Taking Your Stage Blog  
  Helping you improve the communication skills of the leaders and teams in your organization.  

3 items categorized "Listening"


4 Tips to Become an “Agile Communicator”

IStock_000001355840_web2It was time for the conference call that I had dreaded.  Our new customer was not happy with the implementation we were delivering and had demanded a call with the project manager (me), program manager, a couple of people whom I don’t remember, and our president (whom I do remember).

I had just come from an informal meeting with one of our developers to talk about how the development work on another project was proceeding.  As I passed the doorway into the program manager’s office (that’s where the conference call was initiated), it felt like I was walking onto a stage.  It was like I had to switch roles and “get in character” in order to become effective on this important call.

Two Observations

Looking back now, I recognize two things: 1) there have been many scenarios in my career where I felt the need to “switch roles” and change how I was communicating (almost every day in fact); 2) my proficiency in whatever I was doing has often been tied to how well I can communicate with agility.

Being an agile communicator means that you demonstrate agility and flexibility by adapting your communication to the other person(s).

The Negative and Positive

There is a negative side to this with which I have wrestled.  Sometimes I change my communication in order to either impress someone else or shield myself from negative repercussions.  I never experience that feeling of satisfaction after these situations… because the focus is on myself and not on my “audience” thus curtailing my ability to communicate and influence effectively long-term.

But there is also a positive side to agile communication that occurs when I adapt my communication based on the “audience” for the purpose of communicating in a way that benefits them.

In this sense, it is not dissimilar to how actors take on a role in a play, movie, or even one of our presentations.  The best actors focus on the audience and adapt in order to give the audience what they want (you always wanted to be an actor, didn’t you?).

Peg Allen, one of our facilitator coaches, commonly says that it is not the other person’s responsibility to adapt to us, it is our responsibility to adapt our communication to the other person.  That’s agile communication.

Four Tips...

So here are 4 tips to become more of an agile communicator - able to communicate effectively to team members, customers, executives, and really anyone:

 1.  Be present in the “scene”

To me, this means that you can’t just physically be there, you have to really be there.  You have to be engaged, listening intensely, making eye contact, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, trying to understand their perspective.  This takes more effort for some (myself included) than others.

2.  Consistently evaluate your “audience”

When you enter a “scene” (a meeting, 1-on-1, or whatever) immediately evaluate the style of your audience.  Are they more assertive or less assertive?  Do they want to get to the point or delve into the details?  Do they want to connect personally or stick with the facts?  Knowing their style will give you clues to adapt your communication to them.

3.  Give more than you receive

If your focus is to give more than you receive, it will change the way you think, which will change the way you communicate, which will change your level of effectiveness.  What can you give during the conversation that the recipient cannot obtain themselves?  How can you be selfless and exhibit servant leadership?

4. Don't block

A primary rule of Improv theatre is to not block the dialogue but to add to the dialogue.  That doesn't necessarily mean you agree, but that you want to keep the dialogue going and validate the other person's perspective.  A simple way to stop blocking is to remove the word "but" and replace it with something like "yes", "yes, and", or "I heard what you said, what do you think about..."

So was my important conference call successful?  Yes and no.  We were able to move the conflict a step towards resolution, but we eventually lost the customer.  Would I do it differently now?  Yes, my focus would be much more on my “audience” and not solely on solving the problem for my own purposes.

Does this always work?  No - we are dealing with people - but more often than not it will.  AND you will experience (as I do) a much deeper sense of satisfaction.

We all know this stuff at some level, we just lose sight of it and don’t do it.  So start now.  Pick one thing that you will change so that when you next find yourself walking “onto the stage” and switching roles, you will be a better agile communicator that gets results.




The Art of Mirroring

IStock_000025659109_web“You are way too blunt.”

“You’re not blunt! You just tell it like it is!”

“I appreciate your small talk. It makes me feel like you care.”

“Enough small talk already- just get to the point!”

Ever been completely confused by people’s contrasting opinions of your communication style? Ever been bewildered, trying to figure out the best way to communicate a message?

One principle can help. It’s called “mirroring.”

