3 Tips to Better Listening

Listening is one of the most important things we do as human beings and projects a well-developed Executive Presence. It demonstrates respect to others, it enables us to understand the other people’s wants and needs, and it can inform and improve our responses. All of us yearn to be heard and acknowledged by others. The challenge is that we think we’re listening to each other, but we’re not. We’re usually just formatting our responses. As Stephen Covey says, we need to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Here are three strategies that can help:


1. Lower the “cone of silence”

Our world is filled with distractions, both external and internal. What pulls your focus away from the other person and their message? If you’re old enough to remember the ‘60’s TV show, “Get Smart”, you’ll remember the “cone of silence”. The cone would descend over two people who needed to privately discuss top-secret information. I know, the cone never worked and actually prevented them from hearing each other, but you get the point. When someone is talking to you, try lowering your own cone of silence to block out everything going on around you.

Distractions generally fall into one of these four categories:

• Your physical comfort – you’re hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, or tired.

• Your psychological barriers – you’re bored or daydreaming, or their topic triggers thoughts of your own past experiences.

• The speaker’s style – they have a monotone voice or accent you don’t understand, or their personal grooming presents a challenge (bad breath, body odor, etc.)

• External interruptions – phone calls or notifications, outside noise or activity, visitors.

Listening takes energy and focus. You must first decide to listen, then work to eliminate all distractions. Stop multitasking, maintain eye contact (where the eyes go the ears will follow) and lower that cone!

2. Clean out your filters

Every message we hear is run through our personal filters, which can include our opinions of the person or issue, our past experiences, prejudices about the idea, and personal agendas. They’re stored in our subconscious and prevent us from being truly present. These biases can distort the message and even trigger our emotions. Develop an awareness of your filters and don’t let them get in the way of true understanding.

Take responsibility for interpretation. Words mean different things to different people, so you might need to ask for definitions (“What did they mean by ‘in the running?’”. “Are you talking about the A Project or B Project?”). Ask clarifying questions if you’re confused (“Are you referring to…?”, “I think I missed something, can you go back to…”). Most people don’t add enough specifics when they speak, so instead of making assumptions and creating a disconnect, make it your job to help them communicate more clearly before you respond.

3. Summarize occasionally

A few summaries as you listen will not only help confirm your understanding of their content, but allow you to also figure out their intent“So what you’re saying is…”, “So you’re suggesting…, is that correct”? You’re floating ideas for confirmation and direction—and what they answer will help you formulate your next question or comment. Your summaries and questions can also help them figure out what’s missing, what’s possible, and what isn’t.

As you can see, effective listening often requires you to do some talking, along with focusing like a laser. Incorporate the three techniques above to their content—and your content will be better as a result.

©Jill Bremer 2017

Practice Safe Text!

textingTexting is here to stay and quickly becoming the preferred method of communication by all ages in all places. But like every other form of techno-communication, usage far outpaced the rulebooks and etiquette for using it. So, what are the best ways to text so that we don’t cause confusion or hurt feelings?

  • Don’t text someone while also having a conversation or a meal with someone else. It’s rude to suggest that anything is more important than who you’re with face-to-face. If you must check an incoming message, explain first to your companions what’s happening and why. (“Excuse me a sec, I just got an update from the airline.”).
  • Avoid texting at odd hours. Remember time zone differences. Just because you’re awake doesn’t mean they are on the receiving end. And do you really want your clients to know that you’re up and working at 3:30 am?
  • Emojis can be very helpful in texts to add the emotion we’re trying to communicate. But don’t send them upstream in your workplace unless the higher-up has used them downstream first.
  • Limit your use of group texts. From time to time, they’ve made us all feel like we’re part of a hostage situation. Keep the group small and the topics short.
  • You already know you shouldn’t text while driving. But it’s also rude—and dangerous—to text someone you know for a fact is behind the wheel themselves. Don’t tempt them into responding. It’s actually better to call.
  • It’s also dangerous to text while walking, drinking, or walking and drinking! You don’t want to fall off the curb and/or send the racy text you meant for your sweetheart to your boss instead. And while we’re at it, double-check every message and the recipient’s name/number before you hit “send.” We’ve all seen those bizarre auto-corrected messages that were sent by mistake!
  • If you’re texting someone who may not have your number, it’s polite to also add your name – “Hi, it’s Jill…”
  • With apologies to all the English majors out there, periods are becoming a thing of the past, especially in short or one-word texts. Periods can be perceived as having an emotional charge, like an emoticon, and can communicate insincerity, snarky-ness, even aggression.

