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Archive for February, 2009

When it comes to teaching people to communicate we have historically focused a lot more on effective speaking, writing and presenting than on effective listening. Yet what has you trust someone more: the ability to speak eloquently or the ability to listen so that people actually feel heard? Too much of the former and not enough of the latter is all too often what causes us to label someone that 10 letter word “politician”.

If you buy into the belief that successful leaders engender a high degree of trust, I would argue that listening is a critical skill. It may even be more important than speaking skills. I’ll even suggest that by learning to listen better you will actually become a better speaker, presenter and writer.

3 SIMPLE STEPS TO LISTENING BETTER

1. Prepare for What You Want to Learn, Not Just What You Want to Say

We spend a lot of time preparing for meetings by putting together speaking notes and PowerPoint presentations. Our focus is all too often entirely on us. Whether the meeting is small or very large it is as though we were preparing for a performance with our attention on what we want to say. Yet how many PowerPoint presentations have you fidgeted or even slept through? I don’t sit still well so these are particularly painful for me!

Whether you are preparing for a one on one meeting or a meeting of 100 I suggest you prepare for a conversation not a presentation.

Think first about your audience. What can you contribute to them? What are their burning questions? Then think about how to engage your audience not just talk at them. Consider what you want to learn from the conversation, not just what you want to communicate. Prepare a thought provoking question or two. Great questions have the power to turn a presentation into a great and memorable conversation. When people are engaged their energy rises and attention sharpens.

TIP: Make one of the goals of your next meeting to learn more than the person or people with whom you are speaking.

2. Ask Questions AND Give People Enough Time to Answer:

To be effective at asking questions we have to become comfortable with what I call the “pregnant pause”. When you are asking a question it can feel like an eternity waiting for someone to answer. The bigger the group the longer that pause can be. It is uncomfortable and our tendency is to want to jump in and fill the space.

Remember that people may need a few minutes to think about your question so they can formulate an answer. And as group size increases the discomfort for many people to actually answer your question also increases. They may need even a little more time to muster up the courage or to formulate their answer so they can speak confidently.

TIPS: Prepare a question other than “do you have any questions?” for the end of what you have to say or present.

Focus on taking 3-5 slow deep breaths after you ask a question (remember to keep eye contact though or you can get so relaxed people think you checked out!).

3. Ensure People Know You Heard Them (and that you hear more).

Nodding your head is a helpful way to let someone know you are listening, but unfortunately we can nod and not hear a thing they said. And they know it, or at least they feel it. You actually have to speak before someone really knows you were listening. You can do that with phrases like “I understand”, “uh huh”, etc. You know the drill. But if you really want someone to know you heard them, try giving them back what you heard.

This is not about being a parrot. It’s about saying in your own words what you got out of what they said, or what you will do as a result of what they said, or asking a relevant question. That is the only way we can ever be sure that we actually understood what was said.

Do we hear what people say or do we hear what we think they said?

We are interpretation machines. We listen through the filters of our personal beliefs, knowledge and experience. All too often we don’t hear what people have actually said, or tried to communicate anyway, even though we think we did. This is a significant cause of mis-communication. Practice this and not only will people feel heard by you, but you will actually start hearing more of what they are saying. I can guarantee you will have fewer communications breakdowns all around if you get really good at this.

TIP: If you don’t feel like you are being heard you are probably not listening.

Any questions?

,,,just kidding!

What else do you need to know or understand to feel confident that you can execute these steps?

Which one of these is the most challenging for you?

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Four Chords to Innovation

Recently I read a post by Heather Fenoughty, an internationally respected film, tv and theatre composer and sound designer. She suggests that if you have writers block when trying to compose that you find a four chord progression and play with it to make it your own. Since you can’t copyright just four chords you can avoid “a crisis of conscience”. Apparently even Bach did this!

I have come to believe that there really is no such thing as original thought, only original expression. So when I read her post and watched the accompanying video what I saw was a perfect demonstration of this in action. Click here to go check it out. It plays a series of songs that are completely different yet use the same four chords.

A great way to develop your leadership is to train yourself to think in new and innovative ways.

But that does not have to mean coming up with a never conceived of before idea. Those are far and few between. What it does mean is bringing a new point of view to an existing problem or opportunity. Sometimes it is about connecting the dots just a little differently. Other times it involves introducing a new “dot” to consider. It can also help to draw ideas from an experience, or something you read that has nothing to do with your day to day work.

Consciously seek to look at your equivalent of the same four chords and ask yourself and/or your colleagues:

1. How could I//we look at this differently?
2, What new element could I/we introduce that could give us new options?
3. How might I/we reassemble the elements we have to create something new?
4. How could I/we use what I/we learned or observed from another experience to this situation?

Your view of any problem or opportunity is by it’s very nature unique. You are the only person with your life experience, knowledge and wisdom.

