7 Barriers to Active Listening

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.
~Thich Nhat Hanh

listeningEffective influencers master the art of listening, and they understand that people want to be heard.  In our fast-paced world, active and empathetic listening is a rarity, and it’s not as simple as it sounds.  Even if we know how to listen, we often don’t do it for a number of reasons.

Next time you talk to someone, watch for the following seven common listening barriers that block a good conversation flow and may cause misunderstandings:

1. We join the conversation with predetermined attitude and assumptions about the other person or the subject matter to be discussed. Good conversations have the power to create new shared meaning and understanding, but it is only possible if we are open enough to consider those new possibilities.  So many people use conversations just to reiterate their own positions on issues.  Little is gained with such approach.  Instead, join a conversation with an open mind and desire to learn something new.  Listen with curiosity and without bias.

2. We are so preoccupied with our own thoughts that we are unable to listen attentively. Maybe, we are distracted by something unrelated to the topic of the conversation, or we are busy developing our own response and miss what’s being said.  It’s not easy to pay focused attention to the other person’s words.  Our prefrontal cortex, the brain region implicated in planning complex cognitive tasks, decision making, and moderating correct social behavior, is easily overwhelmed.  We can process just about seven pieces of information in our conscious mind at any given moment.  It makes it impossible to attend to several things simultaneously that require our concentration.  We have to train and discipline our mind to listen actively and push any other distracting thoughts aside.

3. We are completing the other person’s thoughts and jumping to conclusions. How often do we hear something and say to ourselves:  “Oh, I know where she is going with it.”  We attribute ideas, motivation, and intentions to others that they may not have.  This leads to misunderstandings.  This is especially true if we have known the conversation participants for a long time.  We feel like we know what they will say.  Patience pays off in conversations.  Let the others finish their thoughts and don’t assume you already know what they are going to say.

4. We engage in selective listening. It occurs when we listen only to what we want to hear.  We like to be right, and our minds like consistency.  We don’t feel comfortable when something upsets our belief system.  It’s easier to ignore that information. The downside is that we can’t learn from others or collaborate effectively.  To overcome the habit of selective listening, paraphrase or mirror back what you hear to ensure you understand other points of view.  Engage in conversations with people who you know will disagree with you and learn to discuss your disagreements respectfully.  Encourage different opinions with the intention of considering them thoroughly and learning from them.

5. We feel too tired, anxious, or angry to listen actively. Our brains run on glucose.  The glucose levels drop when we are tired, so we no longer have the energy to think clearly.  When we experience strong negative emotions, as when we are angry or under stress, the glucose goes from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala in the limbic system of the brain, responsible for the emotional control and memory of our emotional reactions.  The amygdala triggers the “fight or flight” mode.  As a result, our mind “freezes,” and we  either launch verbal attacks or withdraw from the dialogue.  Strong feelings and emotions affect our listening, reasoning and judgment.  If the parties feel overwhelmed, a better strategy is to take a break from the conversation.

6. We don’t pay enough attention to body language and supersegmentals, such as intonation, rate of speech, emphasis, or tone. We can focus not only on what’s being said, but also on what’s not being said.  The supersegmentals and body language give away clues about people’s emotions, feelings, stress levels that provide additional information that may not be expressed in words.  To be an active listener, you have to be a good observer too.

7. We are in a hurry. We don’t have time to listen and can’t wait for the other people to finish their thoughts so that we could get on with our business. People will sense that you don’t really want to listen to them.  If you find yourself always trying to control the pace of conversations, talk too fast, or urge others to get to the point, try to consciously slow yourself down.  Find a better time to talk.  A conversation is not a race to the finish line.

By | 2011-01-30T02:43:32+00:00 January 30th, 2011|Attention, Communication|0 Comments

Social media death spiral: U.S. Figure Skating deletes comments and disables fans’ updates on its Facebook page as 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships approach

It is not every day that a social media enthusiast gets to live the drama of a social media crisis.  Yesterday, apparently,  I took part in one after posting this comment to the U.S. Figure Skating Facebook fan page:

U.S. Figure Skating

I was surprised to discover a few hours later that my post was deleted, as were many other similar comments.  They were not rude or inflammatory, so this reaction raised many eyebrows among figure skating fans.

U.S. Figure Skating Facebook

You can see more fans’ posts that were deleted from the U.S. Figure Skating Facebook page here.

