When I entertain conversations about how we’re living in more dangerous times than ever before, it’s easy to let fear and uncertainty paralyze my thinking. I’ve found it more useful to ask, What can I bring to conversations that could help me see things in a new light?

That’s the heart of our work as management consultants whether we’re working with a CIO to bring an SAP project in on time, or a COO who needs to double production. Every breakthrough depends on the same thing: creating an environment where people can move past disagreements. 

Being willing to honor and respect people you don’t understand produces miracles. And it all starts with listening.

 The power of listening 

Doctors are taught that if they really listen, they’ll be better at diagnosing. The same thing holds true for us as consultants.  Developing our ability to listen requires practices that are counter-cultural. We have to listen beyond words.

Listening is not just keeping quiet.

Listening is not just “not talking.”

 I can tell I’m not listening when I’m thinking about what I want to say or asking myself whether I should speak up. It’s not that I mean to half-listen. Half-listening is automatic — it’s a skill our brains have developed to keep us alive. 

Deep listening, on the other hand, takes intention. After all, who in their right mind would ignore someone’s comment about life not mattering or an angry outburst about how they’d like to shoot up the mailroom? Those kinds of conversations are scary. They don’t have a quick fix. 

Listen and Fix are not synonyms 

Listening is the best kept secret of any relationship. It’s the best kept secret of anyone who’s out to cause a transformation in someone’s leadership, in a team, or an entire organization. 

As a team, we’re exploring what happens when we reflect back to someone what they said rather than offering them advice or telling them what we did in a similar situation.  We’re practicing getting our questions from what they say rather than from a good idea we just had, or something we thought before the conversation started. We’re practicing not knowing what to ask until the other person speaks.

If a colleague says, “I hate how my boss micromanages me,” I can respond, “You wish your boss weren’t such a micromanager.”  Not, “One time I had a boss like that and he ended up getting fired.” And not rolling my eyes and saying, “You get so tied up in knots over things you have no control over.” 

Maybe people repeat themselves because they haven’t experienced being heard

What if transformation really starts with “a profound relationship to what is so”, including what people say about how they experience life?

Seize the Opportunity

People are suffering. Too often we let the opportunity to make a difference slip away. My brother was 67 before he told me how being bullied had colored his life. Trauma was a whisper in the background, and I didn’t know to listen for it. 

Pay attention. Listen to your teenagers. Listen to the leader who’s carrying a lot on their back.  Listen to the new employee you don’t like so well. 

Something profound happens when I listen with my heart. You wish you had the bandwidth to keep that job. You feel like you failed them. 

Listening is hard in the presence of pain; the pull to guide or fix is so strong. 

Listen anyway, over and over and over.  

I’ve come to believe that love is the only real gift we can offer.

Maybe this is the path of the real warrior: Standing with others and trusting that together we will find a new path forward.