Catalysts and Active Listening

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." — Stephen Covey

What I believe about leaders: Leadership isn’t the process of commanding, it’s the process of listening, deeply and fully. 

Some of the best leaders in my life, leaders that I’ve studied, or leaders that I’ve read about aren’t the ones doling out requests and commands. They are not the ones who are micro-managing task managers. Even more, they are rarely the ones who are talking the most. Great leadership starts and ends with leaders' ability to actively listen to their peers, employees, mentors, and their surrounding communities. Conversation and dialogue happens between these “listening endpoints,” of course, but these leaders are masters of listening, sans agenda. Meaning, they are masters of listening and receiving someone else’s “mind space” actively, without thinking of their next statement. 

Active listening is a hard skill to master, folks. And very few people actually master it, so get comfortable with calling it a lifelong practice (like yoga…or keeping patience….or making the perfect cup of coffee). It requires the submission of ego and control to the other conversationalists’ point of view and contribution. It’s hard because as humans, we love to share! We want to be able to connect, and the primary way in which we do so is through shared experiences and stories. 

Lately, my life has been saturated with examples of and opportunities for active listening, and I’ve stepped into many situations where I’ve been able to practice that muscle as well. About a month or so ago, I attended a workshop by Andy Zimney through Leading Off The Cuff and — among the many ah-ha! moments that came from it — the whole group was moved by a simple yet effective improv exercise.  

The exercise was simple: stand in a circle, point to Person X, Person X calls “go” to you give you permission to walk over to their space in the circle. Then, you walk to them while they repeat the process with a new person, Person Y. No one can move to the new space until they receive their command. What was interesting to watch was how quickly people started to walk before the permission was granted. We all knew what was coming and were mentally filling in the blanks without any presence to the exercise (until Andy gave a different command and we all tripped up because, well, active listening was out the window at that point). 

The whole group stopped for a moment and realized just how conditioned we are to ask a question only to have the answer or follow-up question we want already in mind. If you attend a session (which I highly recommend you do!), the whole Leading off the Cuff workshop will leave you energized, thinking, and ready to take action in a new way. But that one exercise in particular drove home how unique — and effective — it is to truly practice active listening. 

It’s funny how life does that, too. Brings a topic into your life as a reminder and then, bam!, you hear it, see it, learn it in everything you do. It’s like life’s crash course for saying “you need to dive deeper, learn more, and practice better on this topic.” Life is sassy like that.  

I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who is truly a master of active listening because, as I said, we are human beings that love and thrive off of sharing experiences, stories, and lessons. 

We’ve all heard these thoughts before and know how important it is to be an active listener, yet, as aware as we are, doesn’t it seem like we’re more comfortable saying “I know this” rather than saying “I will practice this”? Consistently practicing it means reminding yourself — as I did and have these past few months — that it’s not always about what you have to say and share, but about mutually investing in and genuinely learning one another’s story. To do that, the ego must be placed on the hat stand, and you must allow yourself to sit still in front of the other person and genuinely listen to their words. This is a practice of mindfulness and active listening, but it’s also a practice of garnering trust and a raw, real look into how you can relate, help, or stand side-by-side with that person’s journey.  

Active Listening Actions

Face the speaker and maintain eye contact (not creepy eye contact, folks. Just enough so that you can follow along with the picture they’re painting for you).

When you find yourself about to satellite out into your own thoughts and to-do lists, it’s as simple as just mentally calling attention to it and refocusing on the subject’s words.

Try to catch yourself before jumping to conclusions.

Try to refrain from “sentence grabbing” – speeding up the speaker’s pace by interrupting or finishing their sentences.

Ask clarifying questions – conversations are of course a two-way street, so you don’t have to be silent! But these types of questions ensure that everyone is on the same page with what’s being said.

Pay attention to when something the speaker says gets “blocked out” by your brain simply because it makes you uncomfortable. This is a sure-fire way to turn active listening into active judging.

Finally, help yourself out by creating a better environment to be with the person and not just staring at and hearing them! Turning phones on silent and meeting in a low-traffic/low-interruption area is a great way to secure quality time.

I know that I had to be humbled and reminded of this at various moments in my life, especially coming from a large and loud family where there were constant conversations, tangents, and stories to share (amazingly great things! But active listening often became “active interrupting” through the banter of the conversation, and “how’d we get on this topic” more than anything else, haha). Recently, with more networking on my plate in the past few years than ever before, I can say that I was in a habit of talking fast with others who do the exact same — not to be rude, but because that was the nature of the introduction! And I have become fatigued with that surface chatter. I feel more full from a connection when I slow down, create space — even within a busy networking environment — and deeply listen to the person in front me rather than sifting out their Wiki page of “personal stats.”  

When I was reminded how important it is to check the ego at the door, not be compelled to always interject with what I know or have learned, and let the conversation flow with fluidity and authenticity, it allowed space. Wonderful, necessary space. Guys, in work — and in life — you need room to breathe, physically and mentally. You need space so that the issues, the opportunities for growth, the successes, and the pivotal moments of change have that space from which to grow. 

That’s hard to do when you are involved in the trenches of your business, and that’s exactly why Connect the Grey's Catalyst program carefully cultivates a community of people who are third-party “growth investors” of each client company. They are the people who know how to impact without dominating, creating the change within organizational teams and facilitating continuing evolution based on reevaluation and recurring involvement (since change never stops, folks ;) ). 

Being a Catalyst does not mean simply going into a company, diagnosing a problem, and leaving them to fix it. Being a Catalyst means being many things, in many different moments: a strategist, a therapist, a student of the industry, a student to the human condition, and above all else, an active listener. One needs to intuitively connect to the environment to be able to pivot toward whichever “Catalyst hat” is needed in that moment. It’s the active listening process that allows Catalysts to hear what is going unsaid so that the disease of the company is fixed, rather than just bandaging the symptoms.

Intrigued by the Leading Off the Cuff exercise described? You can attend one of their sessions, too: Changemakers Day is on November 17, co-hosted by Andy Zimney of Leading Off the Cuff and Sally Zimney of This Moved Me!