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The Magic of Listening Curiously

 
The new flow meters at a Southern California water utility were acting strangely. They’d been replaced within the past year, but some showed readings that were inconsistent with the previous year’s results. Bob, the senior manager of all the pumping plants, was inclined to blame the technicians who were calibrating the meters. After all, the meters were new, so they were unlikely to malfunction. Bob was pretty sure he was right. However, he wondered if other factors might be at work.
 
He called Arnold, one of the team managers who serviced the meters. “What’s going on with those flow meters?” he asked. Glad to be consulted, Arnold explained that the inconsistent readings were all coming from valves that had been placed outdoors. The new meters were not designed for use in the hot California sun. Bob quickly realized that if they were not replaced promptly, the flow readings for the whole district were likely to be compromised, with potentially catastrophic results.Bob thought he knew the answer to the problem. But before acting, he considered the chance that what he thought was not the only answer, and thereby solved a problem that could have had disastrous consequences.  Instead of approaching the situation with an attitude that he already knew the answer, he wondered about alternative explanations.

When Bob spoke to Arnold, he was open to Arnold’s message. He listened curiously.

What are the elements of curious listening?

When we listen curiously, we come from a mindset of wondering rather than one of already knowing. Maybe we know; maybe we don’t know. We are open, curious, and present in the dialogue in the current moment, not in the past of what we have already said and done.This curiosity is the seed of creative problem-solving.

Curious listening is an attitude rather than an action. Visionary leaders often have the quality of openness to new possibilities, but most of us need to work to develop this habit.

Ask yourself:

  • What would it take for me not to know the answer right away?
  • How can I allow the space for uncertainty, discovery, and creativity?
  • Can I simply be present with another person without the need to judge them, fix them, solve a problem, or take immediate action?

Relating to life and people from curiosity and openness is often, ironically, the best way to get the best solution to a problem. Succumbing to the need to put the other person in a box (younger, less experienced, lower status, had the wrong answer last time…) and jump immediately to the solution that first comes to mind may ultimately cost our organizations and us immensely. Curious listening is the antidote to the problem of rushing for immediate answers.
 

Who listens curiously?

Effective mediators listen curiously when they ask each side to give its version of a situation. Parents often listen curiously when children run in the door from school saying, “Guess what happened today?” Spouses may listen curiously when they ask each other, “How was your day?” And good managers listen curiously when confronted with problems that may have complex or multiple answers.
 

Could you give it a try?

It may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to give up the role of being the person who always knows the  answer right away. But if we are willing to embrace curiosity and uncertainty, we open vistas of possibility untethered by our past.


 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved
 
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy this post on 8 Habits of Curious People.

Read other Better Writing. Better Business blog posts:
 
The $30 million Revision

Apologize and Be Forgiven

The Real Cost of Unclear Messages

The Real Cost of Unclear Messages

 

In a writing training at a large multinational corporation, I asked, “What are the costs of unclear messages and emails?” I expected answers like, “The wrong work gets done,” and “Operations slow down.” But that’s not what I got. A woman’s hand shot up. “They don’t affect me at all,” she said. She shrugged nonchalantly. “I just ignore them.”

I was stunned. This company has 25,000 employees. If even a fraction of them was routinely ignoring messages that were unclear, what would the consequences to the organization be? At the least, the people who sent the unclear messages would send follow-up emails and messages to the people who had ignored them, adding to email overload and draining productivity.

The Costs Are Enormous

But email overload was not the biggest danger. What if those garbled documents and emails contained important information such as new policies, safety procedures, customer relations directives, and operational instructions? If many people ignored those messages because they did not understand them, the whole organization would be dragged down.  The disregarded messages could also expose the company to serious safety and legal consequences.  

The flow of communications keeps the energy pulsing throughout every organization. When the system is bogged down with sludgy, mushy messages, the whole network suffers. Then the wrong work gets done, operational bottlenecks pop up, and executive directives die before they are delivered.

Motivating Employees to Get to the Point

What does it take to get employees to get to the point? Some of the solution lies in training: They need to know how to get to the point. But culture counts, too. If top managers send out buzzword-filled memos that no one understands, they set the tone. If managers tolerate murky messages, decoding them as best they can and never giving writers feedback, they are part of the problem. Once employees disengage and say, “I just ignore messages I cannot understand easily,”  the potential costs become scary. That’s when it’s time to intervene.

