“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Stephen R. Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
Whether we are interacting with family members, clients or members of our work teams, our own assumptions about their intentions and meaning can be one of the greatest impediments to understanding and agreement. In his classic book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, the late Stephen R. Covey describes an approach for helping us to overcome our assumptions and truly understand another person’s point of view. More about the approach in a moment.
The assumption trap
You may have experienced this situation: you’re in a team meeting trying to come to agreement on a basic course of action when the decision making process stalls. Two people, or possibly two “factions”, just cannot see eye-to eye. Frustrations mount, voices are raised and, in the ensuing chaos, no one appears to be listening. Then it occurs to you: “Are they understanding the other side’s position on this?” In some cases you may find yourself wondering, if they aren’t really saying much the same thing. It can be rather funny but it can be frightening too. As Stephen Covey noted, in our haste to respond with our own ideas, we often substitute our own assumptions for the true understanding that might be gained from a few minutes of listening. It just seems so much easier! But, in the long term, where there is no true understanding of a person’s ideas, feelings and intentions, there can be no true consensus and no true buy-in. In short, this is the antithesis of team building.
Evading the assumption trap with empathetic listening
Empathetic listening is an effective antidote for the poison of unwarranted assumptions that might be at the root of misunderstanding. Empathetic listening is about trying to understand the true meaning of what a person is communicating, both thoughts and feelings. Remember that empathetic listening in no way implies that you must agree with the other person. You are, however, acknowledging that their opinions and feelings are real and valid for them at this time. This creates a safe environment for them to express themselves honestly and gives you the opportunity to really understand where they’re coming from.
Team building activities to develop listening skills
Here are some team building activities that will help develop listening empathetic listening skills. These activities require people to work in pairs through a series of escalating good listening behaviours:
- First, ask people to work in pairs and take turns telling each other a 1-2 minute short story about something that happened to them; a “best ever” vacation is usually a safe place to start. Throughout the story, the listener must ask open-ended questions in order to keep the story flowing and to get more detail and meaning. Repeat with the second partner.
- Switch up the pairs and ask people to tell new stories (although the same story could also work) this time having the listener paraphrase or summarize the story periodically in his or her own words to check that they have gotten the message.
- As a variation of the above, have listeners try to identify the emotional messages embedded in the story (e.g., you sound very excited about that!)
- When people are more comfortable, introduce slightly controversial topics where there is potential for disagreement. Have people practice the above listening skills and acknowledge the person’s opinions without trying to win them over to the other side. The goal is just to show understanding.
- You can play with these exercises by combining them into a single team building activity. A variation that we use involves having one person in each pair tell their story for 2-3 minutes, while the other does his or her best NOT to listen. This is chaotic but fun. People actually experience, in a light-hearted way, the emotional pain of not being understood. They identify poor and good listening behaviours and get to try it over the “right way”. Debrief and summarize what listening behaviours worked best to make the story teller feel that the listener was engaged and got the full meaning of facts and feelings. You should get suggestions such as: maintaining eye contact; nodding; reflecting the appropriate emotion by smiling, laughing or frowning; asking relevant questions (open and closed); paraphrasing periodically; and summarizing.
The “Seek first to understand” Rule
Stephen Covey suggests a powerful tool for promoting mutual understanding: the “seek first to understand” method. It involves invoking a basic rule of communication: you cannot make your point until you have shown that you thoroughly understand the point of the other person. Use this procedure in a facilitated meeting if you feel the listening skills are not up to scratch, or if the discussion starts going in circles because people are not listening to one another. You can also use this technique at any time if there are two individuals arguing endlessly over a point.
- Stop the discussion and point out the need to listen to one another in order to move on.
- Introduce the tool and invoke the rule. Ask two conflicting members to volunteer to help the group move toward resolution of the issues. Emphasize that they will helping the entire group move forward. Write on a flip chart “Seek First to Understand Rule: You cannot make your point until you restate the point of the other person to his or her satisfaction.”
- Carry out the discussion. Have member “A” start to make her point. If member “B” begins to interrupt, remind him of the rule and have the first person finish. Then have the member B state the first member’s point. Ask member A if she is satisfied that member B got the point, including any feelings that were associated with it. If she’s not satisfied, member B tries again. Once member A is satisfied, member B states his point and the whole process is repeated. After both members are satisfied that their points have been made, ask if they are feeling any differently than when they began, and if they’d be willing to share their feelings.
- Proceed with your original agenda.
Use simple team building exercises to build your team’s “listening skill set” and then practice those skills with Covey’s “seek first to understand” tool. You should find that misunderstandings will be dealt with more quickly and your level of team buy-in and morale will increase.
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“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.” – Malcolm Forbes
How often do you sit in meetings in which one or two people dominate the conversations while many others sit quietly and say nothing? While this can be normal on occasion, it can also indicate that you are not taking best advantage of your team’s diversity. And it may be that personality “types” are playing themselves out in a way that needs to be addressed.
When the team leader and team members understand and accept each others’ personality types, everyone can work together to ensure that all ideas are heard and understood. In our teambuilding workshops, we often help participants to take that a bit farther: we want them to first understand that they and their colleagues have different preferences for interacting, then accept that different approaches are OK and, finally, develop strategies to accommodate, even leverage, those differences.
