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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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 stuck at the barely visible desk in my photo. I’m aware of sunlight and vast space outside, yet not ready to move from the sheltered schoolroom.

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 sharing insights from a 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 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 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


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Creating leaders? Use a flexible, diverse toolkit!

“If the only tool you have is a hammer…” (Quote by Abraham Maslow, photo by M. Rosamond)

Imagine this: You plan to remodel your office, update your home, or need an emergency roof repair.

Would you hire a contractor who only had a hammer? What if he had invented a super hammer, suitable for all shingles? What if she is the best-selling Book of Hammers author with a PhD in Malletology who promises never-seen-before nail-pounding productivity?

Any takers?

I’m being silly to make a point: Sometimes, a hammer hits the nail on the head, but other situations call for specialty tools. Master builders rely on more than a hammer to tackle complicated projects.

Why shouldn’t it be the same for consultants, coaches, human resources professionals and others claiming mastery in leadership development or talent management?

Often, organizations pound away at every “growth opportunity” with the same blunt instrument. They may be attached to a “proprietary, transformational” tool in which they have invested big bucks. Or they’ve contracted with one executive coach for years, without offering choices to leaders who may have different learning styles.

Equally often, service providers (consultants, coaches, training or talent development firms) rely too heavily on the model they learned or invented. If they are certified in a method, or licensed to sell an assessment, they may not be open to different or complementary approaches.

I’ve had significant experience with widely used psychometric profiles, assessments, models, certification programs, leadership theories, and the like. Some are very helpful in specific situations. Others are outdated, poorly designed, or reflect their authors’ lack of real-world understanding.

When asked about my model or process, here’s my reply: I use more than one! I have favorites, and like an accomplished woodworker, I know which chisel is most likely to carve out the desired result. Yet I’m always curious about gizmos and gadgets that might make me better at my craft.

It’s my business to learn about promising new tools, and it’s my responsibility to use discernment about the “latest and greatest” trends (they may over-promise and under-deliver). Also, it’s important to recognize when dull, rusty implements must be sharpened, replaced, or supplemented.

I advocate exploring options and making a wise choice for best fit. The process begins with common sense questions, e.g., what might work best for this person, in this circumstance, in this organization?

Our rapidly changing global business environment requires a sophisticated understanding of learning modalities or leadership skills development methods. Savvy professionals know a particular approach may help some of the people, some of the time, yet is unlikely to work for all. Doesn’t it make sense to offer several excellent resources rather than limiting and narrowing the growth path?

Abraham Maslow had it right: human beings are complex, evolving individuals who can’t be “fixed” with one tool. We are more likely to reach our potential with a complete toolkit. To build something great, put down your favorite hammer and learn how to use a wrench, drill, or saw!


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Goals on the rocks? Be realistic about time.

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Door County, Wisconsin.

It’s mid-March, already! Where has the time gone? I’m sensitive to this issue as I’m helping a client with time management while tracking my own goals and hours I’ve lost, found, re-scheduled, wasted, or invested.

Some goals may be “on the rocks,” but I’ve reached others by committing the necessary time. I’m learning by looking into and beyond my piles of unfinished business. This process reminds me of an awkward, rewarding walk my husband and I took on a stone-filled beach (see photo): Treasures may be found, but it’s not a smooth, easy path.

I’m happy about meeting my fitness objectives. This has been relatively easy, because daily movement evolved from goal to habit two years ago. However, I’ve faltered on other fronts, including publishing a blog post every month (oops). Most noteworthy is my positive attitude shift about what I have not accomplished.

I’m less judgmental. I recognize the impact of circumstances beyond my control. I understand more about being a human being who can’t do everything. I’m less likely to feel defective because I “should” be doing x, y, and z instead of a, b, and c. I’m more likely to be a detective, finding clues in how I spend and experience time.

For instance, I’m not at my best playing the role of driven SUPERSTARPRENEUR — I believe I just made up a word — in a rush to do more and seize every business opportunity. I admire go-getter, focused, high energy types and when I’m inspired I can “turn it on” and burn through projects with the best of them. Yet, deep down, I’m inclined to slow down in a world of “more, faster, bigger, better.” I advocate a strategic, one step at a time approach for better understanding of complex issues. Fortunately, my clients appreciate this perspective.

