I’ve been on my first long distance travels for the last 2 years. I am in Montevideo, Uruguay this week teaching at IEEM Business School. I’ve been coming here for the last 12 years (last year was a virtual visit via zoom). Many of my classes this week finished with participants commenting on the importance of listening to others before jumping to conclusions. A big part of listening is learning to ask great questions.
Life is too short to figure everything out on your own.
Humans spend the years from birth to 12 learning how to survive. Our parents have a vested interest in helping us develop the Stop there: we merely survive.
We live in a highly complex society. There is intense competition for status in whatever hierarchy you compete in. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to compete or not, society and humanity are designed to compete for resources. It is not those born strong that rise to the top of status hierarchies in today’s human society. It is those who learn to use their capacities most effectively and adapt quickly to changes in the environment.
There are two ways we learn to make positive progress in this society – 1) our own experience, or 2) through the experiences of others. Our own experience is a slow and expensive way of learning.
If I am to choose to learn most effectively, through the experiences of others, I must learn the art of meaningful conversation. Through my work with Entrepreneurs’ Organisation forum and Vistage groups I have worked extensively over the last 15 years on creating the type of meaningful conversation that allows one to learn from the experiences of another.
I’m sharing 4 ideas that I took from Jordan Peterson’s book the 12 Rules for Life when I read it this year.
“Your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe”
Your knowledge is insufficient. You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of pushing opinions, convincing, oppressing, dominating or joking.
“Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”
It is necessary to respect the personal experience of your conversational partners. You must assume that they have reached careful, thoughtful, genuine conclusions (and, perhaps, they must have done the work that justifies this assumption). You must believe that if they shared their conclusions with you, you could bypass at least some of the pain of personally learning the same things (as learning from the experience of others can be quicker and much less dangerous).
It takes conversation to organise a mind
“people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds.” The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche.
“Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own”
They say Aristotle was the last man who knew everything there was to know. Since the time of Aristotle (over 2300 years ago) society has become too complex for any one individual to know all that is known.
When I was in school, I took huge value in solving from first principles. I would prefer to solve mathematic problems from first principles and avoid using formulaic recipes that allowed you to shortcut to a solution. This was symptomatic of my whole approach to life. If I hadn’t figured it out myself, I didn’t value the knowledge. There is a heroic valor to this approach, but it is dumb heroics.
This week I have been teaching at the Mid Atlantic Business School on the island of Santa Cruz de la Palma. This video shares a lesson that many participants took from the day: “Listen with Your Eyes“.
Hearing is a sense that differs from all our other senses, because it has a buffer. I am able to re-listen to the last 8 seconds of what I have recently heard. This allows me to pay little attention to what is being said, until I hear my name or a silence that indicates that someone is waiting for me to respond. We need to practice listening to a deeper level – what I call “listening with your eyes”.
Here’s a quick analysis (not scientific nor complete) of poor ways of listening. I am guilty of #1 and #2, I can enjoy #3… but I really hate #4. (#2 is my Achilles Heel).
The 4 Categories of Poor Listening
Knows it Already
Knows it Already
As you get half-way through your sentence, the Knows it Already already knows what they think you are going to say. They are now preparing their response rather than listening to the rest of your words.
Whatever you have done, they have done it… but twice as well, or twice as big or twice as impressive. You share that you went on safari last year and saw 2 elephants. They went on safari 2 years ago and saw 4 elephants, 10 lions and millions of other animals.
I give thanks to Florian Mueck for helping me recognise and reduce my tendency towards “One Upping”
Whatever you share, they will share something negative or comparative about other people who are not in the room.
Listening is a state of seeking to be changed by the other person.
Listening is less about the ears, than about a state of openness to change.
Hearing is different from all other senses in that it has a buffer, a short term memory of the last 8 seconds that we have heard. This allows us to pay little attention until we hear a word, our name or a silence and this triggers us to scan the last few seconds of audio intently. Most of the time we learn to listen with little attention.
This is a dangerous mode of listening to those whose relationships are important to us. We must learn another way of listening to people who we value and are important to us. We must “listen with our eyes”.
