Powerful Listening – It’s Not About Me

I teach a seminar on the power of listening. No, I am not an expert on the topic. I just realize how important listening is and decided long ago that I needed to make a lifetime quest of becoming better at it.

The other day I was chatting with a friend whose words stopped me cold in my tracks after he said, “when I meet someone for the first time and really need to focus on their name, who they are, what they do, and the details of their life, I get so preoccupied about making a good impression on them that I miss all those important facts.” It dawned on me; I feel that way too! I realized he gave words to something I have been thinking about for some time.

My friend hit the nail on the head (or maybe my head.) We get so distracted by who we are, what we’re doing, and how we can impress that other person that we forget that what really matters is how well we focus on them.  For me the moment of clarity usually strikes about five minutes into the conversation. The fog of self-centeredness clears and I realize that I have been so self-conscious up till that moment that I haven’t a clue what that other person has said. I don’t like being that way and I really want to change, so I’ve started a little mantra that I try to run through when I know I’m going to meet someone for the first time.  It goes like this

It’s not about me! It’s not about me! It’s not about me!

The greatest gift I can give another person is to set aside me and focus on them. That is the essence of powerful listening!


Pruning Time

Caring for my vineyard, I learn about life. Late August when the vines are loaded with grapes is one of my favorite times of year. I wake up early on harvest day anticipating the delight of cutting bunches of fruit from each vine. A great sense of accomplishment comes from a bumper crop. But to get there the vintner needs to prune the vines in late winter. So, as the days are getting longer I find myself lingering in the vineyard looking for dead and diseased branches. Those branches that if left on the plant might make the entire vineyard sick, I cut and remove. I spend my time pruning here, clipping there, preparing the vines so that they will produce bountifully. If allowed to grow naturally, they would appear to be vigorous since that is their nature. While they might cover a lot of ground, the harvest would be meager at best. Since long, lanky vines are not highly productive, the work done right now has direct impact on the size of the crop in the fall. Ninety percent of last year’s growth has to go.

When pruning I often wonder, if the vines could talk, would they be crying, screaming, hurling invectives, or just begging for me to stop with the cutting? I do what I need to do to make them productive and healthy. I imagine for the vine this is deep pain. So it is with life, and with us. In order to produce healthy fruit we need pruning. How about you? Are you branching out in areas that might look impressive, but don’t produce well? Are you holding on to things in your life that are making you sick, or just keeping you from vigorous growth? Spring is a great time to look at your own life and ask yourself if this is the direction you want to grow. Will what you’re doing bear fruit in your life? When you take that inventory, have the courage to follow through with what’s necessary. Get rid of the dead wood. Cut out the branches that wander aimlessly. It’s pruning time!

If vines could talk

Falling Down A Fear Hole

Have you ever been going down the road of life and suddenly find yourself in a panic? Frightened? Anxious? Wondering, How did I go from blue skies to gale force winds and torrential rains? You know what I’m talking about.  The phone call. That unexpected bill from the IRS. The misunderstanding that goes postal. A fallout between lovers. Your boss drops by for a little visit that ends with an escort to the parking lot. You’ve been there, haven’t you?  How is it that nothing on the outside has changed, but your world feels like it’s been knocked of the tracks. Though the birds are still singing and the sun is still shining, it seems that nothing will ever be the same.  These moments feel like I stepped in a deep hole and tumbled to the bottom. How do I get out? I have rehearsed this in my mind.

The next time this happens, I’ll pray, read a book on positive thinking… do self-talk… exercise, go for a ride on my motorcycle, have a party, I’ll….

The next time this happens, I’ll pray, read a book on positive thinking… do self-talk… exercise, go for a ride on my motorcycle, have a party, I’ll…. It must be the concussion from the fall, because at the bottom of the hole, I can’t remember to do those things, even when I have prepared for it.  One way of getting over it might be to stop at the nearest liquor store and have a chat with Jack Daniels. He can cheer me up, but there is always later the next day. And the next day is always worse.

Be still and know… …

When I find myself down the fear hole, the one thing that helps is to get quiet. There is a Psalm in Jewish Scripture (46) that says Be still and know that I am God! (His exclamation, not mine) I have to make myself be still. To listen for the voice of God.  All those rehearsed strategies, even praying, are about me doing something. I panic and am compelled to spring into action and do something.  Being still feels counter-intuitive. Like driving on ice and spinning out of control. I always turn the wheel the wrong way.  We tend to do the very action that does us in.

