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.


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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


Check your vision and see what you’re missing.

If you couldn't see this azalea, would you have your vision checked?

If you couldn’t see or didn’t notice this brilliant azalea, would you have your vision checked?

You can’t manage what you can’t see. I’ve said these words often, yet their clear, immediate truth escapes me when I’m lost in mindless blindness. Who, me? Yes, I’m prone to terrible vision when I feel sleepy, annoyed, anxious, hungry, defensive… and the list goes on.

So what to do in a world of the blind leading the blind? It helps to acknowledge reality: no one has perfect vision. (I’m not referring to the lucky minority with 20/20 eyesight.) Continue reading

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Willpower and good intentions: Manage energy wisely!

I can't resist chocolate cake when I'm stressed or tired...

I have no willpower and can’t resist chocolate cake when my energy is depleted…

Are you wondering how to lose weight, get organized, exercise more, or quit procrastinating? Does the thought of adding a virtuous behavior to your “to do” list make you want to give up before starting? Welcome to the club.

I recently taught a 3-week course on “New Year Intentions: One Step at a Time.” We told tales of tantalizing temptations and defeated diets. I promised participants they would not hear about their “unlimited human potential,” nor would I introduce transformational methods for managing mayhem.

I favor a practical approach, so we explored what’s most likely to help us develop greater self control, based on a growing body of research by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. There is good news on the perilous path to willpower. People can learn to make and keep more realistic promises to themselves and others. It helps to arrange your life so you have a chance to succeed.

When surprises and outside circumstances hinder progress, there’s not much we can do. However, most of us can manage a small part of our routines or schedules more wisely and set goals more mindfully. It starts with paying attention to how we allocate limited resources: time and energy.

At what time of day or week do you feel your best? When are you energetic, productive, or “in the flow?” When do you feel most drained, exhausted, or shut down? Are you strategic about your time and energy? Are you realistic about what you may accomplish and do you recognize signs of depletion? Have you allowed yourself the time and energy required to answer these questions?

This moment is an example of implementing strategy, based on knowing my limitations. I’m writing this post while standing, early in the day. I get sluggish by late afternoon, especially if I’ve been sitting too long. I knew I’d be more tired and less productive today, because I have a cold. I’ve planned a streamlined schedule so I may rest. (It’s futile to expect peak performance in the grips of a virus, but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying, showing up for a full day’s work, making mistakes, and spreading bugs to colleagues.)

Time and energy management is a lifelong journey. Willpower takes patience, practice and wisdom; there are no shortcuts. It helps to recognize obstacles and plan around them. We need to know our limits, set up our lives so we have a chance of succeeding, and keep at it, one step at a time.

Here’s an interview with willpower expert Roy Baumeister. I like the way it ends, with common sense recommendations about eating well and getting enough sleep. Time for me to have chicken soup and take a nap!


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…


Distracted in your office? NYT article to the rescue.


I wish my office looked this serene (NC Botanical Garden).

I’m sitting in my disorganized office, feeling overwhelmed. I see stacks to file, documents to process, potentially “useful” information to throw away.

It doesn’t help that I moved personal items into this space while a room is being remodeled. It doesn’t help that I’m reading news online, checking email, and anticipating a text message. Distractions are more compelling when I have important work to complete! Sound familiar?

I’m a fan of David Allen’s work on “stress-free productivity” and here’s a reminder of his wisdom from the New York Times. Time to get busy on what matters, now.