© Jill Bremer 2016

Free Speech + Civility = A Good Combination

BusinessMeetingDebate061411iStock_0A big dose of civility is what America needs right now, especially when our freedom of speech is under as much fire as it is these days. A civil society encourages dialogue and creates an environment where people feel free to express their views and not be silenced because of them.

Incivility is rampant in our current political process, along with our workplaces, sporting arenas, and roadways, but I’m even more troubled with what I see happening on America’s college campuses. They used to be places where free speech was celebrated, where a diversity of ideas was welcomed, nurtured, shared, and debated. Protests and civil disobedience were not unusual occurrences where a big, messy marketplace of ideas was available to all. Yes, I realize they didn’t always end peacefully, but these voices weren’t shot down by dissenters before they even started. People were given the opportunity to learn and then make their own decisions.

Now, many universities are either being forced to change their policies or have jumped on that bandwagon willingly—cancelling speakers that might have a different worldview, silencing student groups, and turning free spaces into “safe spaces”. Many campuses now have “bias response teams” to investigate claims of students’ feelings being hurt. When did we develop such thin skins? When did we lose the ability to hear others’ opinions and not be personally violated? It’s been reported that at one Big 10 university, resident advisors are being pressured to coerce students into signing an overly-broad “civility pledge” which, when combined with their new “Inclusive Language Campaign”, can lead, in my opinion, to administrative overreach and senseless investigations. Please—do not tarnish the magnificent concept of civility by attaching it to something that borders on intimidation.

Wouldn’t it be better if we encouraged free speech and exposed students to all ideas and worldviews? Wouldn’t it be better if we taught the art of civility which teaches people how to listen well, ask insightful questions, seek to understand, and then ultimately respect the other person’s opinion—even when it’s different than their own? Wouldn’t it be better if we had the skills to handle a diversity of viewpoints and disagreements ourselves, instead of running off to administrations, HR, or the government to step in and regulate it?

I agree with John Marshall, Vice President of Student Services at Colorado Mesa University, who said, “We need to help challenge our students. You don’t have a right not to be uncomfortable. We don’t always need to create these ultra-sensitive responses. We want [students] to think critically and deal with each other with respect and civility.” And I applaud the recent event at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where professors and authors spoke up about the failure of college administrators to respect free speech. http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=7797

Civility is not about silencing other’s views or even successfully convincing them of yours. Civility has nothing to do with coercion, regulation, or pointing fingers. It is about encouraging a marketplace of ideas, where diversity of thought and worldviews is encouraged, and interactions and disagreements with others are handled with respect and grace.

If you need more civility in your workplace, please check out http://theedgeexecutivecoaching.com/training-workshops/civility-in-the-workplace/

© 2016 Jill Bremer

Etiquette for Open-Space Offices

SWA-officeOpen-space offices are on the rise. The Pros: they offer a great way for us to communicate and collaborate. The Cons: they bring with them many of the same challenges we had in cubicles—a lack of privacy along with noise and distractions. Here are some ways to survive and thrive in an open environment.

Maintain Your Sanity

  • Noise-cancelling headphones may be one of the best investments you can make. Whether you play music through them or not, they can give you that oasis of peace in the sea of chaos swirling around you.
  • For the times you need to focus hard on a task, block out the time on your calendar and set your IM to “busy”. Some people block out 2-hour no-interruption time slots each day for focused work time.
  • Let people know you’d prefer them to schedule a meeting with you any time they have a non-urgent issue, rather than dropping by.
  • If you find you have the same people interrupting you often, it might be wise to schedule daily meeting times with them or the whole team—to better control the unannounced visits.
  • Changing your location during the day can boost your productivity and give you the physical and mental refreshment you may need. Try moving to a meeting room, company library, or coffee shop when you need to focus on something important.
  • Clear the clutter! Visual “noise” can be as annoying as audible noise. You’ll be better able to focus, produce, and process in clean and streamlined surroundings.