When someone approaches me with the challenge: “I have a really difficult time communicating with my second son”. My question: “how have you let him change you?” This is what makes a relationship – a sense that both have the capacity to affect change in the other. Where I don’t let you affect my views, you will not let me affect your views. This does not mean that we let go of rationality. This means we are open to the different priorities that another person uses to view the world.
When your friend tells you about his new mobile phone and you are about to tell him about your new mobile phone… instead “tell me more…”
When your friend tells you about the great safari holiday that she has just returned from and you are about to say “I did a safari back in 2001″… instead “tell me more…”
My friend Florian Mueck hates what he calls “The 1-Uppers”. I tell a story of running a 10k… the 1-upper says “I ran a marathon”. I tell a story of hiking for 4 days… the 1-upper says “I hiked for 6 days” I tell a story of having a blog post read by 1000 people… the 1-upper says “I had a blog post read by 10,000 people”.
What are the 3 words that managers find hardest to say?
They are possibly the 3 words that parents find hardest to say to children. They are 3 words that teachers very rarely say to their students.
They are not “You’re the Best”. They are not “I love you”. What might they be?
The 3 hardest words for a manager to say are “I don’t know.”
The need to act under the lack of full information does not give the excuse of not needed to do the work. One must do the work to examine the data that is available, to seek advice from wise counsel, to speak to others who have experience; but the analysis once done, must end. A decision must be taken by the leader.
Orchids are not Fragile
I am reading Nassim Taleb’s latest book “AntiFragile” at the moment. I received 2 gifts of this book for Christmas – I do hope it is not because I am generally seen as “fragile” and in need of some increased strength…
I remember a conversation with my friend Xavi, who runs a gardening business. We were talking about Orchids. He explained “there is a widespread idea that Orchids are difficult plants, they are fragile. This is not true. Any plant that has survived the millions of years of evolution to survive in its form today is in no way fragile. It is not suited to certain environments, but it is not fragile.”
Most complex organic systems not only survive uncertainty, chaos, disorder, time… they thrive. They grow stronger though dealing with their environments. There are forests that need fire – certain trees can only grow past a certain point if they face fire. A human muscle will atrophy if not used, it will grow stronger through being worked, through being damaged.
Modern education equates volatility with risk, equates non-standard with failing. Statisticians hate the outliers.
Nassim’s central idea is that we cannot predict risks, but we can predict a system’s capability to cope with risk. We cannot predict an earthquake, but we do know whether the 400 year old cathedral or the poorly built modern apartment block will fall first. We cannot predict a financial crisis, but we can predict which bank will fail first. We cannot predict loss of employment, but we can see which human will come back strong the fastest.
Leading in the Real World
The real world has surprises. Hemmingway said that the “true” parts of his stories were the most un-believable. Fiction is never as crazy as reality.
There are 3 things a good leader must learn to be able to do:
Act under Uncertainty
Take the Painful Decisions
Own the Decision
Acting Under Uncertainty
I teach a class towards the end of the course on the MBA program where my objective is to create uncertainty. As the students give their answers, I give no expression, neither verbal nor non-verbal as to whether I agree with their answer. This creates tension in the class. The students are used to a class where they say their answer and the professor either writes it up on the board or grimaces. If the professor writes it up, I got the answer right. If the professor grimaces, I change my answer until I get a nod and a note on the board.
I believe education from “The All-Knowing Professor” creates a dangerous tendency for future leaders. In the real decisions of life, there is nobody there to nod their head, nor to say “no” or “incorrect”. There are many people making lots of noise, and the leader needs to commit to their course of action without achieving 100% consensus, or 100% of the information that could prove the course of action. Leaders must be able to do enough work to be fairly sure they have a good course of action, and then commit to that course of action; and get others to commit.
If MBAs are learning always to wait for someone else to give then certainty, then they are not learning to lead. We need to ensure that tomorrows leaders are getting practice in the world of uncertainty. They are getting practice at having to move forward without all the information.
Taking the Painful Decisions
Odysseus must choose between definitely losing a few of his men by passing closer to Scylla, or possibly losing all of his men passing nearer to Charybdis, the whirlpool. There was no “good” alternative. MBA cases, video games, TV series tend to allow the hero to find a “good” outcome. They allow the business to survive with nobody losing their job. They allow the main character to finish the journey and get back to a comfortable life. If you have a good option and a bad option, this is not a decision. It is obvious. A leadership decision is always between 2 bad options.
