Look and Listen: Lessons from Birds

I had an amazing experience in early June, I went on a birding expedition with the Lower Neuse Bird Club. When my companion Roy suggested I go, I was a bit intimidated since “I know just enough about birds to be dangerous.” That means I know the difference between a cardinal and a blue jay (the former being red and the latter being blue). My knowledge starts and ends about there. Getting up at dark o’clock and heading out to a preserve with a bunch of folks I don’t know, to look for elusive bounty seemed impulsive. I figured I’d be lucky to see one yellow bellied sapsucker or some other assumed mythical creature. I was wrong.

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Lower Neuse Bird Club. Photo by Mike Creedon

This is what I learned from my birding adventure:

  • Expert. This whole adventure would have been foolhardy without a few experts along. We met up with the caravan from New Bern, NC in Otway, NC and then traveled to the North River Preserve in Carteret County, NC. Our expert for this trip was John Fussell. This guy is mighty in his knowledge of all things birding. Our first stop on the preserve had Fussell with iPod in hand shouting out bird names like, who has never seen a Dickcissel or Blue Grosbeak? I meekly put up my hand. I had no idea if that was a bird or a disease. Well, I soon learned that Fussell had already scouted the area that morning and was calling the birds with his mighty iPod. It was fascinating. Calling up bird like ordering up fries at a drive through. Having an expert along when birding is critical.
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Indigo Bunting. Photo by Mike Creedon.
  • Patience. As I have written previously, patience has never been my strong suit. Well, when you go birding, you better be patient. Fussell would be trying to call up a bird and there all fifteen of us stood at the ready with binoculars, high-powered cameras and scopes waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Then suddenly someone would call out the bird and its location. I was skeptical that my patience, albeit finite, would pay off. Sure enough, after struggling to find an elusive Indigo Bunting on the top of the large pine next to the tallest grass on the right of the electrical pole and five feet to the left of the ditch. Magic. There is the bluest bird I have ever seen. Not in captivity but there flitting in the top of the brush singing its song. Patience pays off.

 

  • Observant. Veteran birders are super observant. I figured a newbie like me might be lucky to see much more than one or two birds. I have never been super observant. I will say that when I am in the market for a new car or phone, all I notice is that particular car or phone. The same thing applies to birdwatching. With a few experts along, suddenly all the brush and grass disappeared and there was a Dickcissel perched on a branch. Focusing on movement and the environment around you. It’s funny, all of a sudden, there would be a bird flying overhead and someone would call out “Common Yellow Throat.” Paying attention paid off with all kinds of sightings.

 

  • Notes. It didn’t take long to notice that many of the birders were taking notes. Pretty soon, I had my phone out to take notes myself. I had no idea that I would see so many unusual birds and that I would want to remember the names. It’s like everyone was keeping tabs on the various birds they observed. Initially, I figured, what was the point? But then I realized, I might want to find out more about the birds later. And…I just might want to write a post about this experience. So, I better keep track. There were at least five to six people keeping track. By the end of the trip, I had at least twelve birds I had never seen before. And I can pull up a name like Indigo Bunting without having to use my faulty memory. Keep notes of your observations. It will keep things fresh.

 

  • Listen. I had no idea that most of birding centers around listening. This may be obvious to you. We all have heard birds singing first thing in the morning. I rarely listen to a bird’s song. Well, these birders? They know a bird’s song! They have little things that they believe the bird is singing. It’s similar to a Mourning Dove’s sound, which sounds like weeping. I can’t remember what some of the more experienced birders said, but it was interesting how once they gave an identity to what a bird sounded like — “That’s a dog, that’s a dog, that’s a dog” — that was all I could hear. The real lesson here is to just listen. Now all I hear is bird’s singing and notice how one is different from another. It’s easy to just skim over the sound but if you focus in and listen, they are all unique.

I cannot begin to tell you how helpful everyone on the expedition was. If you asked, “What is that?”, someone would chime in. If someone didn’t know, they would say so. It’s like we were all there just to experience whatever came our way. I have to say, it was a lot of fun and opened my eyes to what is really going on out there. Get outside and start to notice what is around you.

