Sporting Metaphor for Effective Listening

John Hester suggests five tips for effective communication. I think the metaphor he uses could stick for some people, especially if you are sports mad! 

To listen effectively, I suggest that you view dialogue more like a pitcher and catcher in a baseball game. The pitcher (speaker) throws the ball for the catcher (you) to receive it. The catcher only throws the ball back after he has it firmly in his grasp.

The 'But' stops here...

One of the best things I learned to help avoid a conversation from stalling (especially important in complaint handling) was to be aware of everytime I used the word BUT in my conversation.   

BUT will successfully do three things:

1) stop your ability to successfully influence another person on your perspective

2) move you out of rapport with the other person

3) lead the other person to believe you are 'difficult to deal with' because you are not able to listen


 "Those clothes look great on you, but..."

"I understand, but..."

It would be fair to say the person hearing the comment would be far more focused on what was about to come (usually a critique or criticism) and not have heard the positive.  It is entirely possible, in fact, highly likely, they will not have taken  anything  except the stuff you said, following the 'but'

The challenge with making the 'but stop here' is the reality lots of people use it. Either "no, but.." or "yes, but..." Is very common. 

This does not mean it cannot be changed. It simply requires a shift in thinking from looking at ways to counter someone else's view to finding ways to understand their view more carefully.  Often 'but' can appropriately be replaced by 'and..."

Next time you are in a meeting, it is a fun distraction to have a listen and count up the number of time  you hear people use  'that' word, and then observe what happens in the discussion.


Christchurch Earthquake - Sirius Being in the Right Place

While our dog Sirius is not as badly behaved as the Labrador retriever portrayed in ‘Marley & Me’, there were certainly times when he would have given Marley a run for his money. He has given us years of pleasure, and on numerous occasions… pain.

The pain was usually associated with something he ate which did not agree with him.  When he was younger he could also rival Houdini as an escape artist. On one such occasion, he showed us the power of opportunity, and how sometimes things are just meant to be.

A day after the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, my partner took Sirius for a walk to visit family close by in Wellington. Sirius decided he was bored, broke through a fence and was on the run.  I got a call from my partner to tell me he had been missing for about an hour and she couldn’t find him. By this stage it was getting dark and finding a black dog was like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack!

Fortunately, we got a call from the local dog controller advising us Sirius had been found. He said that usual process is for us to collect him from the pound, however the owner of the house had been adamant we needed to collect him directly from the house.

We arrived at a house which was a couple of streets away from where Sirius had escaped. This house sat behind a large fence and gate, with a reasonably long winding path to the front door. The person greeted us with “You can’t have him back”

She explained that her 12-year-old nephew had arrived from Christchurch about an hour before Sirius had literally strolled into their home.  The nephew had to leave behind his family to fly to Wellington and was very upset. Even more significant was that he also had to leave behind his much loved Labrador.

She said up to the point of Sirius’ bold entrance the nephew had been incredibly quiet and withdrawn. The nephew had latched onto Sirius and this was the catalyst which broke through the silence.To this day, we have no idea how and why he ended up at this particular house.

We like to think Sirius knew what he was doing that evening, rather than just being the opportunistic dog that he is.  Whatever the reason, in some small way his actions helped to ease the stress and uncertainty for that boy after the trauma of the earthquake experience.

Do things happen for a reason? I guess that would come down to an individual's values, beliefs, perspective and attitudes.

I am not a fan of the view that bad things happen for a reason.  When thing things do happen which are unexpected, unfortunate, or tragic I find  acknowledging the reality and how I feel about it,  maintaining resilience and hope, and keeping a positive attitude assists me to deal with bad things more effectively.

This is not to deny the impact and devastation of traumatic and challenging events. It is more to be aware of our reactions to them and when possible, shift our thinking from “this always happens” or “bad things happen to me” as this becomes a cycle which leaves a person feeling trapped and powerless, to one which reframes the situation to allow us to  so we can feel more in control.

When my father passed away a number of years ago, after a relatively short terminal illness, it would be easy to focus and remember the pain, suffering and grief which is associated with the illness and loss of a much loved Dad. For me, I prefer to remember and focus on the positive aspects, the values he instilled in us, and even the manner of his death, surrounded by his family.

