Hi, I’m Ian McLean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

Last time. We discussed how we all create our own unique context as human beings, underpinned by our labels and our biases. We’re going to extend that theme by discovering how our labels and biases, in addition, become a serious impediment to our ability to listen to what’s on the other side.

Let’s start with a small experiment. I’m going to tell you a story. As I tell you this brief story, I’m going to ask you to listen for your own reaction. It’s a story about a contact tracer who came into contact and had a conversation with a woman who had tested positive after dining with an infected friend at a restaurant.

The woman, a white-collar professional in her twenties, told the tracer that despite having a headache, sore throat, and fatigue, she again dined out. Went shopping, went to the gym, had a long session with a stylist, and visited her boyfriend, who was hosting visitors from abroad. An itinerary that put her in close contact with more than 12 people.

Experiencing reaction? If you are, it’s simply because you’re filtering it through your own context, which is based on your beliefs, your values, your needs, and your opinions, which all mount into your labels and your biases. In fact, as humans, it’s impossible not to filter.

However, as a leader, which we all know requires you to be superhuman, we are dealing with on a daily basis, a world which is increasingly polarized, and we’re having to have conversations on a daily basis with people whose views are often very, very contradictory to our own.

So, the question for this episode is, how do you, as a leader, help things move forward with commitment with somebody who’s got a completely different point of view than you? Or, more specifically, how do you truly get to understand the other person’s side of the bridge by suspending your own set of labels and biases?

With this in mind, Let me tell you a story.

Now, the premiership has restarted. My son came to me last week and he said, Dad, Tottenham have got a fantastic new away strip. My friends just got one. I need 85 euros for the T-shirt. My instant reaction was to experience what we described in episode 8, the episode around building trust, as a 5 % moment.

My internal narrative went something like this. Are you crazy? Do you know how much it costs to make that jersey? Which is my label. It quickly moved to, do you realize money doesn’t grow on trees? And how many hours you’d need to work at minimum wage after tax in order to earn 85 euro. In my own head, I was beginning to sound a lot like my parents.

And on my side of the bridge, I’m right. It’s not going to solve the problem.

Do you realize that you have this ongoing, always competing inner conflict between being right and being effective? And there are many leaders and managers I’ve witnessed who are paying a very heavy price for the privilege of being right.

However, you will never resolve a difference or create connection without obtaining the ability to suspend and press pause on your own label.

What differentiates us as humans from other mammals is that we have freedom of choice, even though we often squander it in the moment.

Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, says that in every situation, there is a space, a space between the situation and how you respond.

It may only be a millisecond. But are you reacting, or are you responding? Because, as a human, You always have the power to choose. By simply reacting based on my own biases and my own labels, I miss the opportunity to truly connect.

Here’s a question. Do people always say what they mean? Or do people always mean what they say?

When my son says, I need 85 euros for a jersey, he’s describing the situation. But if I listen more deeply to what’s behind that statement, What is it that he really means? By connecting with the implication and listening beyond just the situation, I’m far more likely to create connection and solve the right problem.

So, in order to listen at the right level, I need to ask myself, what’s really behind what my son’s asking here? What he’s not asking for is an 85-euro piece of cloth. The problem he’s really wrestling with himself is. How do I fit in? How do I not look stupid with my peers? How do I not stand out uncomfortably?

It seems to me you have three choices. The first is you can react, which is based on your own labels and your own triggers, and you can be right in the moment, and then you can live with the residue.

The second option is you can just go and buy the jersey, which deals with the situation, but it doesn’t deal with the implication because another version of the same thing is going to continue to recur. We’ve just solved the wrong problem.

Thirdly, we can connect with the real concern, or the implication of the situation, of what’s really behind the ask. And by listening for what the real concern is and then acknowledging that real concern, we’re now into a very different conversation. But we’re tackling the root issue, not just the fruits of the issue.

And how that might go is something like, son, it sounds to me like, if you don’t get the jersey, You’re not going to be able to fit in with your friends. Now, we’ve entered into a conversation about the issue of fitting in with your friends and peer pressure, which is a conversation that we all want to have and all need to have.

The answer to which may or may not involve getting a Jersey. So, in summary, as human beings, we all have our labels, and we all have our biases. But whilst they’re valid, they are the ultimate barrier to truly listening for what’s on the other side. The maxim is to hold your own labels lightly, not tightly.

And secondly, when you’re listening, rather than just listening to what people say, try to listen beyond that and listen for what they really mean, for what their driving concerns are. Forget about the situation. What’s the implication for them? Otherwise, we end up listening at the wrong level, and we end up solving the wrong problem.

The number of managers who I hear say, well, I gave them the solution, or I told them how to solve it, or I told them to go off and do this. And yet the person keeps coming back, and the underlying issue here is, yes, they’re solving the presenting problem, but the manager is not connecting with what the underlying concern or implication is for the person in question.

The payoff is that if you can hear what’s really at issue. What the real concern is, and you can acknowledge that concern for the person. They feel seen, or they feel heard, or they feel acknowledged, and it presents relief for them. And by doing that, you’re creating connective tissue, which is the source of all trust.

Part of the reason that people don’t do this routinely is that:

We’ve never been trained on this. It’s never been emphasized. So people haven’t been taught how to do it, so they’re fearful of it.

And secondly, even people who are skilled at doing it and know that they have to do it are fearful that if I acknowledge and understand what your concern is, by implication or definition, I have to agree. And here’s the point. We can do this without having to agree.

I was discussing this with a senior leader recently from Milan called Salvatore. And he said, Ian, these are simple, but they’re not that easy.

This is simple. Damn, it’s not easy.

Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected.

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