What If Today…You Listened First?

“An essential part of true listening is the…temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices…so as to experience…the speaker’s world from inside his shoes. True listening…involves a total acceptance of the other. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will feel less and less vulnerable and more and more inclined to open up the inner recesses of  his or her mind to the listener. As this happens, speaker and listener begin to appreciate each other more and more, and the duet dance of love is begun again.”~ Scott M.Peck, MD

The fear in his eyes stopped me cold. I was half his age and at least ten times more the experienced dancer. But the choreographer thought it would be a blast to invite husbands and boyfriends of the dancers to take part in an upcoming show. I had no idea how to help my partner overcome his belief that his two left feet would make a fool of him as well as bring me crashing down with him.

Never mind that he had no rhythm, he was in way over his head trying to understand how to count the music, remember the steps, and hold me right without stepping on my toes. He nearly bailed out a few times at the very first rehearsal. When I learned that he was being shamed into staying by his wife I knew I had my work cut out for me.

But we had a job to do and time was a waistin’.

Instead of a pep talk I asked him what was going on? How did he feel? Embarrassed., stupid, clumsy, and completely resistant to participating. I’d felt those things before, so I could relate.

So my goal was to make him look good.

“Don’t worry,” I told him, “One step at a time.”

I can’t deny that I was tempted to lead, but I knew that would have exacerbated the problem. I had to accept the performance he COULD give and enjoy it completely.

As soon as he felt understood, he relaxed and we started having fun. When he dropped me, tripped me, or forgot what we were doing we had a good laugh and started again. By the time the performance rolled around we were in sync and everything flowed. Nobody would have ever known he didn’t know what he was doing those first few days.

And in the end, he made ME look good. I didn’t expect that!

But back to listening and leadership and what it can mean for you.

Peter Nulty said, “Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable – and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.”

Our family, work, and play relationships are all like a “duet dance”. Aren’t they?

Isn’t it true that we can either approach each other with assumptions and prejudices that trip us up and never lead us to a rhythm that’s mutually beneficial, or we can slow down, ask some questions, and try to understand each other and agree to head toward a common goal?

Stephen Covey said it best in Habit #5 in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

I could tell you stories about my children who at 5 yrs-old started with “Don’t look at me!”, progressed to adolescence where they felt judged, misunderstood, and like the whole adult world was full of hypocrites, and at the magic age of 17 or so started wanting order in their lives and made sanctuaries out of disaster areas without any promptings from me.

I could tell you stories, but I won’t. I will tell you that I learned that there’s always more to what I was seeing. And once I understood, I was free – free of the frustrations, worry, and need to fix things that weren’t broken. And so were my children.

  • Is taking time to understand someone’s behavior valuable to you in your family? Work place? Community?
  • How has that worked for you?


14 thoughts on “What If Today…You Listened First?

  1. How to Listen by Mortimer Adler was a book I forced upon every hire at every start up I ever founded. Also his How to Read and Dale Carnegies, How to win friends…

    Indeed, listening is important.

    • I’ll take a look at Adler’s books. Don’t remember if I’ve read them! Love all of Carnegies! I’ve been watching how I have a habit of listening in order to respond vs. just listening to understand. Do most of us listen one way or another? I know what it feels like to be heard. It take a lot of maturity to listen. Don’t you think?

  2. Hi Betsy. Love this. Listening can not be emphasized enough. It is a major part of the CARE principles.
    The quote below is from another favorite on listening. Thanks again.

    “Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention” – Rachel Naomi Remen

    Your writing is beautiful. Continued success.


    • Thanks, Al! What’s going on in your CARE movement lately? What are you up to? How’s your dad? I’ve wondered about our conversation a lot this week. How does Alzheimer’s (or similar illnesses) teach us how important listening with a new blueprint is? Did I say that right? People and relationships change all the time. Right? Isn’t good listening habits the one constant? I wonder…

  3. I’m not sure I have anything brilliant, or even silly, to add, but I so loved the story about the dancers that I wanted to tell you it was so.

    Now that I think about it, I do have a story.

    The son of a mathematician, I found I had an interest in numbers, and it was easy to get excited about math homework,because I knew I’d have a good resource in my father to help me, should I get stuck. The problem was, he didn’t always listen to the question and would go on at length answering the question he assumed I was about to ask.

