Are You Ferocious?

I had a game I used to play with the best dog in the history of the universe.

Her name was Ellie, short for Ellijay, where we had our cabin on a whitewater trout stream at the bend in the river. Legend has it that Cherokee Chief White Path had his home there. I always got a deep spiritual vibe in those woods, sensing a sense of connection. The high concentration of black bears and the copperheads sunning on the rocks reminded me that I was a guest, however, and to be mindful.

My kids thought Ellie was a perfect name. She loved the river, but not as much as her predecessor, Judson, who I named for my bishop. I confess it was fun telling Judson to sit, hush, and roll over. I am easily amused.

Both Judson and Ellie were Black Labrador Retrievers. Judson came from the nationally famed Cadillac Mac, a great duck hunting dog. Ellie, not so much. But what she was missing in duck prowess, she more than made up for it in her personality.

She was small as Labs go, only 64 pounds, a lean machine that did not have the more blocky head of English stock. Her personality was amazing. She developed a habit of coming to my desk as I was typing at 10:14 in the morning, putting her cold nose on my elbow, prompting me to give her the obligatory morning treat.

We had a peculiar ritual that we would enact every day. She would bring me her object of choice, sit in front of me, and stare. If you have had a Lab, or for that matter, any dog, you know that “stare”. Those eyes. Looking into your soul.

Our litany went like this:

I would ask: Are you ferocious?

Ellie’s response: Shake her head from side to side, with object clutched in her Lab mouth. Her voice made a ferocious sound, hence the rhetorical question.

Repeat sequence……forever. And I mean forever.

I told you this story 1) because it brings Ellie back to my mind, if only for a precious moment, but 2) I wanted to introduce the word “ferocious” to you, this time in the context of listening. Think of Ellie when you call to mind “ferocious listening”, that is, attending to others with a playful intensity.

Listening is probably the second most important habit I encourage the leaders I coach to practice.

The first is self-awareness. “Know your self”, is the ancient line of wisdom, repeated through the ages. Know your gifts and your burdens, your talents and liabilities, or as been talked about in modern management theory of a SWOT analysis, your strengths and weaknesses. For me, it is THE starting point for good leadership, not to mention being a good person, a loving partner and responsible citizen. Self-awareness is the foundation on which emotional intelligence builds.

But listening is close second. In fact, the guy who trained me in consulting taught me that the answer to what is wrong with all companies, corporations, congregations, or groups is usually communication. There will be other dynamics that are dysfunctional but you can count on communication as being an issue. And I have found him to be right on the money. It’s why I am passing it along to you, as well as telling you about a great dog, who deserves her day!

When it comes to the listening dimension of communication, it really revolves around attending intensely, old fashioned AI. Attending Intensely. Listening ferociously..

There’s a lot to this thing called listening, in fact, my friends, colleagues, and mentors, Charlie Palmgren and Mike Murray, have it as the key piece to the process of what they call Creative Interchange. It’s a process by which we are able to listen to one another, and wrestle the blessing of creativity that comes from engaging with other human forms known colloquially as people. I’ll tell you all about that process on another day, after they have died, so I can say it was my idea. It won’t be long. But for now, listening is the point.

I want to offer seven, SEVEN, that’s right, seven points for improving your listening skills. Not six, not eight. Covey chose seven, so why not.

One: ASSESS. It’s always a good starting point to be honest with yourself about how you are as a listener. It follows my valuing of self-awareness. So ask yourself, am I a good listener? What makes me a good listener? How might I improve? That’s a good starting point but it gets even better when you get others to tell you how they see your listening skills. We do this with executives in a 360 degree survey with those they interact with, to give us an honest assessment as to where they are doing well, and where they need improvement. Your spouse or partner is another good source of feedback, but it can be dangerous, so approach with caution.