Here’s how it all began…

U.S. Figure Skating is the national governing body for the sport of figure skating in the United States. U.S. Figure Skating is a member of the International Skating Union (ISU), the international federation for figure skating, and is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC).   As 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships are about to take place in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the end of January, the controversy is brewing over the Smucker’s Skating Spectacular, the gala exhibition that concludes the National Championships on January 30, 2011.

The U.S. Figure Skating rules ban skaters who are not competing this season at Nationals from skating in the exhibition.  This year, U.S. Figure Skating made an exception for Evan Lysacek who is scheduled to skate in the Spectacular even though he is not competing.  No exception, however, was made for the winner of the 2010 Readers’ Choice Award / Michelle Kwan Trophy, Johnny Weir, who is expected to be presented with the award at the Championships.  He is the only skater other than Michelle Kwan herself to ever receive the Readers’ Choice Award more than once.  Understandably, Johnny Weir’s fans want to see him skate in the exhibition as well, so they began sending their suggestions to U.S. Figure Skating via Twitter and Facebook.

At the time of this writing, any updates on the U.S. Figure Skating  Facebook page are disabled, which suggests that U.S. Figure Skating is not ready to engage in a dialogue with its fans or even simply respond.  The bitter irony is that these comments were made by people who support and care about the sport and try to raise its popularity in the U.S., a mission presumably shared by U.S. Figure Skating.

01/25/2011 UPDATE – US Figure Skating changed its Facebook fan page settings back to enable the “US Figure Skating + Others” tab where fans can post their updates.  At least, US Figure Skating no longer feels the need to hide our opinions, perhaps, because at this stage, when the Championships are under way, it is too late to change anything anyways.  It’s just talk, isn’t it?

US Figure Skating changed its Facebook fan page settings back to enable the “US Figure Skating + Others” tab where fa
By | 2011-01-25T14:45:51+00:00 January 22nd, 2011|Communication, Conflict Management|5 Comments

Can computer games help us make better decisions in life?

World of Uncertainty Supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team at Queen’s University Belfast is exploring whether people can be trained to make better decisions by improving their ability to recognize and make allowances for their subjective opinions and biases. This interdisciplinary project harnesses leading-edge expertise in mathematics, statistics, critical thinking, knowledge management and educational psychology.  The team has developed a prototype that could be built on by commercial games manufacturers and turned into an e-learning or training tool for professionals and for the general public.  Here is how the researchers describe the “World of Uncertainty” game:

“The game uses multiple choice questions on a variety of subjects. However this is not just an ordinary quiz. Its main purpose is to improve and calibrate players’ certainty and sense of probabilities rather than subject knowledge. Thus the topic of the quiz or difficulty level became irrelevant so long as the player enjoys the quiz and is motivated to achieve higher score. On answering each question, the player has to indicate his/her confidence as accurately as possible using interactive slider. As a player adjusts the slider, corresponding payoffs for correct and incorrect outcomes will be shown. This payoff function designed to encourage the honest and accurate confidence judgment. In addition to immediate feedback, players can access results of all completed quizzes and calibration charts from personal profiles. Detailed feedback helps to correct over/under confidence in quantifying internal probabilities.”

Over 500 members of the general public, as well as many students from Queen’s and Dundalk Institute of Technology, have already tried out the prototype.  The prototype game allows you to increase your accuracy in answering questions and train to quantify your confidence.  It is available for anyone to try out at http://quiz.worldofuncertainty.org/.

By | 2011-01-20T18:37:02+00:00 January 20th, 2011|Learning, Peak Performance, Perception|0 Comments

Video Review Series, Part 3: Leveraging Social Media for Crisis Communication



How hard could it be to undo bad publicity?

In one of the questionnaires relayed to 160 Israeli directors as part of the study conducted by the Faculty of Management at the Tel Aviv University, the participants were asked to recall information on Israeli companies that was reported in the press.  The research revealed that the directors tended to remember the negative news published in the media regarding these companies, but that it was harder for them to think of positive news about the same enterprises.  In addition, bad news traveled fast.  The number of people who received word of a negative report in the media was almost five times greater than that of people who were informed of positive reports.

