Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes

ACHIEVE YOUR VISION . . . ONE STEP AT A TIME.


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Mindful listening: Know where you’re going

A recent unscientific poll of friends who responded to my Facebook request confirms what hasn’t changed since I started teaching communication in 1982: Listening is the interpersonal skill they’d most like to learn, relearn, or practice.

Good listeners are intentional about the conversation's destination. Know where you're going!

Good listeners are aware of multiple conversational paths and choices on the complex journey to understanding. Know where you’re going, expect detours, and be willing to change direction. (Photo location: Door County, Wisconsin.)

For years, my listening skills programs attracted the most clients. Most course participants appeared to be attentive, or perhaps they were simply being polite. They were not attached to electronic gadgets as I was speaking, although there were other distractions. Today, I’m amazed at the lack of eye contact in classrooms and across dinner tables. I’m as guilty as anyone, often gazing at my iPhone or laptop.

Didn’t I used to look at faces more often (or respond to voices on the phone)? In 2015, I love how we can “connect” with anyone, any time, but it may be more difficult than ever to listen and connect in deeper ways.

It has never been easy for many (or most) of us to hear, understand or receive information from others, especially when we anticipate or focus on differences. Yet we must listen to learn, love, live and work well with diverse people. In an increasingly cluttered, noisy world of information overload, it’s important to acknowledge internal and external barriers to listening. It’s hard work!

Every ping, tweet, to-do and distraction interrupts or attracts, competing with another human being requesting attention. It takes time, patience and energy to be present for someone who may not speak quickly, clearly, or cleverly enough to suit us.

When it really counts, and in helping professions or roles (counseling, teaching, health care, ministry, parenting) we want to listen with compassion and empathy. While our hearts may be in the right place, we struggle to slow down minds racing in many directions. Fortunately, we prevail, because we know listening matters. We mess up, and we try again.

So what have I learned in decades of study and practice? Theory and research has informed my listening knowledge, but humbling experiences, more than anything, have deepened my understanding of the perpetually perplexing question: Why is it so challenging to connect with one another?

My intention is to share what I’ve found helpful and to offer reassurance if you’re lacking as a listener (welcome to the club). I’d like fellow intrepid communicators to know they’re not alone.

Here’s a short list of guidance for the challenging listening journey:

  • Any listening advice may work with some people, some of the time. There are no guarantees, and the best communicators explore multiple paths to understanding.
  • Listening skills develop through self awareness, vulnerability, courage and challenging (even painful) learning experiences. Seek and reflect on feedback from trustworthy sources if you want to know how you’re perceived as a listener.
  • There is no shortcut to effective listening. A well-meaning soul, course, or book promising to “transform your communication” through “mastering conversations” or a few simple tips is likely to disappoint. The road to better listening features lots of trial, error, reflection and practice (unless you are a rare, fortunate, saint-like being who can bypass life’s potholes)!
  • Accomplished listeners stumble at times, and many “experts,” including communication scholars charged with training graduate students, are poor listeners, although they should know better. I’m a skillful, deep listener in my professional life, but ask loved ones about my meandering speaking style, or tendency to interrupt and finish their sentences, and you’ll hear about how I may improve!
  • To practice mindful listening, take a deep breath… pause… and consider your intention. What options are available here and now? In what direction would you like the conversation to go? Be present, instead of pondering the past or worrying about the future. Advice about safely crossing a street applies to your encounter: STOP (what you were doing or thinking), LOOK (at the speaker, focusing on the immediate situation) and LISTEN.
  • You can’t control what or how another communicates, but you can decide how to interpret or respond. Also, you may choose how much listening time and energy is appropriate in this moment, with this person. It’s unrealistic and exhausting to listen deeply all the time. Sometimes, surface level “hearing” is sufficient.

Want to know more? I will offer a course in the Research Triangle, North Carolina area soon, and I’m available to anyone, anywhere for coaching, customized training, or consultation. I welcome your questions and comments.


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March Forward: Walk at work!

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Walk at work this Spring. Ideas, productivity, and energy will blossom!

Hooray for Vernal Equinox, new moon, and eclipse day. Spring forward (or, as a drill sergeant might say, “Forward, March)!

It’s an ideal time to make your move at work, improving health, fitness and productivity. Take a walk and discover what innovative thinkers have known for centuries.

Spring walks blossom with possibilities. Going outdoors is a breath of fresh air, a Spring-cleaning for stale, stuffy ideas and sticky work situations. Walking in nature stimulates creative thinking and opens minds that may be closed (bored, distracted, or tired) within confined cubicles or conference rooms.

