Listening Revisited

(This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.)

Many of us think about listening as a leadership competency that, when done well, requires the full measure of our presence. Our experience tells us that attentive, skillful listening rewards us with better relationships an improved outcomes. Although these beliefs are true enough, they rest on the assumption that listening is primarily about hearing other people. Although that is accurate as far as it goes, a different kind of listening is at least as important, that is, listening to ourselves.

Recently an established and close group of healthcare and nurse leaders from across the country spent a few days together. As part of their work, they shared tales of their successes and stories about their challenges. When it came time to drill down on their challenges, more than a few of their accounts were layered with a good degree of emotional angst.

The participants felt safe together, and they offered empathy and support for one another as they listened to the commentaries. Here are a few examples offered in detail-free form: “I have to do this, and it will never work” and “I’ve got to do that, and I have never succeeded in doing anything like it before.” There were also statements like “This is just the way I am” and “[Someone else] is stopping me from being successful.”

They exchanged heartfelt offers of mutual assistance, and the atmosphere of “we’re in this together” was palpable. Yet, the group’s collective body language demonstrated an altogether different reality. Some participants looked a bit hunched, and the rest exuded more than a hint of loss. They were not sitting tall. Indeed, they were far from the excited leaders they had been moments before, when they had spoken about the highlights of their many accomplishments. There was a heavy sense of defeat in the air.

These leaders demonstrated what happens when the press of too much to do limits our capacities to consider how we think about and describe our own experiences. Although the members of the group paid rapt attention to one another as they spoke, they appeared to be less conscious of truly listening to what they themselves were saying. Even if they were attentive to their own words, they seemed to be unaware of the negative impact of those words – not just on other people, but on themselves.

They also seemed to miss the limits of what they were saying. Most spoke as if there were only one perspective available to them. For understandable reasons, they probably had allocated little time to reflect, and as a result, they had generated that single “truth.” That became the truth they believed and subsequently shared with those around them.

What if these leaders could listen as attentively to what they were saying to themselves as they did to the others? While honoring their feelings and standpoints, could they also imagine new, equally valid ways of looking at their experiences? If so, what potential could those equally valid viewpoints offer? What might these different perspectives release in these leaders and, eventually, in the people around them?

Those in attendance were very interested in exploring diverse and more effective ways of leaning into, yet getting beyond, their current perspectives and feelings. They were especially concerned with moving forward to meet their challenges powerfully and with the full measure of their leadership abilities.

Here is what they did to shift their downbeat narratives:

  1. They literally “set aside” the original yet adverse version of the truth they had shared with the group. They knew they could reclaim every word and nuance any time they wanted. In the meantime, however, they each agreed to simply let those first versions go for a while so they could explore alternative ways of listening to and thinking about themselves.
  2. They repeated their stories, but not in their original form. This time, they added more to them. For example, “I want to change my approach, but I can’t” grew to include what that belief allowed for. So, “I want to change my approach, but I can’t” expanded to include “…and so I will ‘skill up.’ I will better equip myself by taking classes in communication effectiveness and assertiveness training.”
  3. They said what they will do the next time they have this challenge. Thus, “I want to change my approach, but I can’t” became “and although I have believed that I can’t, the next time I feel this way, I will practice a different approach. For example, I will be more assertive, and I will ask for what I need. I know I may feel uncomfortable doing this initially, but eventually, I will get good at it.”
  4. They conceptually agreed that events have many potential interpretations, and that there is more than one equally valid point of view. This shift opened up new possibilities for each of them. They experimented with different ways of describing what they were facing by answering questions like “what else could you say about this?”
  5. After articulating alternative, truthful, and eventually, more positive ways of framing their challenges, they selected the one that was most authentic and affirming. They said out loud “…and the most positive yet honest way I can look at this is….” As they did this, these leaders’ energies shifted dramatically. There was also a lot of laughter in the room.
  6. They talked about what they really wanted to accomplish going forward. This allowed them to anchor their challenges, their feelings, and their self-talk in their individual, positive, and authentic aspirations instead of their negative beliefs.

When these leaders concluded these exercises, not a single person opted to go back to his or her original story. Their physical and emotional affects were quite different than earlier in the day. They achieved these results by tuning in and listening to themselves. Each honored his original story, but no one stuck to it “no matter what.” They demonstrated what is possible if we as leaders listen more carefully to ourselves and truly attend to the renditions of fact that we tell ourselves and others.

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