People remember bad news published in the media more easily.  This may be an example of the brain’s negativity bias.  Events that trigger negative emotions increase activity in the emotion-processing areas of the brain, such as the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala. These emotionally charged memories are preserved in greater detail than happy or more neutral memories, but they may also be subject to distortion.  This mechanism for the preservation of bad memories may have evolved to protect us against future negative events.

While we may not want to deliver bad news, it’s worthwhile to remember that people would rather know the worst than fear the worst.  Daniel Gilbert, who is professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” writes:

“Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster — than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

“That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.”

The following case studies of the “Year 2010 in Review” series show how companies and organizations can harness the power of social media to deal with bad news and counteract bad publicity.

The first example comes from Visit Florida tourism organization that proactively used social media in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill to provide real-time information about the state of Florida beaches. Its website  http://www.visitflorida.com/floridalive aggregated updates from local twitter feeds, webcams, photo reports to tell the eyewitness story of what hundreds of miles of Florida coastline looked like.  This is its commercial that invited people to visit the Florida Live website for the current updates.

The second case study is Destination Hotels & Resort’s Wild Dunes property in Charleston, S.C., which faced serious problems with beach erosion in 2008 and saved its peak season with a social media campaign.  Through optimized press releases,  YouTube videos by the golf pro, photos, and a dialogue about Isle of Palms on TripAdvisort, the campaign strengthened relationships with customers and brought more business despite a serious image problem.  You can now read about the beach nourishment project and see the before and after images of the beach in the photo gallery and more photos and videos on the Wild Dunes Resort Facebook page.

Here are a few take-aways on social media and crisis communication:

  1. Don’t hide from the bad news.  Use social media as a platform to engage the public and reduce the uncertainty.
  2. Anticipate the questions and concerns of the public and address them in your social media campaign.
  3. Gather as much information as possible to better understand the situation and don’t be afraid to enlist the help of others.
  4. Be prepared to respond to questions and deal with strong reactions.
  5. Stay flexible and adjust your course as needed.   Consider “what if” scenarios and develop contingency plans.
  6. Update the public on the efforts to solve the problem and turn your challenges into  opportunities to strengthen the relationships with your customers and reinforce the values of your brand.

How would you leverage social media for crisis communication?

Related posts:
Year 2010 in Video Review Series: What can these videos teach us about the social brain, conflict management and social media? Part I: From baking pizzas to brewing conflicts

Video Review Series, Part 2: The Effective Video Apology “DOs” and “DON’Ts”

Video Review Series, Part 4: Humor in Conflict Is No Laughing Matter

By | 2011-02-25T23:40:45+00:00 January 18th, 2011|Communication, Conflict Management|1 Comment

Book Review: “Welcome to My World” by Johnny Weir

I enjoy reading memoirs – uniquely personal experiences with universal truths. I especially looked forward to the recently published autobiography “Welcome to My World” by Johnny Weir, a world-famous figure-skater, three times U.S. National Champion and twice Olympian.   I won’t pretend to be unbiased.  I am a fan of his masterful skating.  I have always been amazed at his capacity to push the boundaries of his sport and bring people from different countries and cultures together in appreciation for what he is and what he brings to the skating world.  I longed for a quiet weekend when I would snuggle with the book and make my world stop while I was in his world.  Johnny Weir’s autobiography promised much needed food for the mind, heart and soul (and a big plus, for a change, it didn’t include the word “brain” or “neuro” in the title like all of my recent reads).   I am happy to say, it didn’t disappoint.

Known for his honest, direct, and witty way of delivering messages, Johnny Weir stayed true to his style in his quarter-life memoir, as he likes to call it.  He is a skillful  storyteller.  His keen eye for detail and visual effects that so many of his fans appreciate in his skating programs translated into the vivid and lively language of the book.  You don’t just read about Johnny Weir’s life, you actually see it unfolding in front of your eyes as if on a movie screen.  Like his skates on the ice, everything moves fast in a delightful swirl of dialogue, characters, and places.  The book is another proof that whatever it is Johnny Weir decides to go after, he goes full force, lighting the path with sparkly rhinestones.

