Archive for July 2015

What Do You Think? . . . What happens when you listen?

Our decisions do not take place in a vacuum. Any decision that we make in our organization, whether it is small or large, has an effect on others. It could be something as simple as conducting a survey about a specific department, or as complex as developing a major strategic plan. In any case, people are impacted. I have been guilty of forgetting to keep that in mind when I am doing something that I genuinely believe is good and necessary for the organization, and in those times I have sometimes neglected to include others. In doing so, I learned that when people are not given a voice, they tend to resist or resent what I am doing. I wonder what has been your experience? In your leadership, what has happened when you failed to give people a voice? Or, from a positive experience, what has happened when you gave people a voice? Please share in the comment box below.


Take the Time to Listen First

Early in my experience as an educator, I heard my administrator say to parents (tongue-in-cheek), “If you don’t believe half of what your students say happened in the classroom, we won’t believe half of what they tell us happened at home.” Like many humorous comments, this contains a morsel of truth. People have a tendency to represent facts in such a way as to paint themselves in the best possible light, and children are no different. Often over the years, I have fielded phone calls from parents who were contacting me because of what their child said happened in class (things like, “my child told me that the teacher said this in class!”). I quickly learned to redirect their concern to the teacher, so that the parent could hear the whole story. Nearly every time, the parent has come back to me and said, “Now that I have the whole story, it makes a lot more sense.” (And most of the time, the story the child told at home was an effort to cover up or misdirect from wrong choices of behavior made by the student in the classroom.)

There are two particular passages in Scripture that have greatly helped me to understand this idea. One is Proverbs 18:13, which says, “He who answers a matter before he hears the facts—it is folly and shame to him” (Amplified Bible). The Message says it even more plainly: “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.” This verse was first shared with me by a professor when I completing a marriage and family counseling internship, as an exhortation to probe and question thoroughly before drawing conclusions in the counseling setting. For quite a while, I literally kept the verse written on a notecard, taped on top of my desk, as a reminder. I have since learned that this verse applies to many circumstances, not just to a counseling session. When you deal with people (and most of us do), you will have the experience of people telling you the story from their own perspective, which will likely mean that it may or may not be true. It is foolish and stupid to react or respond without first getting the whole story

The second verse is James 1:19, which says, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” As many grandparents have shared with their grandchildren, “there’s a reason why God gave us two ears and one mouth; we should listen twice as much as we speak!” This verse has been a constant reminder to me to be careful to listen first, although in the process of my growth as a leader, it was a lesson that sometimes came the hard way.

In one particular organization in which I worked, I made a spectacular blunder that loudly and clearly drove this lesson home to me. I was leading a small group of event planners in planning for one specific event, and everyone in the group (except me) had been involved in that organization for several years. As the leader, I felt that I should take charge of presenting good ideas, so I began the first meeting by telling the rest of the group all of my ideas. My enthusiasm (combined with the fact that I had not yet established trust or relationship) resulted in the rest of the group shutting down while giving verbal support to my ideas. However, over the next few days I began to hear from others that the entire committee was frustrated with me, and the event was now in jeopardy. I had to go back to the committee and apologize for speaking without listening, and then I had to make it safe for them to talk. When I did that, I learned about the history and tradition associated with that event, and could see that I had been on the verge of causing damage to the culture. I needed to take the time to listen, understand history, and get the whole story.

The added bonus of this lesson is that when you take time to learn the whole story, you are much more likely to be able to discern what is true and what is not. In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, Moses provided some direction to the people of Israel to help them understand how to discern this, when he said, “21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” He made the point that if you take the time to observe and get the whole story, beginning to end, you can tell if it is truth or not.

It is easy for a leader to assume that leadership means taking charge and giving direction. However, I believe that these principles from Scripture give us a very different picture: leadership should be characterized by listening. Ask questions. Make it safe for people to share. Validate. And make sure you get the whole story before you react.


