Tag Archives: listening

Breaking Impasse: In Congress, in Mediation, and in Life

handshake-1830764_1280A few days ago I met with a small group of professional women I know. All of us had had successful corporate careers, though our lives are taking different turns at the moment. As in many group meetings these days, at some point the conversation turned to a discussion of politics. I am probably the most conservative member of this group. Others are moderate, and a couple are quite liberal, though we all are within what I would call the “mainstream,” or center, of our political spectrum today.

We started discussing when our political system got off track—when the Republican and Democrat parties quit compromising to get things done. Some blamed Republicans for their “never say yes” attitude during the Obama Administration. These women argued, “Well, of course, the Democrats have to behave the same way now.”

Others blamed past Democratic actions, going all the way back to Senator Ted Kennedy’s scorched-earth approach to stop the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court—a legal scholar who was clearly as qualified as any candidate since for the Supreme Court. “Well, of course, the Republicans have to retaliate.”

And there are many other events we could point to that might have started—or escalated—the current impasse in our political system.

Impasse, I thought to myself. We are at impasse. What has my mediation training taught me about breaking impasse?

I’ve mentioned before a mediation training presentation I attended with Ken Cloke, of the Center for Dispute Resolution. One point Mr. Cloke made during the program was that when we are in conflict with others, we have choices to make. Some of the choices we must make are

  • Whether to engage in the conflict and behave badly, or calm down and try to discuss it.
  • Whether to acknowledge the other person’s truth or deny it, remain rooted in one’s own story, and slip into biased or delusional thinking.
  • Whether to experience intense negative emotions and feelings, or to repress and sublimate them.
  • Whether to experience one’s opponent as an equal human being entitled to respect, or to demonize him or her and victimize oneself.
  • Whether to aggressively assert and hold tight to one’s position, or to search for solutions that satisfy both sets of interests.
  • Whether to forgive, reconcile and re-integrate with one’s opponent, or remain isolated and wounded deep inside.

Now, I can hear most of us saying, “Yeah, but . . . “

Yeah, but she started it.

Yeah, but he is engaging in alternative facts; there is no truth on his side.

Yeah, but I cannot repress how I feel on this issue.

Yeah, but there is no way to reconcile our two positions.

Yeah, but . . . .

Yeah, but . . . What if you did?

What if you did calm down? What if you did at least ask why the other side feels the way they do? What if you did search for solutions with an open mind? What if you did try to reconcile or compromise?

What’s the worst that could happen if you did seek compromise? It’s unlikely to be worse than the status quo.

While I started this post describing the political differences we face in our nation today, I hope readers see that the questions I’ve asked apply to most situations where we need to negotiate with others. In the corporate world. In consumer and family situations. Wherever we are obliged to work with others, we should ask

What if we tried to understand the other party’s position?

What if we tried to compromise?

Would we be any worse off than if we did nothing?


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Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Mediation, Politics, Workplace

The Importance of Listening

mgr empeAs I caught up on some reading last week, I came across an article on the Contented Cows website by BIll Catlette entitled “Listening . . . Really Listening,” July 26, 2015. When I read it, I realized I haven’t written much about this critical skill. I wrote recently about the importance of listening for recruiters (see here). But I haven’t written a post just about listening.

When I had been practicing law for about a year, I took my first deposition. I had prepared a very detailed list of questions to ask the witness. After the witness was sworn in, I launched into my questions.

After about half an hour, the more senior attorney with me asked for a break. During the break he pulled me aside and said, “You have to listen to what the witness says.”

He was right—I hadn’t been listening. I asked my questions and got the answers, but I wasn’t listening to the answers, nor was I thinking about whether I needed to follow up to get more information in response to what the witness said. I was using my list of questions as a checklist, not a guide.

It took a lot of practice, but over the next several years I developed the ability to probe a witness’s answers, whether in a deposition or in a less formal interview. I still usually prepared the points to cover in some detail, but I tried to follow the witness’s lead when possible, which typically got me more information.

So I recognized many of the points described in the Contented Cows piece on listening as lessons I learned the hard way. Some of those lessons were

  • take notes, so you know you’re paying attention to what the other person says
  • don’t frame your response or your next question while the other person is still speaking
  • don’t interrupt, and
  • ask clarifying questions.

