A thought-provoking audience question was raised as the curtain closed on my Emotional Intelligence Boot Camp at the 2013 Government IT Symposium. I wanted to explore the answer, but I had to say, “Check the blog!”
The question surrounded a challenging co-worker who frequently interrupts, and infrequently listens. Like a game of Wack-A-Mole, whenever someone else tries to express a point of view, they get jumped on and shut down.
“How do you get someone who won’t listen to listen, and to stop cutting you off?”
We can only work with what is within our control, so here are three Sagely suggestions to lead a new, more constructive pattern of safety and active listening.
To explore this, I’ve created a hypothetical composite of people I’ve met who cut others off and won’t listen. I’ve named him John.
Solution #1) Emotional Leadership
John keeps everyone on the defensive by interrupting, and he does that with a healthy dose of “fight” energy in his vibe. It’s an offensive strategy that shuts down his team. Since the pattern is ongoing, something must be reinforcing it. He’s doing it because it works.
You want to reduce the effectiveness of this overtly masculine pattern to make room for new possibilities. Since his pattern feeds off of emotional upset, I recommend combatting it with appreciation, excitement, and positive affirmation.
Appreciation disarms interrupters because it takes away the food they’re feeding on. They jump on you to experience power through your fear and frustration, but appreciation starves the power, and feeds new possibilities. They don’t expect it, so it diffuses them.
“What can I appreciate about this person, their perspective, or even the interruption itself, that’s genuine?”
Perhaps John’s a good “acid test.” Might you appreciate the way he toughens you, or how his behavior provides regular leadership communication practice? Maybe you appreciate his predictability, or that you only have to deal with him two days a week.
John’s feeding on your weakness, so the more you can appreciate him, the more you starve the power-source or the pattern.
Not only that, John needs to feel listened to too! Spot the irony here. You’re problem is that John doesn’t listen, but he needs to feel heard as well. Verbalize his point. Show him you listened.
I learned very early on that a great way to deflate a challenger is to affirm them for challenging me. I try to state their case better than they did, even help them make their point better. Then I can counter it if I want. Confirm with John that you understand. Thank him for bringing it up. Be excited about it. Model active listening.
Solution #2) Ask them to repeat what you said.
If you’re actively listening, that means you are hearing, and then repeating back what they said, and confirming that you understood.
“John, let me make sure I’m hearing you right. You’re saying… “
When you’re actively listening, you can also actively ask for them to do the same.
“John, I want to make sure you understood my point. You don’t have to agree with it, but can you give my perspective back to me just so I know you heard me?”
Teaching them to actively listen requires both you modeling it and requiring that they practice it too. They won’t do it as well as you, so be sure to affirm any baby steps they make in that direction.
Solution #3) Lead the conversation.
The best way to lead a conversation is to design it like a story, with the main character of us, the people in the room.
Every story has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the challenging situation warranting a discussion. The middle is the discussion. The ending is the better situation you’re trying to get to. So start off your meeting by defining the beginning, and the end.
“Team, we’re meeting today because we have a serious customer complaint about our software. By the end of this meeting, we need to define our position and decide how we’re going to respond to this complaint at tomorrow’s meeting.”
This structure aligns everyone to exactly one problem, and one outcome. The beginning and end. Then you meet about how to get there (the middle). Don’t start discussing until you’ve solicited verbal agreement from everyone (including John).
“Does everyone agree that the topic we’re discussing is the customer complaint, and success here is defined as having a clear position and a plan for how to talk about it to them tomorrow? I need a show of hands.”
You can also set set some rules that empower you to redirect.
“I want to remind you all that everyone in this room has a valid perspective, and each one of us will get an opportunity to share their point of view on this. It’s important that you share your perspective and if anyone interrupts or dominates here, I’m going to step in and redirect them. Is that clear and do I have your agreement?”
You may have to get tough with them. Tough is “stern,” (technically, stern is a low level of anger delivered along with direct eye-contact). Anger is good for showing seriousness, and it’s kindly delivered if you start on appreciation, then redirect sternly, and then appreciate again (the appreciation sandwich).
(Appreciate) “John, I really value your perspective, (stern) and I’ve been working hard to listen to everything you’ve had to say, and I expect the same in return. (Appreciate) Thanks for letting me say that, John, because together we’ll figure this thing out.”
The Head/Heart Solution in Review
I didn’t have the time to answer the question thoroughly in the workshop, but hopefully this got you, and the audience member who asked the question at the IT Symposium, closer to a useful strategy for dealing with interrupters and people who don’t listen.
Together, appreciation, affirmation, and active listening can remove the food source for disruptive communication behavior. Combined with conversation leadership skills, they can empower you to lead the tone, as well as the content the conversation. That’s a “head/heart solution” that will encourage better communication, and more positive body language, for a “room tone” that is safe and supportive for your important conversation.
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