Week of July 27, 2015

Quotable (Jeff McMaster, on becoming a better talker)

“People need to hear stories. Stories make cold facts become relatable, memorable, and more believable.”


Dr. Jeffrey S. McMaster, Be A Better Talker

Be A Better Talker

I have previously shared that “most people understand communication is a two-way street, involving both talking and listening, but I would also guess that most people do far more talking than listening. . . . One of the skills, then, that is necessary for effective leadership (and for healthy relationships) is the ability to listen well. In short, we need to be good listeners.” However, while this is definitely true, it does not mean that we can neglect the other side of that street – we also need to be good talkers. Good communication involves both talking and listening, and so even though we tend to do one (talking) to the neglect of the other (listening), we can’t ignore either one. We need to do them both well.

I am by nature a reflective thinker, so I generally process my thoughts for a while before responding to people. What that looks like inside my head is, “Hmmm, let me think about that so that I can give you a very good answer,” but what it looks like to other people is, “Did he even hear a word that I said?” My wife humorously describes this thought process in my head as a train that is circling the tracks and eventually comes back around to the train station. So when my children ask me a question, and I haven’t answered yet, she will say, “Be patient children, the train is on its way back to the station.”

Although we joke about my train, recognizing this has helped me to understand that I have to verbally tell people that I am processing their questions, input, or ideas. I have learned that I need to tell people, out loud, that I have heard them and that I am thinking through what they said. They need to hear me speak. Why is that so? I think the answer comes from something else that I have often heard my wife say – if you give people a blank page, they will write in their own perceptions and ideas. If you don’t give people information that they need to know, or let them know that they have been heard, they will form their own conclusions which may or may not be true, and which will likely have to be addressed and/or corrected, which in turn makes your job of communicating that much more difficult.

Therefore, even though listening is a critical skill that we must develop, we also must learn to speak. I am not talking about the skill of public speaking (although that is something that also ought to be developed in our leadership), but about the simple act of communicating our thoughts, ideas, vision, and responses. We have to talk to people, and we must do it in a way that lets them feel heard, gives them understanding, enlists their support, and provides information that they need. In order to do this well, there are three needs that must be met by our words.

First, people need to feel informed. No one likes to be surprised with information, especially if they will be impacted by the circumstances or the information. It is therefore important that they know what is happening around them. As you lead your organization or your team, there will be changes that you need to implement, strategies that you need to develop, and obstacles that you need to navigate. During those experiences, you need to communicate what is happening and what you are doing. And it is especially important that you communicate information to someone if you are obligating his or her participation. If they have to contribute or participate and they have not been properly informed, they will resist. So the bottom line is, you must be sure to communicate well and communicate much.

Second, people need an active, accurate data stream of information. They will generally believe what they hear most repeated, and so if you do not make sure that the information they receive is accurate and frequent, people will begin to believe things that are not true, or will form perceptions that can be detrimental to your direction. And once perceptions are formed, they can be hard to change. The information that people will be exposed to will often come from other sources besides you – the gossip of coworkers, the opinions of friends and relatives, the advertising of competitors – so you will need to make sure that they are repeatedly hearing true information.

Third, people need to hear stories. Stories make cold facts become relatable, memorable, and more believable. They provide handles for information so that they can remember what is important, and can share it with others. As Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker say in School Culture Rewired (2015), “Stories are the currency of a culture – they are the most effective means of transferring information from one person to another” (p. 38). It follows, then, that leaders should become good storytellers, able to put information in the context of a story that they tell. When you do that, people are more likely to listen and understand, and will have a better grasp of the information that you share.

So, the conclusion should be that we need to talk as well as we listen. In order to do that, we must be intentional about what and how we communicate, to ensure that our words are meeting the needs of our listeners. Make sure that we are communicating information that our followers need to hear, that we are doing it often and accurately, and that we are using stories for the context. Then, when that happens, our words will fill in the page in front of them with the information that will be best for their growth and their performance.


Week of July 20, 2015