Sunday, August 12, 2018

You May Think You're A Good Listener, But You'd Probably Be Wrong.

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........................"

Every list of the skills one needs to acquire to be successful, invariably includes listening.  Being a good listener is touted as absolutely essential to your professional and personal life.  I've talked about it on this blog before.

You probably think you are a good listener. Better than most people anyway.  Yes, you admit, you don't always put in the effort, but you fully understand the skill, and when its important you are indeed a good listener.

You're very likely not.  You're fooling yourself.  We all tend to think we are better at certain skills than we, in fact, are.  At least better than other people are.  Psychologists call it illusory superiority, and it is a cognitive bias.  Perfectly normal and natural unless manifested in some extreme.

Most people only think they are good listeners.  As I've quoted Paul Simon in the song The Boxer, before:

"All lies in jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

I bring it up again, because I think the universal advice is right - listening skills are critical.  Especially as we are moving foursquare into an age of ideas.

Hearing what we want, isn't being a good listener.  But that's what we do.  Here's another way of putting it - found in an article on The Art of Listening Well by Eugene Raudsepp in INC. magazine:

 "A zoologist was walking down a busy city street with a friend. In the midst of the honking horns and screeching tires, he exclaimed to his friend, "Listen to that cricket!"  The friend looked at the zoologist in astonishment and said, "You hear a cricket in the middle of all this noise and confusion?"  Without a word, the zoologist reached into his pocket, took out a coin, and flipped it into the air. As it clinked on the sidewalk, a dozen heads turned in response.
The zoologist said quietly to his friend, "We hear what we listen for."

And too often, we listen for confirmation of what we already tend to think and believe.  We don't listen in search of contradictory thinking, or even new and challenging thoughts.  We want evidence supporting our already-arrived-at position.  If you don't believe me, the next time you are at a breakout session at a conference, when its open mike for the participants, listen to what the speakers are saying.  For the most part it's like an old Buffalo Springfield song, For What Its Worth:

"People carrying signs, Mostly say 'Hooray For Our Side'

The problem is that most of us much prefer to hear ourselves talk than hear someone else.  Even the shy among us, who never talk, often come to that conclusion in their minds.  It makes real listening very difficult.

There is no shortage of advice on improving your listening skills, most of which encourages you to focus, to put aside your biases and pre-conceived thinking, to be open and receptive, and, of course, to basically keep quiet while listening - both aloud and in your mind.  Listening, we're taught, is a technique we can master if we're willing to put in the effort.

Consider the more stringent requirements suggested by Erich Fromm - the world renowned social psychologist, and the author of The Art of Love - in his work, The Art of Listening, as put in Psychology: 

"Fromm objects to framing listening as a "technique," since that word applies "to the mechanical, to that which is not alive, while the proper word for dealing with that which is alive is 'art.'" And so if "psychoanalysis is a process of understanding man's mind, particularly that part which is conscious... it is an art like the understanding of poetry." He then provides basic rules for this art as follows:

  • The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  • Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  • He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  • He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  • The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.

So Ftomm argues that listening needs not only an open mind, but a mind serious and sincerely seeking to understand what it is hearing.  It requires a level of respect for the person you're listening to, and a conscious effort to empathize not only with the speaker's position, but for how the speaker got to that position.

That may be a deeper involvement in listening than most of us want to elect, but the premise that real listening require more than just paying attention, looking the other person in the eye, and not talking needs to be considered.

I think its perfectly legitimate, even if somewhat judgmental and unfair, to conclude that you just don't have time to listen to everybody, and specifically to certain people. But you ought to try to refine your listening skill so you can interact and intersect with the people in your profession and in your life that you need to listen to.  At least learn to know when listening is important, and practice how to be a good listener beforehand.  And a good listener probably doesn't make too many judgmental pre-assumptions.  

Good luck.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Internal Team Coaching as an Alternative and a Necessity

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

Project Oxygen was an internal Goggle project which sought to identify, then replicate, the qualities of its most effective managers.

The quality that topped the list was coaching, and the study went on to identify qualities of effective coaches, including listening skills, empathy, and providing timely, specific, effective feedback in a way individualized to each employee.

Coaching is a valuable tool to help members of an organizational team develop enhanced skills and perform at a higher level. It can give recipients new tools, added confidence and greater insight to the overall operations of the organization.  Coaching can be valuable at all management levels and for staffers of all different years on the job.