Let me add specifically in this time of crisis in our country, to assess how your specific perspectives enhance and limit your view of reality. We all are gifted with a specific pair of “glasses” by which we see the world. You need to be clear about how your special set of lenses enhance certain things while blocking your view of other things. In terms of race, we are being reminded that how we see the world will be influenced by our experience in our specific area. I can learn more about my limited perspective by talking with folks of other backgrounds. And the key, as I was telling my son asking me the other day about the race issue, is to ask folks different from you about how they see life. But then, the most important part is to be quiet and listen….listen ferociously.

Two: SHIFT. When you are about to move from one activity to a time of listening, think literally “shift”. Say it in your mind to yourself to give your brain a chance to throttle back to get ready to do something different. For the longest time, I had people use the term multi-tasking. It’s a lie. Our greatest gift and skill is focus. We can shift the focus to a variety of things, but we are not good at doing three different things at the same time. Those of you who are COVID initiates into Zoom (there will be T shirts) know all too well about this lesson in attention. If I am at my desk and someone approaches. I physically shift to make myself present to the other. It is a mental prompt to make a change in the brain so that you can now engage. You have shifted to the mode of engagement. Shift to ferocious listening mode.

Three: FRAME. I find it helpful if I can get the person that is speaking to me to frame what it is he/she is wanting to talk about. I can simply ask broadly what is it that we are talking about, or even more helpfully if the person can tell me that they are wanting to share information, get my opinion, or need a decision. Once the question is framed, it allows me to listen with that in mind. This is a very effective tool.

Four: MINDFUL. In my world, I can get distracted so I use tricks to re-mind myself as to how I need to focus my attention. With people that I coach, I often encourage them to use Post Its to be in front of them to keep them clear as to their goal. One CEO in particular discovered through the ASSESS process that he had a tendency to interrupt, often finishing the sentences of others so to move the conversation on. He thought he was being helpful, but his coworkers gave him important feedback that it was not. I suggested a post with the word “Hush!” on it, to be attached to his coffee mug in meetings. He opted for a mug that was red that said stop….he smiled, saying it was his secret! It re-minds him to listen ferociously.

Five: CLARIFY. Mike and Charlie are big fans of rehearse what it is you think you heard in order to clarify what is being communicated and to make sure you got it right. This is amazingly helpful if you can progress from the mechanical “What I heard you saying is…..” to a more casual restatement, saying I just want to check and make sure that I heard your correctly. Clarification gives the other person the sense that you are indeed listening, well enough to want to make sure you get the full value of their perspective. It implicitly signals that you care.

Six: TRAIN. Think of yourself in a process of development as a listener. Your intent, like learning to play a musical instrument, is to get better at listening. Pause in the beginning of the day to prompt yourself to become a better listener by intent. Pause at various points to mentally note the fact that you are engaging in listening. Pause to ask yourself how are you doing.

Seven: PROMOTE. As a leader who has either a team of people or fellows who are on a team, you can create as culture of listening by encouraging others. The best way is to share with others your struggle and goals to be a better listener. On teams, a leader can prompt others by asking members what did they hear today in the meeting, both in terms of information and in terms of feeling. In healthcare, we began using “rounding” as a means for executives to go around on the floor, asking questions, and listening to what the staff has to say about concerns and celebrations. This promotes a culture where we are furious listeners to the people we are engaged with. This is doubly effective in terms of patient satisfaction. Listening to patients, about their lives, their concerns, as well as clinical cues, is never a wasted moment.

I am stopping at SEVEN though I could go on. Put the seven in your day planner, your calendar, or on your desk. Review it often to get it in your heart, mind, and soul. Make a commitment to become a furious listener in the next month. Review your progress, adjust, and then recommit. Make a commitment at the beginning of this Summer (it is Summer, right?), that by Fall, you will be well on your way to being a Ferocious Listener!

Now, time to PAUSE.

Shift to FOCUS.

Imaging Ellie, my gorgeous Black Lab staring at you intensely, but playfully, invitingly.

Are you ferocious?

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