A friend of mine is currently dealing with a life threatening illness, which is having a devastating impact on her life; she commented about the tremendous and humbling support she receives from family, friends and complete strangers. 

We can and do make a choice on what we focus on. We can choose to remember and focus on the negative things or we can choose to look for the positives in a situation and anchor those into our world view. 

Oh, the places you'll go - whose voice do we listen to?

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You’re are on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Dr Seuss

When my son was at the end of his primary school education they gifted him a copy of the Dr Seuss book, OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO. The book reflected the ethos of the school - empowering students to set goals, and achieve the best they could be.  It has become a treasured book in our house, and an anchor for setting sights high.

It was interesting when I did a quick google search on this book  it brought up a large number of comments from people stating it has been overused and cliched. Two things struck me about this. How many people felt the need to negatively comment, and how difficult it can be to block out the negative opinions. 

The abundance of literature around being focused, setting goals, determination, and achieving to the best of your abilities is prolific.  Yet, somehow we live in a world with a negative bias. Where ‘but’ and ‘can’t’ are given more weight than ‘do’ and ‘can’. 

 A useful question which I often think to myself when I hear someone making a negative or limiting comment to me is  “What are you gaining by allowing these comments too take up space in your head?” I have yet to find a satisfactory response to this question!

Over thirty-five years ago my economics teacher commented to the class that the prospects of having a secure job for life were rapidly decreasing and that we were likely to have at least two or three career changes in our working lives. He said the notion of being ‘loyal’ to one company for life was outdated and we needed to be prepared for new and different opportunities. They were words which had an impact on me and assisted me to be comfortable with change and to take opportunities.

While Dr Seuss suggests you can do this on your own, my experience has been that getting someone independent to help map out the direction you want to steer is incredibly valuable. I have on a couple of occasions used a career coach. Both times they helped set the direction I wanted to go, without the person imposing their values and opinions.  This coaching allowed me to work through any perceived barriers, and set realistic goals to allow me to follow my passion. It was well worth the investment.

On and on you will hike.
And I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are …
and will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 per cent guaranteed.)

"Come back, Sirius": the assumptions we make

When my black labrador was six months old, and he decided to chase after a cat, I did what any other person, with little experience of what a hyper-energetic, brainless puppy would do… I ran after him, yelling and calling; which incidentally had absolutely no impact on the dog whatsoever.

Sirius puppy.jpg

The labrador eventually was returned to us, by one of the neighbours who said the dog must have lost sight of the cat, then decided the open door of their flat was an invitation for him to go in and give them a big greeting. 

The incident, in itself, was not memorable if I just looked at the facts of a puppy running away to chase after a cat. If this was all there was to the incident, it would soon be forgotten. The context is what made it memorable to this day.

At the time my labrador ran away, I was running a traditional 312-strong first year Hall of Residence. The staff had surprised the residents by transforming the Hall into Hogwarts overnight. When the residents woke up, the floors had been renamed into Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, & Hufflepuff.  Pictures were changed, the dining room was transformed into The Great Hall, and the courtyard was turned into a Quidditch pitch. All the staff were dressed as one of the Harry Potter characters for the day. I had transformed into Dumbledore thanks to the costume.

I was in the courtyard, which the residents windows faced out onto, when Sirius (for those of you not familiar with Harry Potter - Sirius Black was the name of a character who transformed into a dog) decided to do his runner!

So there I was, dressed as Dumbledore, chasing and yelling “Sirius, come back…”, while all the residents watched me.  After a couple of minutes of running, by this stage I was out on the main road feeling somewhat foolish.

There are some parallels with what happens when we don't have all the facts and simply rely on what we have either, seen, heard or felt.

In a mediation or complaint situation often the facts are the tip of the iceberg. It is only when a person is able to tell the ‘story’ do you discover the context to their words or actions. Sometimes the reason something has escalated has very little to do with the actual situation.

