What I Wish I Did More Often


I was kicking some ideas around with my daughters today, and one had a perspective very different from that of her sister.  They love each other a lot, their values are very similar, they have shared so much together, AND they just see the world through completely different lenses.  They’re the kind where relatives say, “It’s hard to believe they came from the same family?”
They were debating a point about college and growing up, and I felt the temperature in the room rising.  Oh, it was a long way from the boiling point, but it was getting hotter.  Jennifer had walked into the room, and the pace was quickening.  I said to Jennifer and the one daughter who was questioning the other, “what if instead of debating this point we just try to understand what she is saying?  What if we switch from discussion to inquiry about how she feels and what she means by it, instead of talking about how we think she understands it, or how we think she should understand it?”  It really worked!  We all understood her point, and now that she wasn’t being pushed (and therefore defensive), she could begin to see (all by herself) that there was another way she could look at the issue.
I was like the proverbial blind squirrel who occasionally finds a nut.  What I wish I did more often is to remember to practice the power of genuine inquiry.  So often, we think we know what someone is saying.  So often, we want to correct their view before we truly understand it.  So often, when we don’t understand, people respond with defensiveness and aggression.  Then, the heat goes up, and as the heat goes up, the light goes down.  People say more and listen less and the vicious cycle speeds up.
We’re pretty smart.  We think we get it.  We are in a hurry – who isn’t?  We say our part.  We defend our view.  We’re more into being right than understanding.  Inquiry through good listening is like Karate, a good golf swing, or great teamwork:  there is a sweet efficiency that follows.  Trying less yields more.  There’s smoothness as things work themselves out, as the gift of listening-with-trust, allows the other person to speak with candor and completeness.  At St. John’s on Sunday Fr. Joe said something about time with God, which also applies well to the way we listen to family, co-workers, and even our adversaries, “Quit doing something, and just stand there!”
Care to join me in opining a little less and inquiring a little more?  Inquire more to . . .
Lead with your best self!


  • Dan,

    I completely agree, the act of truly trying to understand the other person’s point of view is frequently lacking today. It’s certainly a skill that can be improved, but just being aware of it’s value can help to ensure that we try to practice it. How many times have we had a disagreement with someone, and we finally came to realize that we were actually on the same page in regard to the point we were actually arguing about?

    On a separate matter, everybody remember to vote tomorrow. Many men and women have paid a high price for us to have that right.

  • I heard the story some time ago about all of the research that has gone into the fact that we are such poor listeners, that more often than not instead of listening we are thinking of something witty to say.
    The best time that we ever had as a family was that fifteen or twenty minutes each night after we sat down at dinner and we talked about each other’s day. No one interrupted, everyone’s comments were valued and those times were truly “golden.” I’m reminded in this time of trying to be all things to all people that we need to be good parents first and foremost and some times it means saying that we are going to take time out of our busy lives to have a sit down dinner at least once and perhaps more times a week to stop and listen to each other. Sounds corny maybe, but with our “children” now in their thirties they still reflect back on those good times and the foundation it gave them for later on in life.

  • People are different–they come from different places emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

    As a coach, our challenge is to meet the person being coached where he or she “comes from,” so they can take the action they truly desire.

    Personal transformation happens when the right questions get asked–not by providing answers. When you focus on the solution, you are trying to sell the person something. When you allow people to answer their own questions, they discover what they were not aware of—and what is needed to move forward.

    Effective coaching can happen on the dance floor of conversation. It’s okay to begin a conversation by confronting the other person with questions that seem awkward but set the stage for a respectful exchange.

    Why waste time on small talk? Just ask to-the-point information-seeking questions, like: “What are you here for? How do you want to spend our time together?”

  • As a certified mediator, I know the power of active listening and understanding the other person’s perspective on a situation. It has an amazing impact on resolving conflict in a respectful and meaningful way. Conflict resolution can only be successful by really understanding the other side of the story, and then working together to identify ways to solve the problems. If one’s perspective is not understood and appreciated, successful problem-solving is unlikely.

    Listening and perspective-taking are valuable life skills, and the key to building emotional intelligence.

    Trish Hubbell

  • As Steven Covey said in one of his books – “Seek first to understand, and then be understood”. You are right on!

  • Dan,
    Your columns always draw my thoughts to the truly fine mentors I have been blessed with throughout my young life. Your thoughts on listening took me back to hours spent with Fr. Benno Kornely first at Colombiere Center and later at Manresa. Benno was one of my supervisors during and after my training as a Spiritual Director and he was an extraordinary listener. His heart and his smile were of equally great proportions.