Personality Type Inventories
There are many inventories available for assessing personality “types”, and most of the popular ones are based on the work of Carl Jung. They include the MBTI, True Colors, Insights, DISC and Identity Mapping. Some are quite complex and require time, persistence and practice to fully apply. Others (and there are many) are less thorough but offer the benefit of simply “opening the conversations” about how we can best communicate and relate as a team, given our differences. I believe there is still a lot of value in the simple approach since it gets the team exploring those differences and deliberating structuring their meetings and interactions to make sure that effective communication happens and that conflict is of the “healthy” type. The simple act of exploring these differences together can be a fun and valuable team building event.
The Introvert-Extravert Issue
One of the most easily understood differences in personal style is the degree to which one is Introverted or extraverted. You know when you have extreme extraverts: they talk in order to think. Now, the thinking part is good. But it makes it hard for the more introverted people to contribute. Introverts need quiet time to explore their own ideas and prepare what they would like to say. Often, when the meeting is over, the introverts have thought a lot and said little.
Tips for Creating Opportunities for Introverts to Speak Up
- First, open the conversation about the challenges and benefits of different personality styles. Psychometric assessments and a carefully structured teambuilding workshop can help you do this.
- If you want ideas from quiet people, give them time to think before the meeting. Send out your meeting agenda well ahead, and highlight topics for discussion.
- Related to the above, ask people to prepare a short presentation on their thoughts about key issues.
- In brainstorming sessions, first present the topic and then structure a few minutes of “quiet time” for people to write their ideas out. You can have them write single ideas on sticky notes to be posted on a flip chart or wall. Have them post all ideas at once, or take turns having people post one idea at a time until the group has run out of ideas to post. This has the added advantage that truly different ideas can come out, rather than having the brainstorm lurch off in one direction determined by the first few responders.
- Use a “talking stick”. Any physical item, in fact, can be passed around the room to indicate that “this individual has the floor so we will listen to her until she passes the stick to the next person”. I’ve heard a similar idea in which a rubber chicken was thrown on the table when a person had gone on too long. This was a high performing group of people who were able to laugh at themselves. Good for them!
- Use a “timekeeper” to limit the time that a person can speak. This can be an important and recurring job at your meetings. It requires that one person monitor the conversation flow, limiting some people and encouraging others. Rotate this role since the timekeeper may find it difficult to contribute effectively to the actual conversation.
- Use a mechanical timer, such as an egg timer, to indicate “time’s up” for the speaker. This helps to free up someone from the role of timekeeper. Plus, it’s completely objective and shows no favourites. I’ve also heard some fun variations of this idea. One group had a mechanical monkey with symbols. Nothing wrong with injecting fun!
Whichever mechanisms you use, the goal is the same: to create a team culture and environment in which everyone can contribute their best ideas and feel heard. This is absolutely critical for getting the best results and solid buy-in from your team.
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” – Gloria Steinem
A team member’s or customer’s anger can run the gamut from smouldering silence to an outright temper tantrum. Periodically people capture the more public examples on cell phones and we get to witness spectacular meltdowns as they go “viral” on social media. But, when it happens in our own workplaces, it’s not so funny. We can feel threatened, experience extreme stress and risk very real emotional and physical trauma. On a team level, such an incident can leave relationships in tatters. An important part of team building involves developing the capacity to manage emotional situations effectively. And anger must top the list of the “most-feared” emotional encounters. I’d like to share an incident I witnessed.
As I cooled my heels in a rural hospital waiting room a few months ago, I had the (uncomfortable!) opportunity to watch a skilled health care professional handle a very loud and angry person. The waiting room was quite full when a older gentleman came in from the blowing snow accompanied by a woman, possibly his wife, who had clearly been struggling to navigate the snow-covered, slippery sidewalks with her walker. He was obviously concerned and visibly upset as he guided her to a chair. As he approached the registration desk, the receptionist started to apologize for the condition of the sidewalks. She had barely begun to extend the clip board to him when the tirade started. It was loud, abusive and involved flying objects. He was in full rant when a nurse came hustling around the corner and entered the fray. What she did was masterful. It took her a good ten minutes to get him calmed down but she was able to let him vent, move him smoothly to a quieter area away from the main audience and get him refocused on the original reason for the visit.
Here’s what she did, and what you can do when you face an angry person:
- Keep your distance. Don’t invade their space if you can help it and don’t ever touch anyone. Sounds obvious, but even well-intentioned touching (to re-assure them, for instance) can be misinterpreted and trigger a violent physical retaliation.
- Keep up a calm “front”. When you speak, do so calmly and evenly is re-assuring tones. You may be feeling angry too, but if you communicate that in words or body language, you will intensify their own threat response.
- Validate their feelings (e.g., “I can see that you are very upset.”)
- Never talk down to or contradict an angry person. Never tell them to “calm down”.
- Show that you are listening. Calmly ask questions and use active listening to keep them talking. Remember, they are experiencing a very real physiological response and it may take 20 minutes or more for the hormones to clear the bloodstream. Only then can they actually use the “thinking parts” of their brains.
- If you are a public place where others are being impacted, consider encouraging the person to move with you to a more private location. However, don’t place yourself alone with a person you believe could become violent.
Facing angry people will never be easy or pleasant but you can learn to manage these difficult encounters so that you achieve positive outcomes. Summit Team Building programs such as Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Management and Effective Communications will help your team develop both the necessary skills, and the positive relationships allow us to benefit from our differences.
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