I was always curious how some people, the very few, get others to open up and reveal themselves, while the majority of us struggle. The sales training industry has given us the ‘diagnose/prescribe’ model, as a way to get other human beings to open up. But does it? Maybe it’s not about diagnosing/prescribing? What if it’s about something else: real empathic listening?
I want to share an experience that taught me everything about listening. A mentor of mine, Dr Daniel Siegel, founder of the Mindsight Institute, author of several best selling books and sought out presenter on the corporate speaking circuit helped me to see how those of us in corporate training wildly misunderstood this.
I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Siegel a couple of years ago when my wife and I listened to him speak at a conference in Los Angeles. In his bestselling book Parenting from the Inside Out, Siegel discusses how to achieve a deeper level of understanding of your children by learning to focus on more than just the surface level of their behavior. Dr Siegel talked about listening with more than our ears – more than the words – and follow their clues; visual clues, since the majority of how we communicate is non-verbal.
The very next day, I got a firsthand lesson from my daughter, Zoe, in how misleading ‘words’ can be. After my wife and I left Dr. Siegel’s talk, we took our two girls to the mall. As we were passing the store Forever 21, Zoe, who was 10 years old at the time, said she wanted to go in because there was a pair of pants she wanted.
“How much?” I said.
“No way,” I said.
She turned to her mom and started negotiating with her instead. Recognizing that I was now irrelevant to the conversation, I said I’d meet them in front of the store in 20 minutes and went for a walk. When I got back 20 minutes later, Zoe had not one but two pairs of pants. I reacted, but quickly calmed myself down…
Fast-forward to 3:30pm, the following day. I was working from my home office when I heard my wife and Zoe having an argument. It sounded more heated than usual, so I went into Zoe’s room to see what was going on. She was yelling at her mom.
“Why did you make me wear these pants?!?” she said. “I hate you! I hate these pants.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We never heard this from her before.
“Zoe,” I said, “what are you talking about? No one made you wear these pants. You begged us to buy them.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said. “I hate you guys.” At which point she took off the pants and threw them against the wall.
That did it. After hearing those “words” (“Why did you make me wear the pants?” And, “I hate you!”), we both lit into her, calling her spoiled and ungrateful, reminding her again that she was the one who’d wanted the pants in the first place. Zoe was shouting back at us the whole time. Finally my wife had had enough. She stormed out of the room and slammed the door. I did the same, going the other way and slamming Zoe’s other door, and went back to my office, steaming. Zoe was still yelling at us from her room.
The first thing I saw when I got back to my office was Siegel’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out, right there on my desk. I was trying to calm down. “Damn,” I thought. “What was it Siegel said during his talk?” He talked about these very situations less than 24 hours earlier.
He’d said that our children will tell us their stories, but not necessarily with their words. He encouraged us to “scratch beneath the surface” and listen with our hearts. He talked about being aware, looking for clues—often visual clues. I likened the idea of clues to the bread crumbs in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. “Follow the bread crumbs and they’ll lead you home.”
So I asked myself, could the pants alone really be the cause of so much hostility? Of course not. I started going over the visual clues from our argument, looking for a bread crumb. Then I took a deep breath, headed back to Zoe’s room, and knocked on her door.
“What do you want?” she yelled.
“Just to talk.” I came in and sat on her bed. My job was to follow the breadcrumbs – the visual clues and step into each one. She would in turn take me to the next breadcrumbs, and ultimately to the source.
“Zoe,” I said. “I noticed you threw your pants against the wall.” (breadcrumb #1)
She was still worked up. She ignored me and starting pulling papers from her backpack, crumpling them and throwing them on the floor.
“Did you have a test today?” I said, grasping for another clue. (breadcrumb #2)
“I hate school,” she said.
“Sounds like you had a frustrating day.”
“Frustrating?” She looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Worse than frustrating?” I said.
She then grabbed her lunch from her backpack and threw it across the room.
“Zoe, your lunch? What happened at lunch?” (breadcrumb #3)
And then all of a sudden, she stared down at the ground and all that anger drained out of her.
Her eyes welled up.
“What happened?” I said.
That’s when she told me her story. In the cafeteria that day, she’d taken her lunch over to a table where Aiden and Sara were sitting.
“But when I sat down, Aiden wouldn’t even look at me,” she said, barely able to get the words out. “She just turned to Sara and said, ‘Let’s sit at another table.’ Then they got up and moved.”
Seeing her so brokenhearted, my eyes welled up too. I felt so helpless.
“Come here,” I said, making room on the bed. She sat down and I put my arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey,” I said. “Kids can be so cruel. That totally sucks. I love you so much.” I didn’t know what else to say or do, so I just held her.
And then a surprising thing happened. Once Zoe calmed down, she got up, picked her pants up off the floor, and folded them neatly. Then she went into the kitchen where her mom was. I couldn’t hear what they said to each other, but I saw them embrace.
Back in my office, I remember feeling so relieved that she’d opened up to me, and it was all because I’d scratched beneath the surface and followed the bread crumbs. How lucky I was. If this would have happened only 24 hours earlier, before I had listened to Dr. Siegel’s talk, I would have never scratched beneath the surface and would have written her off as acting like a brat. It was never about the pants. It was about rejection. And I would have never gotten there without this lesson from Dr Siegel.
As Dr Siegel writes in his book,
The Interrogate-judge-fix model is a pathway to disconnection; whereas, explore-understand-join is the pathway for collaboration.