses whatever Margo has to contribute to him.
It took practice for him to listen from an intention to be curious instead of from his usual position of “I know.” We took it slowly, with me reading and with him repeating exactly what I read and dealing with his automatic thoughts. When he began to “get it,” the tone of his voice changed, and a look of wonder came over his face. Suddenly he was excited about how he could expand his credibility and accomplish more by taking on Margo’s recommendations to think and read and write. He went right to work, creating times in his calendar.
As we ended our session, Paul said that all of Margo’s feedback were things she had been saying to him for years. This time, however, he heard something new. Instead of listening through his automatic rejection of writing and studying as something needlessly obsessive and peculiar to Margo, he began to be curious about what writing and studying could be for him. “What’s my version of that?”
Paul’s listening to hear something new opened up a new source of power for him. And now that he knows what it looks like to set aside his automatic reactions, he could find many more avenues opening to him.
*Names changed for privacy