Julie Mitchell's CoachNotes



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.


Wise leaders say “thanks” in person!

Smart leaders walk the "thank you" talk, crossing the street as appropriate!

Smart leaders walk the “thank you” talk, crossing the street to connect in person!

Once upon a budget crunch in a large organization, hard-working professionals busted their butts for days, weeks, and months to reach bigger goals with fewer resources.

Raises were “out of the question.” Positions were eliminated or left vacant, as work loads and stress levels grew.

Leaders emphasized high performance expectations via vaguely threatening email messages, reminding employees that nothing less than “full commitment to achieving our goals” was acceptable.

The new “normal” included working through evenings, weekends, and even holidays. Workers were exhausted but kept going… and going… There was a recession, and many felt fortunate to have a job.

Throughout this challenging time, most employees did their jobs exceptionally well. They found ways to manage increased work loads, commiserating with co-workers about “misery loves company.”

One day, a major media outlet featured their organization, praising their leader in a front page story on “how to do more with less.” The positive press created quite a buzz in the community.

The next day, as if an afterthought, the leader sent an email to employees: “You may have seen the recent story on our work. Thanks for your important role in our success.”

Some never noticed this email among hundreds of demanding messages to work harder, faster, and better. Others wondered why the leader didn’t express gratitude face-to-face. A few expressed frustration out loud: “If I’m so ‘important,’ why wasn’t I interviewed? What about our dedication and effort?”  The “thank you” email seemed impersonal and inadequate.

Unfortunately, long time employees were not surprised: The senior executive had never stopped by their cubicles while they were at work. He had never engaged them in face-to-face conversation. His office was across the street from buildings bustling with activity, but workers felt as if they were miles away, out of sight, out of mind, unrecognized, unappreciated. Their efforts had been critical to the organization’s success. They wanted to see and hear thanks from their leader, delivered in person.

Wise leaders know it’s important to show up and make genuine connections with employees. In good times, and in bad, face time counts. It takes a few seconds to see another human being (make eye contact), acknowledge her importance, and say “thanks.” Two minutes is enough time to ask a question and show interest in what she does. Simple interactions can make a big difference.

Appreciation for workers begins at the top, with leaders modeling professional, respectful communication. Crossing the street to express gratitude in person is far more effective than a “lame email,” as one employee described it.

This story is based on real events and organizations. An earlier version was published by the author in April, 2013. Identifying details have been altered to protect the guilty. 

1 Comment

Unexpected connections: Networking and dormant ties

Unexpected ties: Fabric hanging in the Haw River, Saxapahaw, NC.

The beauty of unexpected connections: Fabric tied to a bridge over the Haw River in Saxapahaw, NC.

This month has featured fun discoveries and renewed connections. I’ve caught up with former clients. A friend I haven’t seen in years visited just in time to offer excellent professional advice. (We also shared dark chocolate, laughter, and “girl talk.”)

I spent a birthday weekend getaway enjoying the surprising sights and sounds of nearby Saxapahaw, NC, thanks to my husband (see photo). I learned about a terrific book on “give and take” by someone I knew only briefly. Yet, meeting him made a profound difference in my life!

So…  what do these events have in common, and why should you care? Let me explain.

I’ve already written about women and the heart of networking. Today, I’m recommending a male expert on networking: Adam Grant, author and Wharton School of Business Professor. He really walks his talk.

Full disclosure: Adam had a huge impact on me. We met a few years ago at the biz school in Chapel Hill. We got together a few times, during which Adam generously shared research and resources. Months later, Adam met his neighbor, Allison. He remembered my work, and urged Allison to contact me. Allison followed his advice. She became my friend, colleague, and a savvy matchmaker: Allison connected me with the guy who is now my husband! Networking and a short-term, “weak” tie with Adam eventually led me to a strong, lifelong commitment.

In one of the best articles I’ve seen on business networking, Adam notes that reaching out to “weak ties” and “dormant ties” may lead to the most rewarding outcomes. I agree wholeheartedly.

If you don’t know about Adam’s new book, Give and Take, I encourage you to take a look. Something unexpectedly good may happen if you think about his recommendations and put them into practice!

1 Comment

Networking revisited: making conference connections!


Connecting with nature. Chapel Hill, NC.

Conferences. Meetings. Conventions. Connections.

Recently I’ve been immersed in these topics, and my networking knowledge has been tested.

I’m coaching executives as they prepare for big conferences.

I’m attending a local business fair and I’m pondering invitations to major professional events.

Suddenly, instead of facilitating small groups or coaching individuals, I’m focused on what happens when lots of people gather and hope to make connections (myself included)!

This situation requires self-coaching. I dusted off notes from my long-ago networking talks and I reviewed relevant blog posts.

My conclusion? This stuff is fun! I will listen, learn and enjoy opportunities to connect. I will approach these events from a beginner’s perspective. I’ll make networking notes and observe how people communicate (or miss connections) at conferences. Perhaps I’ll discover something valuable about networking, or about myself. Stay tuned!

Leave a comment

How HR professionals can survive in a changing workplace

This post by Theresa M. Welbourne, Ph.D highlights what HR professionals should do to survive and thrive. I’ve observed how rarely HR people are viewed as respected leaders at work, despite good credentials, intentions and ideas. Welbourne advocates being a flexible, prepared problem-solver. I particularly like her suggestion that HR people find mentors outside of HR to help them navigate the workplace jungle.

Seat at the Table? Now it’s “Laws of the Jungle,” and 7 Tips for HR to Survive.


Listening, leadership and respect

When I teach listening skills in college classrooms or corporate boardrooms, I begin with doing something old-fashioned. I use chalk or a marker to write this equation in bold letters:

LISTENING = RESPECT. (Because I want to encourage listening, I write these words instead of using PowerPoint slides. More on this in another post.) Often I’m allotted only 15 minutes to speak on listening, a topic that requires a lifetime of patience and practice. Unfortunately too little time is spent on this critical interpersonal skill. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Seeking professional help? Consider relationship “chemistry.”

Do you need a consultant, coach, attorney, house cleaner, or other source of professional help? You may have better luck choosing the right person by answering questions a matchmaker might ask.  I’m currently interviewing fee-only financial planners. It’s imperative that the person I work with “feels” right, and isn’t turned off when I announce I don’t have millions to invest. Does he seem to like me, anyway? Is she enthusiastic about getting to know me? I can usually tell, within a few minutes of conversation, whether the relationship has potential, based on a feeling of attraction, or positive energy. Could it be that financial planning, coaching, consulting, and other professional partnerships are like dating? Continue reading