8 Tricks to Being a Better Listener.

You want to impress your boss with your novel idea before anyone else says it, so you interrupt.  You categorically disagree with your wife’s view on politics so you butt in to straighten her out.  You start planning your day while your child is telling you the same old knock-knock joke they always do and misses the punch line.   You wonder why no one listens to you.  You can’t seem to get anyone’s attention.  The thing is that listening is a gift and if you don’t give it?  You don’t get it.

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It’s so easy in a world of constant distraction, a presidential election, and task-switching to just give up on the generous act of listening.  Active listening is an investment and it’s not readily apparent when it will pay off.  I believe that active listening–or as Stephen Covey defines it, “listening to understand”–is the single greatest gift you can give anyone.  Everyone has a deep-seated need to be heard.  Deeply heard.

Here are the 8 tricks to being a better listener:

  1. Turn off the noise. If it’s possible, try and find a quiet place. If you are in the middle of a rock concert, it’s probably not a good idea to decide to start listening.  There is often a lot of background noise, so shut off the television, turn off your phone and close the door.  When you prepare the space to listen, the other person, whether it be a co-worker or family member, feels respected as you prepare for them to speak.
  2. Shut down technology. There is nothing more disrespectful than someone checking their phone while you are talking. It’s essentially saying that what might possibly be on this phone (be it an Instagram notification or junk email) is more important than you.  Since most of us are addicted to our devices, turn it off so that the temptation is gone.  Set the stage to be a good listener.
  3. Mirror their posture. So if they lean in, you lean in. If they cross their arms, you cross your arms.  Don’t go overboard and mimic every raised finger or eyebrow.  It needs to be subtle but the mirroring helps you connect.  As the article “Mirroring in Body Language” in Psychologia states, “Mirroring body language is a non-verbal way to say ‘I am like you, I feel the same.’ The research shows that people who experience the same emotions are likely to experience mutual trust, connection and understanding.” Make a better connection through mirroring.
  4. Get present. Mindfulness training like meditation or yoga can help with this. It’s time to quiet the mind.  You can be more open to any direction in conversation when you are in the moment.  Let the grocery list go and forget about the weather report.  Relax and be in the moment.
  5. Don’t talk. This can be incredibly difficult for extroverts like myself. I have a ton of ideas I want to spill out.  I have this feeling that I need to express everything that is in my head before I forget it.  What I realize now is that if I forget it, it probably wasn’t that special anyway.  And if it is that unique or special, it will eventually bubble up again down the road. It can even give you the opportunity to go back to the person and say, “I was thinking about our talk and…” They will feel heard and acknowledged. For the introverts out there, this is as easy as pie.  Keep your mouth shut.
  6. First seek to understand. This is a tenet by Stephen R. Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” At this point, it’s ok to ask clarifying questions, like, “How did you feel when he said that to you?” or “What was the impact of that on you?” or “What are you learning about yourself?” These are all questions focused on the speaker. It’s not: “Can I come too?”; or a judgment: “That guy is a jerk.”  Clarifying questions help you understand the speaker’s point of view.
  7. Don’t let the influence of accents or slang put you on the defensive. As Skills You Need states, “Everybody has a different way of speaking – some people are for example more nervous or shy than others, some have regional accents or make excessive arm movements, some people like to pace whilst talking – others like to sit still. Focus on what is being said and try to ignore styles of delivery.” Let go of your personal prejudice and be open to the message, regardless of the mode of expression.
  8. Everyone is right…partially. This is a tenet of CRR Global.  Everyone owns a piece of the truth, but not all of it.  I can feel like the “Corrector in Chief” which will make me jump in and pronounce a word correctly for someone or, worse yet, actually finish their sentence. Let the speaker own their message and deliver it.  If you agree or not.  That is not the question.  It is all about listening and understanding the intended message.  This is not a debate and there are no winners.  Everyone is right…partially.

Growing up my father was always a good listener.  He would ask probing questions and listen to the answer.  Patiently.  It was a gift to have that as a child growing up. And he still listens. I hope I can give the same gift to my children and all the other people in my life.

How to Harness the Power of Connection.

You walk into a store and the cashier is more robotic than friendly. No eye contact; and repeating the same “Have a nice day” with no expression of sincerity. Your coworker is demanding a document that you are sure they already have and this might be the fourth time you’ve sent it to them. It’s easy to get sucked into a malaise of disconnectedness. You start putting up walls and keep everyone at arm’s length. It’s easy to fall into being out for yourself and out of touch with others. And you begin to shut others out.