    Eventually, I hit upon an idea. I would let him go until he was out of gas and then I’d ask, “What was the question you thought I asked?”

    This worked much better than simply saying, “That wasn’t what I was asking,” because it made him process my new question, to which, it was obvious by the way I asked it, that he didn’t have an answer. On the rare occasion that he would reply with what he was sure was the question I had asked, “I’d simply say, ‘wrong'”. It wasn’t with a tone or anything, just a factual statement. I was the teacher and he the student.

    Dad has a bachelors in Aero E, a Masters in Mathematics, and a PHd in Industrial Engineering, so he is always interested in knowing the correct answer. Once he was listening, I was set. I’d ask the question and then he’d help me with the problem.

    It takes very few instances of “What did you think was the question that had I asked?” before a person is broke of the habit of interrupting and going off on a tangent.

    Sometimes we all have trouble listening, but if we try, it really isn’t so hard.

    • First thing, I’m glad that there are people who get excited about math. The save people like me a slow and torturous death from boredom. LOL! Yay for your dad! Gives people like me someone to entertain!

      Asking a question to see if someone is really listening…perfect!

      Reminds me of a story a friend told me. Her daughter would bounce near the edge of the trampoline all the time. That worried my friend because of the danger of falling through the cracks.

      “Jump in the middle!” she kept telling her little girl.

      “Okay!” her daughter would say even though she kept jumping near the edge. Finally, completely exasperated, she asked,

      “Why won’t you listen to me and jump in the middle?” to which her daughter responded as she was jumping, “What’s the middle?”

      Makes you wonder if it’s all a bit more complicated than we all might want to believe. Huh?

      Thanks, Brian!

  4. I love to listen..well most of the time..esp. to stories..but I sure hear what Brian said! I have someone like that, and yes, you let them go on with the answer/story. because in my case they tend to get very upset if interrupted! Then I have to ask as he does..What did you hear me ask or say. It works well. I just sometimes have to remind myself not to jump in and say.. No..wait…I wanted to know—-It can e hard to be patient…lol.

    As Always ~*~

    • I see that a lot with the elderly, which I’ve come to understand and accept. Let them talk. Enjoy them. But with everyone else I guess I’m pretty rude. I interrupt (not always, but when I’m sure that if I don’t I’ll be hijacked for longer than I can bear) and draw conclusions from what they’re saying so as to get to the point. I don’t know if I want to work on that. It feels like being a doormat if I sit and nod if I’m not feeling comfortable. I feel that way reading books sometimes, too. Just say it! I’ve flipped through books seeing the same thought being drawn out for chapters. Aghh! Guess I’m in a mood. See you, Jane! Thanks for dropping in.

  5. Many years ago when airlines used to have empty seats on flights i got “stuck” sitting next to a woman who talked for the entire flight. Two hours into it I was dying and wanted to move, but I couldn’t find a way get up, unpack the overhead compartment and move all of my stuff away from her without making a huge deal out of it.

    So I sat and listened. It wasn’t horrible, but she just never stopped talking.

    Anyhoo, after we had landed and taxied to the gate she surprised me by giving me a huge hug. She told me that her family never listened to her and said she appreciated that I did.

    Sometimes I think about that flight. I imagine it must feel awful to have to find a stranger to talk to because you don’t think anyone listens to your words.

    • Sometimes I catch myself wondering if there’s a secret to being listened to. If I listen long and well enough is it reciprocated. My experience says no. Some people like to hear themselves talk. And they need to talk for some reason. I find it really interesting that underneath all of the words is something else. They don’t want a conversation, or answers. It’s as if the incessant talking is taking them further and further from something they can’t face.I read once that non-stop talkers “use their words to stop themselves from knowing what they’re feeling.” When people use me as just a pair of ears and don’t want to hear what I have to say, I feel sad for them. I feel compassion, but I know that in order for them to heal they have to be able to have a conversation vs. a monologue. Just some thoughts. Thanks, Jack. You got me thinking.

    • Wow! Ben, that was great. I loved how you mapped out the easy to follow steps. My favorite part was the suggestion to go out and try it out, make mistakes, and ask for feedback, always engaging the group to look for and to apply solutions. I guess that’s more than one part!

      What a challenge and a relief to know that on the one hand this skill will always be #1 , but that ALL leaders, if they sre to succeed, HAVE to learn the steps to effective listening.

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