Many of school’s choices are between a good and a bad outcome. Most of life’s choices are between two bad outcomes.
Own the Decision
When I was young, 12 or 13 years old, I was once caddying for my father. We were at a par 3 and we discussed what club to hit. I suggested a 7 iron. He thought it was not enough, but after a pause, took the 7 iron anyway. He had a look at the green, the flag. He took a few practice swings. He stood up to the ball. He swung the club making good contact with the ball. It soared up and was in line with the pin. It hung in the air for 2, 3 seconds… and then dropped… 15 meters short, landing in the sandy bunker.
He made a pained grunt and as he returned the club to me I said “sorry, I gave you the wrong club”. He said, “No, you are the caddy, but I am the golfer. I chose wrong.” At the time I remember feeling bad. I felt that I wasn’t “respected” by him, that he didn’t treat my advice as serious advice. Now I think that he acted then as he has always acted. He owned the decision. I gave advice, but at no point did it become my “fault”. He owns his decisions, whether in golf, in business or in life.
Learning to take responsibility for the choice, where it is the leader themselves who must choose, is a challenge. It takes psychological maturity to own a decision that cannot necessarily be justified with the data. It takes psychological strength to deal with the slings and blows of others who have not had to take the decision. Leadership is solitary. Any education of leaders must help the leader find the mental strength necessary to be alone.
Being alone and being lonely are different. Alone is a choice. Lonely is the desire to have someone else to take away the burden.
A good leader has mentors, friends, advisors… but when the decision comes, it is they and they alone who are responsible.
Increasing your Question to Answer ratio
In an uncertain world, the art of “Muddling Through” is of greater importance than the art of long-term strategic planning. Dealing with the chaos requires accepting the chaos, and then taking quick steps to understand the map, the compass. In management life, giving answers shrinks our understanding; asking questions increases our understanding, our capacity to adapt.
How many of your statements are answers and how many are questions?
The person asking the questions is in control of the conversation. It is hard to remain open to other’s ideas. It is hard to stop saying what it is that I want to say, and giving the other what it is that they need to hear.
The Best Questions…
The best Leadership Question: “What is the next right thing to do?”
The best Teaching Question: “What do you think? What other options do you see?”
The best Coaching Question: “You have achieved what you set out to accomplish. Imagine yourself there. What does it feel like?”
The best Friendship Question: “How are you?”
The best Parenting Question: “What was the best moment of your day?”
The best Sales Question: “(I understand that price is important.) What other criteria are important in making this decision?” (The implicit question: “What are you comparing this to?”)
You finish your pitch and the customer says: “Your product is too expensive!”. You arrive home, you’re a few minutes late: your partner says “You are always late!”. At a dirty plate left on the table: “you never wash the dishes!”
What do you say in this moment?
How do you handle objections? It is possible to take proactive control of your emotional state. You can practice a habit of not reacting like a viper snake or a cornered bear. It will improve how you sell, it will improve how you manage… and it will improve the quality of your relationships.
I posted a short video yesterday to my YouTube Channel explaining a concept that I teach in my class on persuasion: “Aikido Conversation”.
From: “What I want to say”
The most important step in persuasion is being able to leave behind “what I want to say” and move to what “they need to hear”. It requires emotional control that we don’t have as standard.
To: “They need to hear”
When someone gives you an objection, or accuses you of something – the real issue is underneath, not at the surface. If you react with what “I want to say” you will have a fight, you will lose the opportunity to understand what is really at issue.
You finish your pitch and the customer says: “It’s quite expensive”… “Your product is too expensive!”
You arrive home, you’re a few minutes late: your partner says “You are always late”
At a dirty plate left on the table: “you never wash the dishes”
What do you say in this moment?
Most of you, and myself included, went through 14 years of school where we were taught one way to respond to questions:
Teacher asks questions “how do you spell cat?”
Student: “C A T”
Teacher: “what is the biological process called osmosis?”
Student puts hand up explains in detail the process through which cell membranes allow water to go from one side to the other.