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I was fortunate to facilitate a team of 65 in the construction business. The theme was Team Dynamics but what it really was about was connecting. Truly and literally standing in another department’s shoes to understand their perspectives and their challenges is an amazingly transformative act. The outcome was magical. I’d say the group was at least 75% men. Men in the rough and tumble world of construction where swearing is encouraged and feelings need to be checked at the door. I have to say I was nervous. Would these guys really buy in? Would they really be able to open their hearts and minds to their teammates? Well, I’m happy to say they did and the end result was powerful.

Here is how to harness the power of connection:

1. It always starts with the team alliance. This is a tenet of CRR Global. It’s basically an agreement of how we want to “be” with each other. As long as there’s clarity and agreement some remarkable things can happen. I worked with a technology team that wanted to make sure that “swearing” was encouraged. As long as everyone is on board, then swearing can be encouraged. It could just as easily have been respect or openness or confidentiality. You just need to be clear about how you want the team to be together and starting off a meeting or project or team dynamic session should always have an alliance. I have to say that during the facilitation with the construction company, I had to remind them a few times that “respect” was on the alliance. When ground rules are set, people are more likely to participate.

2. First seek to understand. This is habit 5 from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In a nutshell, this is all about active listening. It’s not listening until I can get a word in edgewise. It’s not biting my tongue until I can impress you with my retort. It’s seeking to understand. It’s about being open and non judgmental. In a room full to the brim with 65 people, they all listened attentively to each other. The knowing head nods. The smile of acknowledgment. How often can you say that?

3. Everyone has a voice. What’s powerful about the “lands work” from CRR Global is that each “land” (department) gets to speak up without any interruption. Each person gets to represent what it’s like in their “land” and there can be no disagreement, no denial. If a project coordinator says “I have to juggle the demands of four superintendents.” There is no denying that. It is that project coordinator’s truth. Their unadulterated voice. It’s powerful to here a co-worker state a truth that you didn’t even realize. Connecting involves everyone having a voice.

4. Stepping into someone else’s shoes. This is the magical part of “lands work.” All the superintendents took a seat while everyone else in the company stood in their “land.” They then spoke on behalf of the superintendents. There was one woman from administration who when she stood in each of the other lands said “I don’t like this land.” She acknowledged how difficult the other positions in the company were. The superintendents were constantly on the road, the business development folks were constantly handling rejection, the project coordinators had to deal with uncooperative sub contractors. And on and on and on. I could see the impact of having the other people who didn’t have your job speak on behalf of your job and suddenly connection was created. They get it. They were able to move on with a new understanding of each other that would not have ever existed without this effort.

5. Making sure there is a take away. In the end, there must be an understanding. What will this group take away from this experience? How can we take this forward? In a nutshell someone said “Empathy.” There is a new understanding that for each of them to be clear what the priority is. An understanding of what the effect they have on others. Some folks wanted an email with a clear subject line, some folks want a voicemail and still others wanted to get a text. The point was they had a new understanding of flexing and adapting to each other because now they understood each other’s perspective.

So I challenge you to be more connected at work. When was the last time you asked the Project Manager what their challenges are and what do they need from other departments to be more effective? Give it a try and sit back and listen. Really listen.

Originally published on Change Your Thoughts on January 8, 2016

6 Ways to Change Your Story. What Book Are YOU Writing?

You are the author of your life – Chalmers Brothers

I recently heard Chalmers Brothers speak about his book Language and the Pursuit of Happiness. The way we observe ourselves dictates how we live as well as our perception of the world. Something else Chalmers said was that the “explanation is not equal to the event”. The USA loses to Belgium in the World Cup. That is the event. My explanation might be, “But they made it to the group of 16”. Your explanation might be that Tim Howard (the goalie with a record 16 saves) is the only worthwhile player on the team. A Belgian’s explanation might be that it was preordained. Same event, different explanations and obviously, different perceptions.