We witness his quick transformation from a quiet and focused child with an active imagination and wise outlook on life to an awe-inspiring skater and artist.  He took his first steps on ice not on a suburban skating rink but on the ice-covered cornfield patch behind his house in a small place of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, after his parents gave him a pair of used black leather skates as a gift. “I definitely caught the skating bug that winter afternoon,” he writes.  “The feeling of speeding from one place to another so quickly was amazing.”  Yet, his future at the time appeared to be in horseback riding – he was close to making the national team. Competitive and determined even as a kid, when his trainer suggested he should work on his posture, he went home and sat “perfectly straight for two hours” until his back was shaking.  Then, amidst his equestrian training, he took a group skating lesson – another gift from his parents – and to the instructor’s surprise, he landed an axel, a jump that usually takes someone two years to learn.  The decision had to be made, and an eleven-year old Johnny chose to become an Olympian in figure skating.

I don’t know how many parents would be ready to move multiple times and endure all kinds of financial and emotional pressures to give their son an opportunity to pursue an Olympic dream, but Johnny’s parents did just that and continued to provide love and support through all of the tribulations of his athletic career. And those were many.  “Everything changed as I climbed the ranks of competitive skating,” he writes.  “My body, my technique, my ability, my emotions, my surroundings, all in turmoil and flux.”  From his rapid rise to the Olympic level, Johnny Weir emerges as a person who is not afraid to accept, love and nurture the opposites in himself, which makes him an outspoken contrarian, adored by his numerous global fans, but also distrusted by the skating establishment.  A tender-hearted fighter, a disciplined artist, an ornery gentleman, a witty intellectual, an athletic fashionista, a quiet entertainer, one thing we know for sure, he is never boring.  Neither are his costumes:  “Much like A-List actresses who won’t hit the red carpet unless they’re dripping in five million dollars’ worth of diamonds, I can’t skate unless I feel beautiful.”

He aims for perfection in everything he does – from his sport to his wardrobe and the lines of the carpet at his home, perhaps, reinforcing the structure he needs to anchor his exuberant creative expression.   But while perfection is his goal, he never pretends to be perfect.  He is brutally honest in this “feel-free-to-hate-my-guts” kind of way when he talks about his own lapses of judgment, like faking injuries and withdrawing from competitions.  But you can’t be mad at him for long because he doesn’t give himself a break and certainly doesn’t expect it from others:  “My stupidity and hubris had landed me in skating purgatory, cast our from the mainstream and any kind of official track. I knew I earned my karma and deserved everything that was happening, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.”

Every setback and disappointment, however, becomes a learning opportunity and a springboard to propel himself forward.  He may be known as a “swan” for his signature 2006 Olympic short program, but he is also a “phoenix” when it comes to his signature life programming.  The phoenix is a symbol of renewal.  The mythical bird is a fire spirit with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet (not unlike the colors of the book cover).   According to ancient mythology, it builds itself a nest of twigs that then ignites, and a new, young phoenix arises from the ashes.  From each career dip, Johnny Weir appears better and stronger:  “…nothing matters but the moment.  Whatever happens at an event, good or bad, dissipates when you train on a clean slate of ice.”

The book is an emotional rollercoaster that will make you laugh, cry, sigh and cheer as Johnny Weir takes you into his world of competitions, travel, fashion, and romance.  The issue of Johnny Weir’s ‘coming out’ in the book has been much discussed in the media recently although as he and many others see it, he has never been ‘in’.  He was six when he realized there was something different about him while watching Richard Gere in Pretty Woman:  “Seeing Julia Roberts get swept off her feet by her rich and handsome client, I wanted to be her so badly because he did something special to me.  Kissing seemed like a weird think to do, but I knew if I were going to do it, it would be with Richard Gere.”  When he turned eighteen, he told his mother he was gay:  “Suddenly it felt like I was sitting in the room with a stranger, and this was my mom, my best friend.  The energy around us dropped as she started to cry.”  He continues, “I fell sorry for my mom and wanted her to know that everything was going to be all right.”  She replied, “I don’t really care, Johnny, as long as I know that you are going to be happy.”  His love story is sweet, lyrical, poignant, and humorous at the same time.  It will resonate with anyone who has a heart and a body.  His experience is personal and unique, but the truths behind it are universal.

Johnny Weir lives a passionate life.  His passion for his sport gave him the dream, the purpose, and the strength to pursue his goals despite obstacles and disappointments and remain true to himself.  The book reflects his complex and multifaceted personality that bursts through whatever boxes anybody tries to put him in.  His story inspires us to find our own passions and strengths within and challenges us to rise above our labels.

By | 2011-01-18T17:22:22+00:00 January 11th, 2011|Books|0 Comments