So for 14 years you’ve been taught that you provided an answer to a question. If you went to university you probably had another 3,4 years where you gave answers to questions… but in real life, in persuasion in getting to what the other person is really about, what their needs really are the worst thing you can do is give an answer to question. If someone says “your product is too expensive” and you said “no it’s not! it’s only €1000” you’ve lost every chance to understand what else is behind their reasoning.
If you get home and your partner says “you’re always late!”
“No no no! Tuesday I definitely was here on time”… you’re gonna have a crap weekend
You’ve had 14, if not 18 years of training that you answer questions and it’s going to cause fights in your home life, it’s going to cause problems at work, it means you’re not selling anything.
Because when someone says your product is too expensive, that’s not what their real issue is. When someone says “I will have to speak to my boss” that’s not what their real issue is.
If we had lots of time here I would create a little role-play thing because what happens here in our model of the human brain: the stem, emotion
When your partner says “you’re always late” emotion goes up and what happens is this part disconnects. The way to make someone stupider is insult them, object to them tell them they are wrong. When asked a question there’s an emotional reaction.
Emotion up, Intelligence down
and the higher emotion goes
the lower thinking goes
so if you don’t practice this response you’re not going be able to do it in the moment. if you don’t practice repeatedly how you’ll respond to
“you’re always late!”,
“you never wash the dishes!”,
“you never do your part of the share!”
“your product is too expensive!”,
“your competitor is better!”,
“you failed us 3 years ago!”
“I don’t trust your company!”
if you don’t practice this habit of not giving an answer. You’re not going to be able to do it in the heat of the moment.
So i would say this: when you are asked a question or given an objection what I want you to do is say “I understand”, and repeat in your words what they’re saying:
Them: “your product is too expensive!”
You: “I understand that money is an important factor for you, What other criteria will be used in taking this decision?”
You understand… and you give an open question back. I call this “Conversation Aikido”
Martial Arts are about using the energy, the force of the opponent against them. In Judo, if someone punches you pull their arm and you allow the energy to keep flowing. In Karate… don’t be where the energy is arriving. In Aikido the concept is you go towards the punch, go towards the energy
If someone punches you, if someone asks you a question, if someone objects or says you’re wrong: The Aikido method is go towards and see the world from their view.
In Aikido you learn to go towards the punch, dodge it, and look and you are seeing the world in the same direction as the person who’s attacking you.
It takes some habit to start to be able to give “I understand” and fill in good words so practicing
“you’re always late!”…
“I understand you feel frustrated”
“I understand you feel let down”
You will have to work on this quite a few times over the next 10 years to find the set of words that captures what the other person feels, what’s behind it
“What can we do now?”
“What happened during the day?”,
“What would you like to talk about?”,
“What can we do this weekend?”
so that is the way that instead of when you get punched, walking straight into the punch, having a very bad weekend; when a client says “you’re too expensive!” and you say “No we are not!”: You learn nothing:
about who else they are considering
what other criteria are important
what process they have gone through
who else is involved in the decision
I hope that, and this takes 14 years of it being drummed into you… 4 more, 18 if you went to university. It’s gonna take you at least 18 years to get out of the habit of responding to questions with answers
We live in an uncertain world and we don’t have the answers but by giving the answer we shut down the possibility of hearing what’s really going on in the other person’s mind, in the other person’s business, what other things are going on; so if someone says:
“your product is too expensive” -> “I understand that money is an important criteria for you what other things are important in this decision?”
“I’ll have to talk to my boss in this” -> “Hey, this is an important decision I understand you want to get everyone involved” “When can I come and meet with you and your boss together?”
…that’s a bit of a closed question…
but the habit here is being good at “I understand” and accepting the energy that is coming from the other person and then giving back an open question
and I guarantee that if you do it 4 times: the answer to your 4th open question begins to be what’s the real underlying need issue, interest of the person that you’re listening to.
How do I become a better listener? Become aware of what level you are listening at.
There are 5 levels of listening:
hearing the noise, waiting for silence
hearing the words, preparing my response
hearing the meaning from my point of view
hearing the emotion, meaning and point of view of the other person.
Level 5 requires complete attention and is very tiring. It is not necessary that you always listen at this level.
There are times my daughter is talking and she just needs to know that I am here in the room with her. There are other moments when she is sharing something important that has happened and will benefit from level 5 listening.
It is too tiring to always listen at level 5.
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