So, How do I learn to be still?  By doing just that, by practicing stillness. If you have been following my blog, you’ll know I am the president of the World Organization for the Advancement of Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. So I don’t come by being still honestly. I have to intentionally practice the art of being still.  And in those moments of stillness, I become aware of a presence that is way bigger than me.  When I rest quietly in the shadow of that presence, I find peace.  Peace that is free from fear.

Fear Of Obsolescence and Tube TV’s

My wife said “honey, I don’t use this TV/VCR any more. Do you suppose you could find some poor person who would like a nice, small, tube TV?”  I thought, “sure thing, homeless people are always looking for a nice tube TV to push around in their shopping cart with all their other possessions.”  I went to the local sober living house.  A bunch of great guys who lost everything to addiction and are starting over from the ground up. I dropped in on one of their 12-step meetings. “Hey, guys, I’ve got a great little TV with a built-in VCR, it’s a classic. Any takers?” Not a word. Not even a peep from the guy who was working on his first 24-hour chip. Did I feel like a dork or what! Those tubes are obsolete. You can’t pay Goodwill to take them off your hands.  They aren’t old enough technology to qualify for antiques. (Oh, that I still had my old Apple II+)




Sometimes I feel like that tube TV.  A little obsolete in a rapid-changing world. As I type this, the words make me feel like an old-geezer. Look at my words! as I type this…. Nobody types anymore, they keyboard!  You young whippersnappers are just out of control!  Yet I-phone is coming out with their 9-G technology phone. It let’s you have “face-time.” That means you actually see each other while you talk.  Imagine that in rush hour traffic.  With all this great technology, I still have a throw-away No-G-strings-attached basic cell phone. Feeling obsolescent? You bet your G-network technology I do!

What makes the obsolescence go away?  Slowing down, sitting down, and having a conversation with my grandson, with my sons, with my wife, with Stephen, the Libertarian  uber-liberal cashier at the Homeland grocery store.  Conversing is one thing I can do.  Taking the time to listen, get caught up in their story, to give them my undivided attention—  No mean feat for a guy with a bad case of ADD.  Look at the pretty shining things.  Oh, sorry, I got distracted.  Now, where was I?  Oh, yeah,  —Pausing. Putting my agenda on hold. Savoring the conversation. Really hearing another human being’s experience. Sharing the moment.  Not rushing the goodbye.  Doing these things makes me feel up-to-the-moment.  And, in those moments, obsolescence is out the window, and I have purpose again. I have heard it said that the salient characteristic of the next generation entering the workplace  is they will follow the oldest person in the room who will listen to them.

I’m ready.

Beware Of Flying Turtles And Terrorists

Common sense is getting less common.  Have you read about the little girl who was flying home with her new pet turtle? She boarded the plane and was ready for takeoff when the plane pulled back to the gate. She was compelled to go back to the terminal and get rid of her pet. The airline agent said it had to stay. Turtles sometimes carry salmonella. Got to be careful, somebody might mistake it for a swizzle stick and use it to stir their drink.   Crying, she begged the official to just hold on to the turtle until her dad could return to the airport and rescue the little guy.  No Dice. The agent refused to be responsible. Pressured to get on her flight, and forced to make a decision under pressure, she put her turtle, cage and all in the trash and tearfully returned to her seat on the plane. Can you imagine her heartbreak on that long flight home?  Meanwhile back at the terminal, another worker “rescued” the turtle from the trash and sent it home with a coworker.  Great gift for the kids.

Nice going AirTran! You couldn’t have gotten better publicity if you had pushed grandma out at 33,000 Feet! This is the kind of story that makes journalists orgasmic.  They got on this like sharks in a school of baby seals. I am just scratching my head and thinking of what a cluster-you-know-what this was.

Now picture a parallel universe where the agent at the gate said; “don’t cry little girl, we’ll take good care of your turtle” and kneeled down and wiped her eyes and gently took the caged creature and gingerly carried it up the ramp where a supervisor would see the turtle safely placed into daddy’s custody!  They could have made a PR coup! Airline gives turtle the white glove treatment! Airline saves turtle and makes a little girl happy. No we don’t treat anyone or any turtle like a little guy on this airline. No sir! everybody is special. I just can’t believe that they passed up the opportunity to score big in the “We really move our tails for you” sort of touchy-feely stuff that this could have provided.

The bottom line; sometimes in just doing my job, I fail to see the bigger picture; service.  I am serving people. Just a little creativity and freedom to color outside the lines might have made this story end better.   The airline did get their thumb out of their turbine. They retrieved the turtle from its new home and flew it home to its rightful owner, albeit in the cargo bay.  I hope they sprang for a few sessions with a shrink. That little girl and her turtle will probably need it.