We can quickly make a judgement on a situation based on first impressions, or just on the facts initially presented. We may be missing part of the story. This often leads to an escalation of an issue to a point where parties start to lose trust in each other, because neither feels or think the other party has understood them properly, or have the “correct understanding of what happened”.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility for someone to have had a rough nights sleep because of a baby teething, slept through an alarm, missed the bus, forgotten to take their phone, arrived to work 30 minutes late for an important meeting, and then reacted when someone commented on the difficulty their being late created.

The simple question of “Help me to understand…” can - and does - lead to a richer conversation, and more opportunity for either party to get a better understanding of context, and what informed a person’s actions.

Towards the end of the Hogwarts day, I overheard a group of residents comment about how much Simon had got into it, running around yelling out Sirius Black. It was only at that point that I clicked they hadn’t seen the dog running away, and could only see me running and yelling dressed as Dumbledore…If only they knew!

Getting the 'good' to stick

Your boss wants to see you in her office. You have no idea what its about. You enter the room where she’s finishing a meeting with two other senior members. Everyone goes quiet, the others pack up their papers and silently shuffle out.  Your boss hasn't looked up or asked you to sit.  

What do you think? If your thoughts automatically jump to a negative scenario, such as "I'm in deep trouble" there's a reason.

It’s evolutionary; we’ve still basically got a stone age brain wanting to protect us from being eaten by a tiger. Being acutely aware of possible threats kept our ancestors alive. It was more important to be able to react to threats than to opportunities. Our brains are wired so we have a trickle of anxiety to protect us and keep us alert.  

This is what’s known as  the ‘negativity bias’, we are much more likely to recall and be influenced by negative experiences than neutral or positive ones. Think of feedback forms - you may get one negative comment to 10 positives, and it’s probably the one negative comment you focus on.

Negative events and emotions affect us more than positive ones. Our mind reacts to ‘negative' experiences much quicker, stronger and more frequently than to ‘good’ or ‘positive’ experiences and remembers them more intensely. 

Dr Rick Hanson describes our brain as like, “Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” So although we remember vividly for months a conversation we found toxic, we may forget within a very short time span a conversation we found uplifting.  

I recently attended Dr Hanson’s 'Positive Neuroplasticity Training'. We learnt how to "take in the good" or beneficial experiences to help build our inner strengths and resources. Resources such as resilience, emotional balance, grit, patience, generosity, mindfulness, confidence, feeling cared about, self-understanding and compassion. Given the negativity bias, learning how to use our mind to help encode positive resources into our neural structure is fundamental to wellbeing and our experience of life.  

And it’s really pretty simple. It’s about making a point of noticing and absorbing good facts and experiences, to grow positive resources in the mind so we feel happier and have a greater equilibrium when the ‘bad’ stuff comes.

Rick Hanson teaches a four step strategy to do this which he gives the acronym 'HEAL':

1. Have a beneficial experience. Actively look for good facts and experiences that make you feel good. Really notice them! For example, a compliment from a colleague, a lovely dinner with friends, the beauty of a flower, or the laughter of children at play.

2. Enrich the experience. Savour it, dial up the intensity and enjoy it for at least 10-30 seconds so it starts developing neural structure. Open up to feeling it in your body.

3. Absorb the experience. For example, try soaking it up like water into a sponge, or warming you up like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. Whatever image works for you.

4.  Link the positive to negative material to either soothe it or replace it. You do this by holding both a positive and a negative emotion in your awareness, while making the positive emotion more prominent.  For example you could feel the sense of accomplishment and joy when completing something fun you did well, while feeling apprehensive about a project at work. If you find yourself getting lost in the negative, drop the negative and return to the positive. Linking is an optional step. 

Rick has both a book and an audio walkthrough of the method if you want to find out more.

Focusing our awareness on the good opens us up and expands our thinking. By giving ourselves permission to strengthen positive emotions such as joy, peace, contentment, belonging, compassion and curiosity we build more positive neural networks. It also better resources us to respond to negative emotions and unpleasant experiences. 

As positive psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson points out,

Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish, and positive emotions are by nature subtle and fleeting; the secret is not to deny their transience but to find ways to increase their quantity.