Finding our true colours

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A participant on our recent 30-day Listening to Liberate Challenge asked me the question: “How would I describe the three primary colours of listening?” His question sparked my thinking about the fundamentals of listening – which three basic components make the most difference? Which have the biggest positive impact on the person we are listening to?

What do you think? How do you respond to this profound question? Here I offer you my own thoughts.

So much is bound up in the term ‘listening’. It captures a colourful spectrum of behaviours, bounced through the kaleidoscope of our beliefs and mindsets. Our training courses offer us different listening skills – dos and don’ts, tools and techniques. Our everyday lives give us the intense experiences of being listened to well, badly and not at all. We know that listening is fundamental to the health of all our relationships. And yet we give little thought or scrutiny to what it means to listen really well.

The core of my work as a coach and teacher is to offer generative listening – listening with the purpose to liberate others’ thinking and keep them thinking for themselves. What does this mean? What are the basic building blocks of generative listening? What are its primary colours?

  • I see red as giving your attention, free from interruption and judgement.
  • I see yellow as being at ease, free from internal rush and urgency, free from the desire to provide a solution, analyse or diagnose.
  • I see blue as asking open questions, ones that allow others to think for themselves as themselves, rather than those that lead their thinking and become dependent upon us.

This small but stunning palette is all we need, along with the commitment to practise our brush strokes and keep our colours clean. We know what happens when our paint gets muddy:

  • We listen with judgement and risk refuting what we hear, even though our intentions may be good.
  • We listen to solve and risk ignoring the thinker’s resources and insights.
  • We listen through our own view of the world, rather than the thinker’s perception.

We know now, more than ever, the part that listening plays in our everyday lives. With these three colours we place the brushes in the thinker’s hands. Listening in this way can liberate them to paint the big picture, share their understanding, forge connections, create better outcomes, find courage, build trust.

Keeping our colours clean

The palette may be simple. But listening to generate others’ thinking has never been easy. It demands the best from us, as the listener, at every level of our being. And it demands time and patience, two basic commodities that have become more rare as our work and family lives have become more pressured.

More than ever, we need to make conscious choices to ignore the distractions that steal time and patience from us. The grab on our attention every time our phone pings. The disruption of our evening ease when a suppertime email lands. The pressure to suggest a quick fix when a team problem seems urgent.

And yet, as we move into another phase of living and working through the pandemic, I meet many leaders who are deeply aware of the value of generative listening. How else can they attend to the very different needs and expectations of their team members? How else can they help them serve customers with agility and creativity? How else can they encourage healthy working relationships, online and face-to-face?

Practising our brush strokes

To bring these colours to life, I’d like to share a recent conversation with George (not his real name).

Our conversation began with an invitation. I asked George to reflect on what had been working well since we last met. And there was much to celebrate in his own growth as a leader, his team’s accomplishments, and the sense of gratitude he felt within.

Giving my undivided attention meant that George could continue his reflections, free from interruption and judgement. He spoke about his team, his objectives and his vision. As I listened, I noticed George’s sense of accountability for himself and his team. I witnessed his commitment, his conscientiousness and his desire to generate high performance in others in service of their organisation. I wondered where his thinking might go next. And he began to reveal a discomfort in what he observed in his team members. They were not feeling great. Overwhelmed, stretched and anxious were the words he used. And he wanted to change that.

I noticed the time. George had been sharing his thoughts and feelings for 30 minutes. In that moment, I recognised I felt less at ease, distracted by my own thoughts about what changes he’d like to make, and who he was being as a leader. I wondered what more he’d like to accomplish in our time together. So I took a deep, quiet breath, my feet firmly planted on the floor, and stilled my mind once more to give my full attention to George and his thinking. In a natural pause, I simply asked what more he would like to accomplish in our remaining time together. George discovered some significant insights and a way forward for himself. And he posed a question of his own.

George asked how he might engage his team more effectively. With a few open questions to ignite his own thinking I invited George to reflect:

Who are you being as a leader?

“I am setting quite a pace, I am scrutinising, I have high expectations, I am opinionated.”

What do you notice in your being and how your team are feeling?

“That’s it, I am creating the climate. And it’s not the right climate. I need to reset who I am being as a leader.”

What climate do you want for your team members?

“One where they feel safe, understand the context, remain motivated, feel less anxious, have realistic expectations.”

What shift could you make for yourself to reset as a leader?

“To stop holding back on my empathy. I want to inspire them. And I want them to feel safe. That’s it. I have held back on my usual empathy as we sought to accomplish our objectives.”

What question would you like to know the answer to from your team?

“How can I be a more inspiring leader for you?”

George committed to ask this question at his next team meeting. And our conversation ended with an appreciation of the quality I witnessed in him through my listening.

Placing the brushes in the thinker’s hands

The participant from our 30-Day listening to liberate challenge profound question, and the heartfelt reflections George ignited with his own question, have intensified these primary colours of generative listening for me. We can offer so much with this small palette. We can liberate resource and insight in others far beyond what we can paint for them ourselves. So I invite you to discover, as a leader a coach or as a parent where you might begin your journey to deepening your listening with three primary colours.

Thanks for listening!

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Photo: Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

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