Mirroring describes a number of different processes in communication. One type of mirroring begins with observing another person’s communication style closely to see if he or she is more assertive or less assertive and more people-oriented or less people-oriented. Once we identify the other person’s style, we then attempt to “mirror” that style in a particular interaction.

Business communication author Sue Bishop in her book, Develop Your Assertiveness, explains that mirroring can help to create rapport and empathy between you and another person. Rapport (a harmonious relationship) and empathy (experiencing the feelings of another) are essential to making connections and creating an environment for understanding.

So, in the workplace, if you notice that your boss is less assertive and more people-oriented, you would mirror his or her style, allowing time to talk about personal matters first, and then using more tentative language in your request. “Hi Barbara! How’s it going?” and then, “I heard your daughter is graduating this weekend. That’s great!” and then, “So, we’re talking about maybe going to Florida this summer.   Do you think it would be okay for me to take off the first week in July?”

But, if you observe that your boss is highly assertive and not very people-oriented, the principle of mirroring suggests that you stick to the facts and keep your conversation brief and direct. “Hi Barbara. I need to take off the first week in July this summer. Would that work?”

If she’s really super assertive, you can just say, “Vacation. July. 1st week.”  Then salute her and walk out of her office.

No, I’m kidding. Don’t try that at home, I mean, at work.

On second thought, maybe you could try it at home. If you would like your super assertive husband to take out the trash, don’t say, “Hi honey sweetie it’s looking like we might get some rain later and is your indigestion feeling any better and if so I was wondering if you could possibly consider taking out the trash sometime in the next few hours?”

Instead, try, “Babe. Trash. Now.”

Okay, so in certain situations, mirror at your own risk. And let me know how it goes.




“Say What?” The 5 Levels of Listening

“Amazing, simply amazing. Melt-in-your mouth. Your mama was a keeper.” Beth watched her dad’s mouth move, describing the delectable German chocolate cakes her mom used to bake, but all she could think was, “He’s a diabetic! He should not be talking about mom’s cakes. He’s only making it harder for himself.”

Beth didn’t know it, but she wasn’t really listening. At least, not in the highest possible sense of the word.


Peg Allen, communication trainer with Hippo Solutions, teaches that there are actually five levels of listening. The fifth level is “Not Listening.” At this level, we have our fingers in our ears and our eyes closed, repeating “La, la, la, la, la…”   We can’t hear the other person at all.

If you’ve ever been on the other end, trying to talk to a person with his "fingers in his ears", you know it’s absolutely infuriating. We are left misunderstood, unable to clarify, with no sense of value to our voice.

When we listen at the fourth level, we are “Listening for Judgment.” This is Beth’s level, judging her dad’s words. At this level, we are so preoccupied with our own thoughts, evaluating what the other person is saying, that we can’t actually hear the meaning behind the words. This preoccupation hinders our ability to connect with the other person on a heart level.

At the third level, we are “Listening to Tell Our Story.” Instead of actually focusing on the other person’s story, we are thinking of how our own story relates to her story. We are listening for a break, a pause, a moment when we can interject.

The fourth level is “Listening for Application.” When we listen for how we can learn from the information or apply it to our own work or lives in some way, we really are listening intently because we are motivated by the usefulness of the information. Yet, we still aren’t listening at the highest level.

At the top of the pyramid, the first level, we are “Listening to understand.” Our thoughts are focused on the other person instead of ourselves, and we want to understand for their sake, not our sake. I believe at this level, our listening is motivated by respect and value. And as the other person feels heard, understood, and known by our attentive listening, he or she experiences being valued.

With the swirl of activities, tasks, work, responsibilities, twitter feeds and random thoughts, choosing to listen to understand is extremely challenging. It takes work and intentionality. But when we listen for the heart behind the words and respond in a way that communicates we understand, our connection with the other person is deepened, and trust is established.

“Wait, did you say ‘Your mama was a keeper?’” Beth asked her father. He nodded, “She sure was.” Beth thought for a moment, and then asked, “Are you missing her today?” He nodded again, tears in his eyes. “I miss her every day.” Beth reached out and hugged him. He hugged her back. And she finally understood.