We can get so blinded by our perspective, that if we never question our beliefs, we start to confuse it with reality. Let that sink in for a minute; we confuse it with reality. I can remember when I was a restaurant owner some twenty years ago. The brothers that sold me the restaurant, wanted to sell me another. I did some number crunching and figured that at the pace the sales were dropping there was no way to make a profit. When I went back to the brother’s to explain this, they were dumbfounded. They had for some 20 years run a profitable restaurant chain; never in their wildest dreams did they ever predict that sales would go down instead of up. This idea was WAY out of their paradigm. Well, of course, after about a year, their last remaining restaurant eventually failed. The story they were writing was not equal to the event.

So how do you improve your explanation…or change the way you write your story? Here are some ideas:

1. Language. Think about the language you use. I recently had a client who said “Fat people can’t wear stripes” referring to himself. I said “I’m curious about fat, tell me more?” Him, “Hmmm. That was mean. I wouldn’t call anyone else fat.” Me, “How does it make you feel?” Him, “Horrible”. Think about your self-talk. What language are you using? If you wouldn’t call your assistant, boss or spouse – lazy, stupid, dumb or ugly, maybe it’s time to switch up the language you use.

2. Observer. Be the observer. An executive I coached last year had a huge breakthrough when he realized that he had to be the observer when it came to conflict. So if he was pushing back on a deadline at work or negotiating on a car, he was much more effective if he could mentally take a step back and observe. It helped him disconnect from his primal reaction of fight or flight. When he was the observer he was less tied to explanation of the event. He could listen, observe and detach. Stand outside of yourself and observe the landscape. You will soon have a totally different perspective that may serve you better.

3. Grand Illusion. Chalmers posits that we all think that everyone else sees events from the same perspective; as he calls it – “the Grand Illusion”. I have experienced this in many of the companies I’ve worked for. We roll out the new plan and expect immediate buy-in because the higher-ups think that the entire company sees their perspective i.e. the potential results; whether they be long-term or short. In their eyes the rationale and long term benefits from the new plan are self-evident. Quite often, they are not. Most employees see any change in the organization as a bad thing and frequently jump to the conclusion that their job is potentially at stake. Don’t assume everyone sees the event from the same perspective; it’s nothing but an illusion, the Grand Illusion.

4. Serving. Is your thought serving you to the end result you want? If you are interviewing for a new job and go in with the thought that you’ll never get this job….uh…well…you probably won’t. If you present the new initiative to your boss with the attitude that you will succeed; odds are you will. I’ve seen so many folks go into an exam and when asked, “Do you think you will pass?” They answer, “I’m not sure; probably not.” It’s the old adage, expect the worst and hope for the best. You don’t want to be overly confident because – What? You might actually succeed? It is easier to explain failure this way. “Yeah, I knew I would never pass”. Think about how your thoughts are not serving you and the results you want.

5. Listening. Chalmers says that listening is not hearing. I get caught up on this one frequently. I can ask my son a question like, “When are you going to Charleston?” and then forget about listening to the response. I can hear him just fine but I’m not registering the answer. Most likely my phone just went off with some kind of notification that 99% of the time is meaningless. I frequently listen to audio books and there may be some passage that sends my thoughts off in a different direction like…sleep is important…yeah I need to get more sleep…I’ll tell you who needs more sleep is my son…maybe I should get him to listen to this book…forget it, he won’t…he never listens to me…uh…what was that last passage? …was it something important….should I back it up…wait I’m driving that’s not a good idea…that causes accidents…I don’t want to be a statistic…sheesh…did they just say something about REM sleep….and so on. It can be difficult to pay attention with a ticker tape going off in your head. Stop the distractions. Turn off the phone, or the radio, or your computer monitor and be present. What’s more important here…when your son leaves for Charleston or a Facebook notification….I thought so. No one ever says hear up…it’s listen up.

6. Shift. Look for paradigm shifts. Look for opposing viewpoints. My father has always famously said he went to Korea a Democrat and came back a Republican. I’m not suggesting you enlist in the army or travel to Korea but you can seek out different sources. Different explanations. Test your beliefs. When you have an array of explanations available it’s much easier to not be as tied to the interpretation. If you disagree with the direction the Accounting department is going, go ask some questions that will prove you wrong. “Can you tell me again what the advantages are of the new XYZ system? And how much time is this going to cut from Month-End?” Look for the shift. Every good book has a shift. The hero finally decides to take on the dragon. So what shift do you need to make to challenge your beliefs?