There’s more in the Contented Cows article than I’ve mentioned here. It’s worth reading.

When have you realized the importance of listening?

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Five Skills Top Recruiters Must Have

Business HandshakeI don’t write about recruiting much, even though I managed a corporate staffing department for several years and worked with recruiters for several additional years. I don’t write about recruiting because I don’t like it and I don’t think I’m very good at it.

Nevertheless, I believe that recruiting is critical to a company’s success. In fact, I think that the people hired into an organization and the way that they are onboarded does as much to contribute to the profitability of a business as how much employees are paid or how their performance is managed.

But I don’t think I possess the some of the talents that good recruiters need. What are those talents?

1. Sales Ability and Persistence

A good recruiter must be able to sell top candidates on the merits of working for the employer and in the value of accepting the particular position for which the candidate is under consideration. Sometimes this is easy—after all, the candidate probably applied for the job in question. However, often, especially in executive searches, recruiters must convince top candidates to leave positions where they are doing well to take on the risk of a new role and probably a new company.

This is an area where I know I fall short. I do not like to sell. I am too introverted. If people are happy where they are, who am I to tell them they should move?

By contrast, one of the best recruiters I worked with had an outgoing, engaging personality and also had the ability to read people quickly. She vigorously pursued people she thought fit our needs, and she didn’t back down until convinced she couldn’t budge them.

2. Focus

The best recruiters keep a laser focus on what the job in question requires. They assess every candidate against these skills and competencies, and they don’t let themselves get talked into hiring based on the candidate’s charming personality.

Good recruiters also probe until they are satisfied with the candidates’ answers. Often, candidates can bluff their way through an initial response, and it is important for recruiters to push to be sure the candidates have sufficient depth to get beyond a cursory answer to a question.

It takes tenacity to continue to probe on every competency that is important for the role. That is difficult to do in today’s fast-paced environment, where an interview may only last thirty minutes. The best recruiters can balance speed with depth, maintaining control over the interview throughout the process. They can quickly determine which candidates are not qualified, so they can spend more time with those who are.

The recruiter I mentioned above was dogged in her questioning. She didn’t let an issue drop until she understood the candidate’s abilities. And she could pack a lot into a thirty-minute interview.

3. Open-mindedness

The other side of focus is open-mindedness. While quick judgments are important in recruiting, it is equally important that those judgments be based on competencies, and not on the expected profile of the ideal candidate. Thus, receptivity to candidates with diverse experiences and backgrounds is just as important as making a quick decision.

Good recruiters are good at outreach into minority communities and other groups where strong candidates might get overlooked. They spend their discretionary time developing relationships that might turn into good hiring leads.

Again, as a strong introvert, relationship-building is not my strength. I could see a good candidate that might not have a traditional background, but I didn’t spend time in outreach efforts.

4. Listening

By now it should be obvious that listening skills are critical during recruiting. The best recruiters listen to the candidates more than they talk. They don’t just run through a checklist of questions. They follow up on initial answers and push until they feel comfortable that they understand a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in each critical competency and skill area.

Most recruiters who are any good can listen or develop the skills to listen. But it takes practice and it takes time.

5. Customer Service

Ideally, recruiters are good at serving their clients, who are the hiring managers. They understand the client’s business well enough to help identify critical skills and competencies.

They also act as if the person they are hiring will be working for them—they don’t hire someone who can’t get along in the organization or who would be a pain to work with.

And they are sensitive to costs, both during the recruiting process and in negotiating the employment offer with the successful candidate. Another excellent recruiter I worked with treated his corporate staffing department like it was his own business and managed his costs as well as his clients’ costs. He could relate well with executives across the company, because they knew he appreciated their problems and would work with them to meet their needs.

* * * * *

Where I fell short was primarily in sales skills and outreach. I wasn’t pushy enough to find the best candidates. I also tended to let candidates’ initial answers slide, rather than delve deeper into their answers.

Fortunately, I had recruiters who worked for me who excelled in these areas, as well as in the client service needed to find exactly the person the hiring manager needed for their assignments. Well, almost exactly—no candidate is ever perfect. At least I staffed my own department well, because I hired people who had the skills I lacked.