Workers who walk return to their offices (customers, patients, clients, students, machines, or devices) inspired and energized. I’ve witnessed this countless times. Research underscores multiple benefits of workplace walking.

As winter fades, I invite you to explore a wooded trail or park convenient to work (or trek around the parking lot). Try it on your own, or invite a colleague. See what happens.

Hate walking? Have outdoor allergies? Consider a brief workplace “change of venue” as an alternative way to get moving on a project (an open, inspiring, light-filled space — such as a museum or indoor botanical garden — may do the trick).

Want to learn more about taking your work for a walk? Contact me for a free phone consultation.


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Personality tests at work: Beware of dumb decisions!

Want to avoid dumb hiring decisions? Slow down and learn to read personality test signs.

Want to avoid dumb hiring decisions? Slow down. Read personality tests carefully.

A front-page Wall Street Journal article on workplace personality testing inspired today’s post. I’ve been fascinated by this topic since my first MBTI assessment, in the early 1980s.

As a big fan of learning and growth through self-awareness, I love tools designed to reveal strengths and talents! I’m also a skeptic, wary of how people jump to conclusions about test results. Today’s WSJ article addresses problems with assessments used for hiring.

In service of better hiring decisions (and an excuse for using my photo, because I found the “dumb dogs” sign irresistible), I’ll share random thoughts on intelligent and dumb usage of personality tests. Continue reading


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Power failure: More learning in the dark.

Another dark room, reminding me of the only (natural) light this morning during a power failure.

Another dark room, reminding me to appreciate light during power failure.

Today, I imagined, I would hit the ground running. After being out of town and out of touch, I was itching to reconnect.

 

Motivated with Monday Morning Mojo, I would guzzle my husband’s excellent, dark roast coffee! I would read something inspirational! I would catch up on email! I would blog! I would sort the pesky pile of papers and unopened mail! I would conquer self-doubt and sleepiness!

 

Instead, we had an inexplicable power failure. Outdoors, it was cloudy, but not stormy or windy. Why today, of all days? I lost a few moments to crankiness, but caught myself: Perhaps this was a good thing. Continue reading


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Learning in the dark: Grief, loss, and other taxing teachers

Old schoolhouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A dark one-room schoolhouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (TN).

This is my first blog from the dark. I feel like I’m sitting still, stuck at the barely visible desk in my photo, aware of sunlight and vast space outside, but not ready to move from my quiet, sheltered spot. How does one learn alone in the dark? I’m figuring it out. It helps to be near a window.

Normally, when I write in this public space, topics come to me from the outdoors. I’m on my feet, walking and then sharing information from a light, energetic, positive perspective. Not today. My feet are tucked under me on the sofa. I’m feeling vulnerable. I’ve been moving slowly (or not moving at all), working through disruption and despair.

My beloved father — a healthy, active, eternally optimistic, youthful 78-year-old — fell suddenly on February 27 while taking a walk. He was diagnosed with a fatal, fast-growing brain tumor in late March, declined with stunning speed after having a stroke, and died on April 15, tax day in the US. Benjamin Franklin wrote “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” These inevitable events will be linked in my mind forever. Continue reading

Get moving! Evidence for walking on campus (and elsewhere)

Photo from a walk at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Photo from a walk at the University of Michigan.

This article (link above) affirms what I’ve observed in my neck of the woods (at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, specifically): Smart, creative scholars leave their desks and walk for inspiration or problem-solving. Professors-on-the-move tend to be more lean, fit and healthy, too! After years of working on campuses, I’ve noticed many professors sit at their desks all day and seem to live in their heads, with little interest in the mind-body connection…


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A Monday morning walk and positive self-talk…

Julie Mitchell:

It’s Monday morning and I found my walking motivation from this 2009 post. Hooray for self coaching. :-)

Originally posted on Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes:

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“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”

–  Thoreau

This morning was alarming. The clock radio jolted me awake at 5:10, in the middle of a dream. I was out the door at 5:35, stepping into fog and the sticky central North Carolina air. I woke with grim determination to start the week on a positive note, practicing what I preach to my clients. (I’m lousy at coaching myself, because I ignore most of my advice.)

Like Thoreau, I am disturbed when parts of me are missing during a walk, or during other endeavors. However, during summer slug season in the South, I’m doing well just to get my body moving through the neighborhood. If mind and spirit are elsewhere, perhaps they don’t feel like walking! Nevertheless, today — the beginning of a challenging work week…

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