Play Nice with Others

  • Just because you can see someone from your desk doesn’t mean they’re available to talk. Find out first if they’re free before stopping by.
  • Try not to interrupt someone wearing headphones. They’ve got them on for a reason.
  • Keep your volume low when talking on the phone, especially if you’re the type that needs to do a “walkabout” as you talk.
  • If you must eat at your desk, be careful of smelly food. Good smells or bad, they all can disturb your neighbors. Cold foods like sandwiches and salads won’t bother anyone; hot foods should be eaten elsewhere.
  • Play music, video clips, and movies only through your headset.
  • Never read someone’s computer screen or comment on conversations you’ve overheard in the airspace. Resist answering questions you overheard emanating from the desks around you!

© 2016 Jill Bremer

Think Manners Don’t Matter?

NW Etiquette Dinner2I recently learned of a unique hiring test conducted by the CEO of Charles Schwab. In an effort to understand the true character of each candidate, Walt Bettinger, Charles Schwab CEO, interviews them over breakfast at a restaurant. But unbeknownst to the prospect, Mr. Bettinger tells the restaurant ahead of time to mess up their order. The purpose? To reveal the heart of the candidate along with their ability to handle challenges. When presented with the wrong food, do they become frustrated or angry? Do they lash out at the server? Or are they able to take the situation in hand and act graciously?

Manners are much more than knowing which fork to use or how to properly shake hands. Manners are a hallmark of a civil society. When manners are absent, boundaries begin to vanish, people don’t feel respected, and civility starts to break down. The rituals of etiquette help to establish civility. As P.M. Forni shared in his classic work, Choosing Civility, “Manner comes from manus, the Latin word for hand. We have good manners when we use our hands well, when we handle others with care.” Our manners reveal how we view the world—with either everything revolving around us at the center, or with us as just a cog in a bigger wheel where everything we say and do has an impact on others.

Social graces can be learned. Character can be harder to teach. But a good place to start is by learning basic etiquette. Then, when the spotlight is on, you’ll know exactly what to do and can do it with respect and grace. Good manners are good for business—and they might just get you that job!

© Jill Bremer 2016

May is International Civility Awareness Month

Incivility has reached a crisis level in our workplaces, schools, stadiums, streets, airplanes, and reality TV. Even our political system is filled with uncivil remarks, name-calling, and finger-pointing. The good news is that each individual can make a difference out there and cultivate an atmosphere of civility in our world and workplaces. How can we do that? By taking responsibility!

There are three different types of responsibility we need to focus on in order to create a civil society.

The first kind of responsibility needed is Professional Responsibility. What does that mean? It means you take responsibility for your work. You arrive on time, meet deadlines and pull your weight on projects. You listen well and follow through. You send clear, concise and unemotional emails, leave intelligible voicemails, and stay “present” on phone calls. If you work in a cubicle, you mind your own business and behave as though there are walls and doors.

Personal Responsibility means you take responsibility for yourself and your actions. You don’t blame or bash others and you admit your own mistakes. You don’t yell, make derogatory comments, use obscenities, or spread gossip. You clean up after yourself in break rooms, bathrooms, cafeterias. You do the right thing even when no one is watching, such as refilling paper trays, starting a new pot of coffee, or wiping down bathroom sinks.

Social Responsibility is the third type of responsibility which means you help others. Do you mentor, support, encourage, and show compassion? If you’re a supervisor, supervise. If you’re a manager, manage. Are you a leader? Lead!  Do what you can to help those around you – and your organization – succeed.

Take responsibility – and our workplaces and world will be better places because of it!

® 2014 Jill Bremer

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