The most fundamental exercise in my Collaboration Muscles & Mindsets workout program is the “one-minute drill.” It’s the first exercise people do, and we repeat it several times throughout the course of a program. It’s an exercise in listening deeply and showing that you’re listening.
Even though it seems simple, people quickly discover that it’s not. Really, truly listening is hard. Furthermore, being capable of listening well isn’t the same as actually doing it. When I work with groups, even skillful ones, I often see good listeners talking past each other. All too often, we’re distracted by other things, including our own emotional states.
Making people feel heard — which is deeply intertwined with listening, but is not the same thing — is even harder. The one-minute drill helps you quickly and objectively recognize how hard these things are. It humbles you without humiliating you.
I don’t just lead workouts, I do them myself. I’ve done the one-minute drill hundreds of times with many different people, and I always seem to learn something new. Recently, I’ve been working out with my friend and colleague, Kristin Cobble. The past few times I’ve done the one-minute drill with her, she’s docked me points. “You’re reflecting back everything that I’m saying,” she explained, “but you’re not acknowledging how I’m feeling.”
She was absolutely right. I am very good at listening for substance and at reframing and reflecting back the essence of the content. It’s one of my strengths as a facilitator. But sometimes, people aren’t actually trying to convey a substantive message. They’re trying to get you to understand how they feel.
I had heard the emotion that Kristin had conveyed in the one-minute drill, but I hadn’t recognized the importance she had placed on them. Upon receiving her feedback, I was able to see what I had done and adjust my reflection accordingly.
However, it’s not always that straightforward. If someone is expressing anxiety, for example, how do you acknowledge that? Saying, “You seem really anxious,” might be appropriate in some circumstances, but it’s almost certainly the wrong thing to say in others. How you say it also matters. If someone is feeling excited, the words, “You seem excited,” may not be appreciated if your tone feels apathetic or resentful.
My experience with Kristin was timely, because I’ve run into this exact issue twice (that I know of) in the last month. In both cases, I was having difficult conversations with colleagues. In both cases, I was relatively calm, I was breathing slowly and consciously so that I could listen more deeply, and I reflected back the content of what I heard. And in both cases, my colleagues let me know that they didn’t feel heard.
It was frustrating to get that feedback, and if I had not had similar experiences with Kristin in recent practice sessions, I might have missed what was happening. In one of those cases, I was able to make the adjustment, but not in the other. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I could have said in the other case both to truly hear my colleague and to let her know that I heard her. That’s why I keep practicing.
In 2009, I worked with a think tank that was trying to grapple with very hard public policy challenges through both traditional, expert-oriented methods and bottoms-up, participatory processes. The first challenge we took on was clean energy. We kicked off our process with a day-long gathering in San Francisco with about 200 participants. The plan was to let the conversation go in multiple directions throughout the day, then weave it all together into something coherent that we would share at the end of the day. It was essentially a listening and reflection exercise at scale.
We asked our friend, the brilliant Katherine Fulton, to take on the difficult task of distilling six hours of discussion into a 10-minute talk in more or less real-time. She listened deeply throughout the day, as she is so skilled at doing. Then she went up on stage, and said to the audience, “Raise your hand if you feel scared.”
Most of the participants raised their hands.
“Raise your hand if you feel hopeful.”
Most of the participants raised their hands.
“I think that’s the essence of human condition,” Katherine opined. “I don’t think we’re going to fix this with just rational argument or all the great innovative ideas in the world. We have to have those. But the energy to do it and the will to do it is actually also going to have to come from another part of the human spirit, from our resilience.”
I still vividly remember how the energy of that room felt as Katherine got us out of our heads and into our hearts. She recognized that trying to reflect back what everyone had been saying was an exercise in futility and — in that moment, at least — would lead to more harm than good. What we all needed from her in that moment was an acknowledgement of how we were feeling.
I learned something very important watching Katherine that day, and I continue to work on developing this muscle. I’ve gotten better, but I still have a ways to go, as my experiences this past month reminded me. That’s why I keep practicing and encouraging others to do the same.