    Benno practiced, long before Stephen Covey wrote it, “Seek first to understand and only then to be understood.” I asked him once, when I was a green trainee, how the meeting with someone seeking spiritual direction ought to break down timewise. It has been too long ago to recall his exact words, but they were close to. “As much time as needed for the seeker, most for God and prayer, and five minutes for the spiritual director if you feel talkative.”

    The finest mentors I have known have always been extraordinary listeners and they shared a deep and genuine caring for the experience of the other.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  • Dan,

    Just this morning (very early this morning) I had a long conversation with my younger son. It seems we so seldom have a chance to talk because of all the stuff competing for our attention during each and every day. Your message today rang true as I reflected on all the changes my children and I have undergone over the years. When they were really young, I’m afraid I did not use active listening skills, but issued pronouncements of what is right and what is wrong.

    Over time, I felt they grew to resent my authoritarian attitude, and I tried to (as my older daughter called it) “full-face listen” to what they were saying to help them find answers through active listening and careful questioning. Oddly, although my younger son remarked that he appreciated the give and take of the active listening style, my older son felt otherwise. He had the impression that the old man was losing his edge. Why?

    He told me that he remembered depending on me to have an answer when he could not discern one, or at least an idea that would lead to an answer. He missed having an authority. I wondered about this until I remembered that he has two sons of his own, and is now in the postion of answering the thousands of questions young children ask in a never-ending stream. It is tempting (and ego building) to be the authority in their world. However, I have watched him in action with his sons, and he uses a very active listening style with them. It makes me proud.

    In my experience, you can nearly always tell when someone has stopped listening and is viewing the discussion as a competetion, because they interrupt often and abruptly to interject their ideas. I see it in their eyes and in their frantic note taking – so as not to forget their idea when an opening is offered (like when I take breath). Now, if I could just learn not to interrupt others the minute an idea comes into my own head!

    Thank you for reminding me to quit kvetching and start listening!


  • Dan, thank you so much for subscribing me to this newsletter, and thank you for this reminder. This advice is very timely, as a family member has been telling me for the past week that I have a tendency to dominate conversations. This may come from being a lawyer, or just a terrible habit. I have to learn to listen more. It reminds me of something my dad always used to say — you have two ears and one mouth for a reason!

  • A good verbal tool to promote listening and honest sharing, if we can say it in a truly curious tone, and not an outraged one, is “YOU MUST HAVE A REASON FOR THINKING (OR FEELING) LIKE THAT. MAY I ASK WHAT IT IS?” Then, if we listen, we’ll find out. Everyone has a reason for thinking and feeling as they do. It could be a perfectly valid reason, based on their own experience and perceptions. We can argue on opinions, but everyone’s own experience and perceptions are valid, and cannot be denied. Asking what their reasons are is a way to get to the ground for their belief system. Sometimes, when we listen to the basis, their underlying reasons, we find common ground… and peaceful co-existence with people who disagree.

    In other words, entertain the notion that good, intelligent people can have differences of opinion. Different isn’t bad or wrong or ignorant. It’s just different.

    The quote and concept is from James Bauer, MSW, ACSW (now deceased).

  • Patience! It takes patience. I had to learn to listen. My job requires me to listen, my wife requires me to listen, my children require me to listen, I listen to myself. Hush, and let the Lord calm your anxious spirit.

    I wish I had listened to my mother more when I was a teenager. My grandmother was a great listener, she had all of the follow up answers. God listens to all of our inquiries.

    Thomas K. Burke-Mentor

  • Patience and listening are important. I believe that a leader needs to listen. In these past eight years we have had Bush and Cheney unwilling to listen and we can see their disastrous policies and practices.

  • TODAY…….for the FIRST TIME in eight years, I’m proud to be an American…….and a resident of, as Pierre Thomas, who was born and raised in the small town of Virginia where I reside, Amherst, referred to Virginia, not as the “OLD Dominion”….but as the “NEW Dominion”!! Blue again, praise the Lord.


    Tomorrow though……it is TCB time.

  • NO Wall Street bonuses! 1/10 of the bailout plan’s $700B is slated for executive bonuses for 2008.
    This is downright criminal.
    Washington needs to stop the madness that they are responsible and complicit in with Wall street.

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