Are there any other skills that you think top recruiters should have?

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Meeting People Where They Are

I recently had to inform many family members and friends about the unexpected death of a close relative. It’s a difficult assignment.

I was surprised at the range of reactions from the people I contacted. Some were unbelieving. ”Are you kidding me?” one friend asked. Why would I kid about death? Some wanted all the details—details about the decedent’s health condition that really weren’t any of their business. Some were immediately compassionate toward the family. Some thought only about how the death would impact them.

Everyone had a unique perspective, based on the relationship he or she had had with the deceased. I tried to respond to each person based on how they reacted to the death.

This anecdote might not seem like it relates to the theme of this blog, “Behind the Corporate Veil.” But I found that my corporate experiences helped me with this very emotional personal duty.

As a lawyer, I learned that emotions are facts as much as dates and documents are facts. If someone is sad or angry, those emotions must be taken into account in handling a situation. And your own emotions are as important as those of the witnesses and opposing counsel you must deal with. So I knew I had to adjust my approach based on how the other person was reacting.

As a human resources manager, I learned that it’s important to hear people out, so they believe you care. And listening takes time. So I knew that offering my time to my friends and relations was the biggest indicator of whether I cared about them or not. I tried to take that time.

As a mediator, I learned that to reach an understanding, parties must have some appreciation for where the other sides is coming from—what is most important to them. It’s important to seek out what is important to each individual. Again, I tried to respond to what was important to the people I spoke to.

In each of the career roles I’ve had, I’ve had to meet people where they were in dealing with a situation. And so it was with informing friends and relatives about death. After all, we will need each other to cope with grief.

I hope that this new personal experience with emotions and listening I have had will make me a more compassionate mediator and mentor. I want the difficult time my family is facing to have some meaning, both in building our relationships and in making us better people.

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Diversity Challenge: Ask “Why?”

Hands touching a globeI recently read an essay by an African-American woman I know (I’ll call her “Autumn”) about a time when she was the only minority in a room of white friends. The whites started talking about the use of the “N” word in their families growing up. They weren’t advocating the use of the word.  In fact, they were talking about how appalling it had been and how their families had evolved in the intervening decades.

Autumn wrote about how embarrassed and uncomfortable she was during the conversation, and how reluctant she was to voice her discomfort. After the event, Autumn agonized for days over whether to say anything to her friends.

She finally told one of them. He said he hadn’t meant to hurt her. That response didn’t satisfy Autumn.

She told another friend. She felt much better when that friend acknowledged the pain Autumn had felt, and described a situation when she herself had felt singled out and humiliated.

As I read Autumn’s article, I felt uneasy myself. I couldn’t quite grasp the point of the essay. It was clear the conversation had had a deep emotional impact on Autumn, and she had needed someone to recognize her pain. But I couldn’t understand why the remarks by her friends had hurt so much.

Had she felt her friends were using the “N” word toward her? But they obviously had been disparaging toward people who used it. Why would friends expressing disapproval of the word feel like a threat to her? As a white, I couldn’t understand why she felt humiliated by the simple verbalization of the word.

Had she felt invisible as her white friends talked? Had their vocalization of the word, even in a disparaging way, somehow belittled an African-American’s gut-level hatred of its use in any context? The whites’ perspective on use of the “N” word would naturally be different than Autumn’s. An open inclusion of her would probably have enriched everyone’s understanding of the impact of the word.

I will never know why Autumn felt the way she did. I found that to be a failing in her essay. But clearly, it has haunted me, and caused me to reflect on what she wrote. So maybe it was a successful article, despite my initial reaction.

Regardless of its strength as a piece of writing, Autumn’s essay was a good reminder of the difficulties of talking about race – and, indeed, about any dimension of diversity – in our culture. We come to these issues with our whole life’s experience. Some of these experiences are individual, some are passed on to us through families and groups we belong to, such as church and school.

In every case, our capacity for understanding ourselves and each other is enhanced if we can ask, respectfully, “Why do you feel the way you do? Tell me; I’m listening.”


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