All of this points to this dearth of common sense.  I wonder if people are so fearful of stepping out of their job description that they are just paralyzed when called upon to rise about the routine and think.  Perhaps I am being to hard on the good folks at AirTran.  I just wonder about the company culture and the message these employees are getting. To make matters worse, when terrorists blow things up, kill and maim people we call it a man-caused disaster. When an oil company makes a mistake (although a very big mistake) we call it a criminal act of terror.  Up is down and down is up.  We prosecute citizens and coddle terrorist. Pass me the duct tape, my head is about to explode!

Read all about it!


Fear of Commitment and Satelite TV

I’m fed up with the cable company. I called the number on the satellite-TV brochure and made it very clear I was fact-finding and not buying. It became clear to me that the people answering the phone were there for one thing only; to close a sale. Here’s how it went: Ring, Hello I need some information about… Oh, let me transfer you to… after being transferred repeatedly —a quick trip to India where conversation lasted about 30 seconds until the foreign guy realized he couldn’t move me from questions to purchase– I finally ended up back in the US. A young all-American sounding “Amy” picked up my traveling [roaming] call and went through her scripted greeting. I told her I was just getting information. She proceeded to tell me about the benefits of satellite d-TV. All the while looking for opportunities turn me to a buyer and close a sale. I was amazed at her dexterity in listening and countering my questions with an open door and an invitation to just step right through and seal the deal today.  She worked hard to close, and I worked hard at saying “no.” I had steeled my self to not commit. For me non-commitment was a situational choice. For some it is a character flaw, or the manifestation of a deep-seated fear of saying “yes” and then regretting the decision.

Why do people avoid commitment?  Why did I resist the siren call of cheap TV, free dvr, free HD box and billions and billions of channels for 24.95 a month?  I wanted to know all the fine print. What are the hidden costs? What are the surprises that will show up on my bill in 12 months? Simply put, I didn’t commit because I wasn’t clear about what this thing was actually going to cost. I didn’t want to cinch the deal and then get an unexpected bill for a life-time obligation of hard labor just to be able to watch CBS.

I wasn’t able to buy in to the sales pitch because I wasn’t clear on what I was committing to.   If the salesperson had just referred me to a website that would itemize everything I will be billed for, how that price will change in a year, what I could expect without surprises, I would have bought in.  As it stood, all the salespeople were pressing for closure and vague about those pesky little details like … well, Sir, at the end of 12 months your bill will go from 24.95 to 71.45 per month… No, after my phone call, I wasn’t ready to commit.  That’s for sure.

I used to work with single adults at my church.  I often joked that if you wanted to break up a single’s party, just shout out the word commitment! The guys would scatter like cockroaches when the light comes on.  Why are terminally single guys so terrified of the word?  I suspect it is that they aren’t clear on what exactly they are committing to.

The Bottom Line: Fear of commitment results for a lack of clarity in expectations.  Clear expectations, whether good or bad can be faced, accepted, and that makes commitment and buy-in possible.
PS… Enjoy The Commitment Phobe

It’s a long way down

The sailor convinced his navy captain that this would be a great place to stop the ship and let the men swim in the Atlantic. After all it was just north of Puerto Rico.  Another beautiful day in paradise.  The ship came to a halt. The announcement was made.  Sentries posted along the rail of the ship.  Armed, their job was to spot, and shoot any hungry sharks that might have an appetite for flesh.  The men were ready to jump overboard and enjoy the water.  The sailor announced over the intercom that this was a special place; The Puerto Rico Trench. At five miles to the seafloor, this is one of the deepest places in the world.  Many of the men, realizing how far down the bottom actually was, decided not to swim after all.

Isn’t that the way it is with us and fear? Opportunity presents itself in the form of azure waters and tropical heaven and we refuse to jump in because we are worried about the water.  26,000 feet or 6 feet, you’ll drown in either if your feet can’t touch the bottom.  So, is it that the water is over your head, or how much of the water over you head that makes it scary?

Preparation is knowing how to swim.  Paralyzing fear is worrying about how far you might sink if you don’t swim.  You’ll panic every time if you look down. It Is deep. Five miles under water is a cold, dark, seemingly lifeless place where man can’t survive –Except for Ed Harris in The Abyss (1989)—

Life invites us –or if you are a person of faith, God invites us– to take a swim in very deep waters and we do fine if we keep our eyes up. The moment we look at the depths we are in trouble.

Thanks Gordon A., You are an inspiration.