Instead of wishing for more energy — whining about needing  7-8 hours’ sleep when best-selling, TED-talking leaders, authors and others accomplish amazing feats on much less — or  falling into despair over requiring quiet, introspective breaks to fuel creativity, I’m becoming more realistic, honest and respectful of my unique time and energy limits.

I’m recognizing the truth about what I can (or want) to do in a day, week, month, or year. This feels better than idealistic, I-can-do-it-all fantasies, or comparing myself with “more productive” others who zip and glide through the rocks!


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Fail forward: Live and learn.

The Appalachian Trail on the North Carolina/Tennessee state line.

Here’s an encouraging post from the Harvard Business Review blog network: It’s about dreaming big, failing, learning the right lessons and trying again. I urge you to read it!

I could compile a long list of embarrassing missteps in my life, including a recent fall during a neighborhood jog. I landed the largest, most painful bruise of my life and a few scrapes (thankfully, no broken bones).

From this incident, I learned to pay attention, instead of being overly confident in familiar territory, and too distracted to notice uneven ground. Ouch.

Last week, while my bruise was healing, I had an unexpected opportunity to hike for a couple hours on the famous Appalachian Trail. I undertook this challenge with a sense of adventure, a large dose of humility, and anxiety about footwear (I was wearing new, lightweight running shoes).

I remembered my painful neighborhood “fail” (fall) and wondered: If I can go “splat” on a suburban sidewalk, what might happen on this rocky, narrow climb? I was extremely careful with every slippery step on wet and rugged ground.

I managed to stay upright on the Appalachian Trail, but my ankles were wobbly. I learned I need more stability and traction on mountainous terrain. Next time, I’ll wear hiking boots!

Every fall (or failure) on my life path underscores the truth in sayings like “fail forward,” “live and learn,” and what my mother always said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”


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Mindfulness revisited: recommended resource

This helpful roadside sign, in Door County, Wisconsin, reminded me to be positive — and mindful — during my walk. (The message changed daily… the sign said “be present” the day before I took this photo.)

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve been lurking around interesting web sites, ostensibly in preparation for tomorrow’s clients, but I got distracted (a common occurrence). In my mindless meandering, I found this helpful site on mindfulness. I recommend it for those who wish to learn more about being aware and attentive to the present moment.

I liked finding good news about mindfulness at work; it’s something I’ve been working on in my personal/professional life for years. In revisiting my blog entry on mindfulness, intentional communication and health, I made another positive discovery:  I’m slightly more mindful today than I was when I wrote it.

I’ve made progress in the only way I know how: one step at a time on a life path full of surprises and opportunities to be present, positive, and patient. Now it’s time for my daily walk, one of the best practices for cultivating mindfulness…


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Wise leaders watch for blind spots.

Helpful sign on a foggy path: Orkney, Scotland.

Leaders travel challenging roads on the journey to individual and organizational growth.

Sometimes, the way is clear. Other times, the best path is obscured, or the “sure thing” turns out to be a dead end.

At all times, it helps to be open, curious and attentive to information or feedback.

What you don’t notice may hurt you. Rarely are signs so obvious as the “Blind summit” warning I encountered on a narrow mountain road.

Especially when things are going well, it’s easy to ignore or dismiss valuable input. It’s important to look out — actively — for blind spots.

I write from experience: I’ve faced the consequences of poor vision at important junctures in my career, and I have observed well-intentioned leaders, attached to their blinders, fall into big, fat potholes.

What have I learned from those I’ve helped to navigate the perilous paths of personal or organizational growth?

Those who thrived through roadblocks, detours and complexity share characteristics, including resilience, optimism, confidence, curiosity, courage and self-awareness. I value all these qualities, but I’m most impressed by leaders who are curious, courageous and self-aware. They have the guts to explore their blind spots!

Effective leaders listen, learn, pay attention to what works and — if necessary — start again based on new or more accurate information. They seek input from outside sources and ask important questions, like “how is this working (or not)?” or “what am I missing?”

Rather than resting on successful track records, “tradition,” or educational credentials, wise leaders question the status quo. They challenge others to stop, look, listen and learn. They have the courage to change direction, even when it’s uncomfortable… even when they may be perceived as a “weak.” They  are dedicated to learning and development for themselves, colleagues and the organization.

Unfortunately, courageous leader-learners seem to be in the minority. However, I’ve been very fortunate to work with some who are brave enough to explore blind spots.

One final thought: the more we learn and uncover our “blind spots,” the more we realize how little we know. What do you think?