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

Respectful Communication at Work: Beware of Rude Bosses!

Good bosses care!

Do you have good thoughts about your boss?

This week I’ve heard sad tales of mean, nasty leaders at work. Disrespectful managers tend to be clueless and/or uncaring about the consequences of their bad behavior.

For instance, a group of savvy investors in my community chose not to buy stock in a growing company because of widespread stories about bullying bosses who shame and blame hard-working employees. A friend advised her sought-after son not to apply at this organization.

While they are “desperate” to hire new workers — in part to replace those who quit after being treated poorly — people in the know are staying away, opting to work for a competitor instead.

Too often, I’ve observed CEOs and other leaders who seem to advocate (or willfully ignore) low morale, high turnover, and other signs that might cause alarm among more enlightened bosses.

Here’s a good article about bad bosses and rude role models, courtesy of Harvard Business Review. It’s challenging to be respectful and caring in toxic organizational cultures filled with rudeness and overwhelming demands. Respectful communication matters, and it starts at the top.


Turning over a new leaf: Respectful communication begins within

A new leaf.

Saturday was my birthday. The weather, an unexpected gift, featured clear skies, gentle breezes, highs in the 70s and low humidity (unusual for June in central North Carolina). My daily walk was on familiar neighborhood ground, yet everything looked different through my birthday eyes. I was eager to turn over a new leaf!

I’m hooked on fresh starts: January 1st, “back to school” time, birthdays… any calendar-related excuse to begin again. I can’t resist identifying the next challenge or thinking about what I might change. For me, life is about tangible growth and progress. (Perhaps that’s why I’m hooked on walks, too!)

Beginning times energize and inspire me; they also invite me to assess where I’ve been. If I’m not careful, instead of noting what I’ve accomplished, I focus on the inevitable imperfections, enumerating them in excruciating detail. I fall into a negative pattern, berating myself for projects undone, how I’ve failed, vowing to “get it right” next time. Yuck. Suddenly I’m demoralized instead of energized.

During my birthday walk, I affirmed my intention to communicate with respect. I remembered it begins with how I talk to myself. I acknowledged how I have messed up, but I was gentle, and less judgmental. It wasn’t easy, but I coached myself as I would with a client, inviting myself to consider the goals I have reached… even celebrating them (for instance, completing 53 “girl push-ups” on my 53rd birthday, when I was barely able to do ten push-ups five months ago)!

Three and a half years ago, I wrote about walking into new territory, relocating, and orienting to unfamiliar places.  What about altering the way I think and talk to myself? This is the birthday gift I hope to claim, one imperfect step at a time. Respectful communication begins with honest self-assessment of failures, successes, and everything in between. It’s all part of life’s wild and wonderful walk.


Beware the shifting, slippery ground of “truth”

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. I’m wary of people too confident about being right, certain of their “one and only” path to addressing complicated issues. I’m dismayed about political discourse and the apparent attachment so many citizens have to electing leaders who are unwilling or unable to speak truthfully about the slippery nature of “truth.”

Sometimes I’m reminded of what I believed several years ago, well into my adulthood, and I cringe. How could I have believed such a thing? (All too easily, I’m afraid.) Fortunately, my unshakeable resolve to learn from experiences has broadened my perspective.

I did not always welcome the eye-opening circumstances through which I was forced to confront “truths” I took for granted. It’s uncomfortable to be exposed, to fall flat into a falsehood, to get up again and to say “I was wrong.” This admission may be especially difficult for those born in privilege, as I was. I’m grateful for the mind-changing opportunities I’ve had. To paraphrase one of the most popular hymns ever written: I was blind, but now I see. Continue reading

1 Comment

I intend to practice respectful communication

January blooms in Chapel Hill.

It’s not too late for a new year intention: in 2012 I will do my best to talk mindfully, use “right speech” and practice respectful communication. It may be especially challenging to communicate with courtesy, clarity and compassion this year. I’m already full of righteous indignation about the glut of impolite, inaccurate, hateful speech. (It’s another nasty political campaign season in the United States… need I explain more?)

I don’t expect many examples of respectful communication about — or among — the politicians. Lies, spin, and every form of manipulative communication known to humanity will be on full display. This makes me more determined to be careful, to think before I open my mouth and to engage those with whom I disagree in a spirit of understanding.

Courtesy. Clarity. Compassion. We recognize and appreciate respectful communication when we hear it. Unfortunately, rude remarks seem to be more popular. As I take on the respectful communication challenge I know I will make mistakes. I hope I’ll learn something, too.


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