So imagine the book you are authoring. Is it an adventure? Is it a drama? Or a comedy? The amazing thing is that you are holding the pen. You get to create whatever you want so choose wisely.

Listen up

I recently read Daniel Pink‘s book “To Sell is Human.”  His premise is that everyone is selling; that we are all trying to move people.  So teachers are trying to get students to do their homework.  Doctors are trying to get people to take their medicine.  We are all trying to move someone to do something.  The most interesting chapter was on improvising and a company called “Performance of a Lifetime” created by Cathy Salit. In this class executives are taught how to improvise which involves an intense amount of listening.  If you think about it, we can’t improvise without listening.  We can’t move people without listening.  We can’t sell without listening. images 6

My son and I share a love of listening to stories.  One of the things I look forward to on a long car trip with him is that he is always game to listen to Story Corps, Radio Lab or The Moth podcasts.  These are all documentary type radio shows where people share their stories.  They can be deeply personal, a guy recounting how he met his fiancé who later died in 9-11, or a story about how some people see more colors than others (could it be me?) or mad cap drug induced adventures in Morocco.  The thing is, if you aren’t good at listening, you will miss the meaning of the story.  And it takes practice.

So what could you be missing?  Here are some tips into how to improve your listening skills:

1.  Pause. Daniel Pink and Michael Segovia, an outstanding MBTI instructor, both recommend that you pause. Dan Pink recommends 5 seconds and Michael recommends 10 seconds. In Michael’s case, every time he asks a group of participants if they have any questions, he would count to 10 in his head.  This seems like an eternity. But for those people who prefer introversion, they need that time to reflect. Dan, on the other hand, pauses at the end of someone else talking.  It lets you reflect on what they said. Pause, digest and truly listen.

2. Eye to eye. If you are physically in the room with someone, make eye contact.  Hold their gaze when they are talking.  Be in the moment. If they are on the phone, cut all the technology. Don’t be reading emails, texts, messages, Facebook updates or playing Soduko. Imagine them being in front of you and making eye contact. Can’t you always tell when you are speaking to someone over the phone and they are distracted? We all can. Tune in and turn off the clatter!

3. Understand.   Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand and not to respond.” If you’re busy planning your response (re: argument, counter point, brilliant repartee) you are not listening.  Ask questions that help you understand their point of view.  “What do you think your boss meant by that comment?” “How is your relationship with your Mother?” “I can see you feel hurt, what do you want to do about it?” Do a deep dive into their story. Don’t give advice. Just seek to understand.

4. Mirror. In one of the exercises that Dan Pink did in Cathy Salit’s class was to mirror someone else’s movements.  Now this type of mimicry would be over the top in real life, and cause a fist fight between my brothers and I when we were kids in the back seat of our Country Squire station wagon.  But subtly copying someone else’s stance can create some symbiosis. They lean back in the chair, you lean back. They lean in, you lean in.  This creates a sense of connection. Mirror others to build confidence.

5. Generosity. Listening is about being generous. Selfless. As a great facilitator from Inscape Publishing once said “It’s all about them.” As in your audience.  It’s time to hang up your one-ups-manship.  Your friend is talking about their trip to Hawaii? There’s no point in butting in to talk about your honeymoon in Maui.  Your co-worker just finished a year long project? Now is not the time for a diatribe on the messy project you are in the middle of that just got delayed….again.  Your spouse had a horrible day yesterday? Now is not the time to bring up the Honey Do List. Give them the gift of being the center of your attention. Completely with no strings attached.  Be generous.

6. Yes, and.  One of the exercises from Cathy Salit’s workshop is something I have experience in one of my classes while earning my Masters.  In the class, we had to plan a fictitious class reunion.  First, we were instructed to say “Yes, but.” When that played out, the energy in the room diminished.  None of the ideas had any traction. Everyone was a wet blanket suffocating inspiration.  In the next round, we were instructed to say “Yes, and.” One word changed, and we all had possibilities. We were intently listening to everyone’s ideas and building on them. Next thing you know we were holding the reunion in Rio with limos, samba lessons and caipirinhas.  Try it. It’s inspiring.

Listening is a way to be present and take in the person, loved one or group interaction around you.  It can be a gift to yourself and others to just show up and “be there”. One of the most effective ways to do that is to LISTEN.