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 Read other Better Writing. Better Business blog posts:

The $30 million Revision

Apologize and Be Forgiven

Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our training programs help you achieve better business through better writing.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Danziger today. She can be reached at (310) 396-8303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Apologize and Be Forgiven

What does it cost when we refuse to apologize for what we have done? What can we gain when we take ownership of our actions and sincerely communicate with customers?
 
When Stuart Jenkins paid for a stateroom on a well-known cruise line, he expected a fabulous experience. However, the air conditioner in an adjoining room malfunctioned, and the Jenkinses had water all over their stateroom floor. They complained and were given a $100 onboard voucher for their trouble; they did not feel this was sufficient. When Stuart returned, he wrote to the president of the cruise line to complain.

An assistant to the president wrote the following: “We understand that you feel your stateroom was in need of refurbishing, particularly with regard to the leak from the adjacent AC/HVAC room wetting the carpet, and we apologize for your displeasure.”

How do you think this went over with Stuart? It does not say that the stateroom needed refurbishing; it says “we understand that you feel the stateroom needed refurbishing.” It does not apologize for the water on the floor. It apologizes for the reader’s displeasure, whatever that means. In short, it blames Stuart for being such an oversensitive baby and does not take ownership of the company’s errors.

When Stuart received this letter, do you think he was mollified? Do you think he will book with this cruise line again? What will he tell his friends about this company’s brand? Nothing good. And if Stuart knows anything about using social media to publicize letters received from big corporations, watch out.
 

Would a Sincere Apology Have Made a Difference?

Imagine an alternative letter, in which the company spokesman wrote, “We apologize for the water on your stateroom floor. That must have been very distressing. We have taken steps to ensure that if such a thing happens again, a guest would be moved if an alternative room was available. While we are unable to offer you more than the $100 voucher  in the way of cash, we can offer you a 10% discount on a future booking.”
Would such a letter have put out the fire in Stuart’s heart? Maybe it would. It would certainly go farther in soothing him that having the cruise line apologize for his “displeasure.”
 

What If an Apology Might Backfire?

The cruise line’s response to Stuart was classic CYA communication. They did not want Stuart to sue them or demand more compensation than they were willing to give. The fear that a reader might latch onto an apology and claw at your throat is sometimes valid. I suggest you seek legal counsel if you think that you are in such a situation.
 

Tips for Writing an Effective Apology

  • When you apologize, apologize for what you did. Take responsibility for what happened if you are responsible for it.  
  • Empathize with the other person’s distress.Don’t hide out in roundabout phrases and bluster.  You can do this even if you did not do anything wrong, as you are probably sorry that the person is upset.
  • Focus on solutions. Get your reader out of the past and into the future as quickly as you can. 

Apologize and Be Forgiven

A proverb says, "What comes from the heart enters the heart." Most people are willing to forgive almost anything if they receive a sincere apology that takes responsibility for the error committed. If you feel your reader will be litigious, you do have to be careful. However, most people just want to be heard, respected, and provided with a reasonable solution.

Thank heaven for their forgiving spirit and bring it to life with an honest, sincere apology when things go wrong.
 
 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 
Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our writing trainings are geared to help you achieve better business through better writing.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Danziger today. She can be reached at (310) 396-8303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
 
 

 

The $30 Million Revision

Twenty minutes into the presentation, the panel was visibly irritated.  After another thirty minutes, the panel chair said, "Let's pretend this meeting never happened. Redo your presentation and come back in four weeks." 

 They met with the consultant, who helped them think about the presentation from the panel’s perspective. They reworked the presentation so that it communicated more effectively. They simplified their slides so that there was just one point per slide. Most importantly, they stopped to consider the review from the panel’s perspective. What did the panel want to know? These reviewers were not interested in the technical information; they needed answers about funding, reliability, and the political climate.
 
After this revision, the contractor presented again. They passed the review. They also got $30 million more than they had initially requested.
 

Communication Leads to Results

In the first presentation, the contractor did not communicate with the panel. Communication is a two-way street. If the receiver doesn’t get it, we don’t achieve our goal. Giving too much information can actually cloud communication, as the contractor learned.
 
In the second presentation, the contractor did communicate. The result? Approval of the project plus $30 million more in funding than they expected.

When we learn to communicate, we tap into enormous resources, create strong relationships, and generate major opportunities.

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

 
Worktalk enables businesses to harness the power of communication. Our writing trainings are geared to help you achieve better business through better writing.

For more information, contact Elizabeth Danziger today. She can be reached at (310) 396-8303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
 
 

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Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
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    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs. We meet with you, analyze writing samples from your organization, and customize our training to target the specific challenges that employees in your organization face.
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    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
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    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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