The question is are you leveraging your unique perspective or are you busy trying to think like everyone else?

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…does not exist.

There is not one agreed upon definition in the world despite how much leadership has been studied and written about. As of today 316,641 results returned when searching Amazon for books on leadership. According to Warren Bennis in Leaders (1997) “academic analysis has given us more than 850 definitions of leadership”. I think it is fair to say that defining leadership will be studied and debated for a long time to come and it is likely we will never all agree on THE BEST definition.

Although that is the question I have been asked and challenged about the most.

A very good friend even wrote to me having spent a good deal of time reading what I wrote, thinking and searching the internet trying to help me do a better job of defining leadership. The definition I offered in one of my posts was “Translating vision into reality” by Warren Bennis. Yet she strongly believes that “Vision is not a catalyst for leadership.” Essentially the definition I had offered in her worldview was just wrong. Yet the most interesting thing of all was that everything she said to make her point completely validated what I was trying to say to begin with about leadership and leading.

Could a definition actually be getting in the way?

Perhaps offering a definition of leadership was a mistake. Not because I offered a “wrong” definition. Warren Bennis is well known as an expert in this field so it certainly wasn’t wrong. But because I tried to define something that perhaps cannot be adequately expressed with the simplicity and accuracy expected from the definition of anything.

So why do we keep trying to define it?

People expect you to be able to define the thing you are writing about or teaching. It is a valid expectation so naturally I have offered one. But definitions rarely help you understand and/or do the very thing you are trying to define. For example, I can define balance, but does that help me to achieve the balance necessary to ride a bicycle? In the case of leadership I have never seen a definition that has helped anyone instantly know how to lead.

What do we seek when we ask for a definition? I think we are seeking “the truth” about it. Yet trying to define leadership is a bit like trying to define beauty: it has many interpretations, although we know it when we see it. It is also said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, beauty does not look the same in all cultures. And perhaps neither does leadership. This points to the power of context in shaping our interpretations of “truth” about anything, including leadership.

What could be more useful than a definition?

The notion of a “random act of leadership” is my attempt to take leadership out of the realm of theory and develop a rich context for leading that can give EVERYONE access to leading in their day to day work and lives. My purpose is not to define leadership. It is to empower more people to see and seize opportunities to lead more readily and more often in everyday work and life. My focus is on identifying the actions of leading so we can do it more and make a bigger difference ourselves rather than waiting for “the” leaders to make things happen.

So now what?

I say we create a context for leadership that helps us see opportunities to lead – to take actions that will make a difference in the things that matter to us. So I invite you to start thinking about and sharing your context for leadership. The question I’ll use to start the inquiry is this:

What does leadership look like? I look forward to learning from your responses!

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No I am not talking about the theory that red cars get more tickets or have more accidents. Although that is a theory, there actually seems to be little evidence to support it. Besides, the question of whether they do or not is not as interesting to me as why they might. Perhaps it is because of their color alone. Then again, maybe the hype about red cars made them more noticeable. Why do we notice one thing and miss something else entirely? That is what I am talking about.

Pontiac Grand Am (no it's not a 1985 model)

Pontiac Grand Am (no it's not a 1985 model)

When I graduated from college I bought a red Pontiac Grand Am. And from then on I noticed two things while driving around: (1) how many red cars were on the road, and (2) how many Grand Am’s there were of all colors. We notice things that we have some personal connection to, whether that connection is based on our experience, our desires, our knowledge, or something else. Here’s why: because everything we have learned and experienced creates the context or lens through which we relate to the world. It shapes what we pay attention to amidst the daily onslaught of signals and information. It even shapes what we are capable of seeing or observing.

Creating a Simple Context for Observing Leadership in Action

That is why I believe it is so important to create a context for leadership that enables you to see it in action. If our context for leading is limited to grand gestures like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech we will miss leadership in its simplest, most elemental form. If we want to be able to seize an opportunity to act as a leader in any given moment we must be able to perceive the moments of opportunities or they will pass by unnoticed like all the cars you drive by every day, but don’t really see. And if we cannot see leadership in the actions of others how will we be able to recognize it in ourselves?

The challenge here is to define leadership in action and in a way that it can be recognized by anyone. Because if you can recognize it you have access to doing it and to teaching others to lead as well. My equivalent of a “Red Car” for leadership is this: speaking up, stepping up and/or standing up for something you are committed to.

A Recent Example…

Danny Brown
posted an entry on Twitter on January 31st offering a free press release to the first 50 people donating $20 for his 12 for 12k fundraising challenge.

True, he happens to be the leader of this initiative. But the point is anyone could have done something similar – it was as simple as posting a 140 character “tweet”.

Your turn…

What acts of leadership have you observed? If none come to mind start looking for the “Red Car” and come back to tell us about what you observed. And please don’t worry about getting it right. We will all learn from looking at acts of leadership through your eyes.

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