Coaches aren't born to the task.  An experienced worker, with some empathy and commitment can learn the skill of coaching. In the arts we most often think of a  coach as someone external to the organization; someone who comes in without bias, unencumbered by the baggage of the organization itself, with fresh perspective, but also with meaningful experience in the field and specifically as a coach.  But it doesn't have to be an outsider.  It can work just as well coming from the inside.  And that was the point of the Goggle project:  to help managers across the organization be better coaches.  It is a mistake to think of a coach as exclusively someone not part of the organization.  The whole idea of coaching ought to be embedded in the culture of the organization, and coaching ought to be continuously going on at all levels.

Hiring an outside coach can be an expensive proposition; almost prohibitively so for smaller budget organizations.  There is grant money available in some venues, but not nearly enough to meet the demand.  Some very large organizations can afford the price. But even in the larger cultural institutions, the cost can result in only higher level managers benefiting from the experience, when it is the newer and less seasoned staff members who are most in need of the service, and who stand to most benefit from the process.  And it is a process, for superior coaching and best impacts result from the availability of ongoing coaching over time.

For these reasons, the arts need to develop and hone the coaching skills of longer tenured managers from within.  In small organizations, that's not always easy.

So, we need to consider the concept of internal team coaching, whereby several longer term staffers work together to provide coaching to less experienced members of the organization.  That would allow the coaching staff to bring multiple skills and background experiences to the task, and avoid the sometimes less optimal outcomes of the limitations of a single one to one relationship, without sacrificing any of the personal involvement.  Team coaching isn't the norm, but it can work for our field.  Even in small organizations, the concept can be viable by including board members and volunteers.

And by bringing the function in-house, the relationships with each recipient of coaching can be personalized to the organization and to the individual.  And a team approach allows for continuity in that if demands or deadlines require one of the team coaches to turn attention elsewhere, the coaching remains uninterrupted.  Coaching is a sports metaphor, and virtually nowhere in sports is there a single coach shouldering the entire coaching responsibility.

i know it seems like adding more work to an already impossibly crowded schedule is counter productive , but the end result of informed, better equipped, more motivated and confident junior staffers able to handle the workload better, more efficiently and more productively is worth it.  It makes for a better functioning team, no matter how large or how small, helps in employee recruitment and retainment, and insures the better longer term health of the organization.  Failure to have some kind of plan to help in the professional development of junior staffers is beyond short sighted.  In the long run its borderline suicidal - for the organization and for the field itself.

In-house coaching does sacrifice some of the detachment of an outsider, but an in-house team approach saves time in the process because the coaching team knows the recipient better than would an outsider - including strengths and weaknesses; and knows the organization better too.  Every approach has pros and cons.

I've been a coach, and, it seems to me,  the most important parts of the process are:

1.  Building trust in the process by reassuring the recipient that the process has as its sole objective to help build skills and the workplace relationship. It is NOT a judgmental exercise.  It is about the relationship.

2.  Identifying what the recipient wants from the process; where they think they might benefit from coaching and why.  Drilling down to specifics, many of which are simply about acquiring knowledge and not about approach, attitude or anything else.

3.  Analyzing the circumstances of the person's work performance to date to help expand their thinking in terms of what the coaching process might focus on and offer them.  Deciding on an agenda and objectives list.

4.  Identifying the person's strengths and their weaknesses, and addressing the latter in a non-threatening way - over time.

The meat of the coaching process is to work through getting the recipient to where they want to go, and to where they need to go.  Part of that process is aligning the two.

Of course there is much more to it than just those simple things. And yes it will take some time and effort for staffers unfamiliar with the coaching protocols and best practices to equip themselves to be of value as a coach, but what doesn't take a little time?  A lot can be learned from the internet.  A lot is intuitive. And if there are multiple coaches as part of a team, they can help school each other to the benefit of the recipient.

And remember, coaching is of benefit to the one doing the coaching as well as to the one being coached.  The coach learns more about those s/he works with, about themselves, and about their organization and the field.  So there is an added bonus to doing it in-house and as a team.

Like the old adage of teaching a man to fish being superior than just giving him one fish, funders might get a bigger bang for their buck if they would support efforts to teach our people to be good coaches rather than supporting hiring a coach.  If we did that for a decade we might yield a whole generation of coaches in our midst.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit