What I’m learning about listening

A letter sent to all newsletter subscribers the morning of October 26, 2017.

There’s no way to tell this story that makes me look good.

Let’s be real: I was pretty checked out. As my dad kept talking about a book he’d read recently, my attention drifted, and I thought: why on earth is he so excited about this?

Last Tuesday, my dad called. The plan was to talk briefly about a big decision I had coming up; Erik and I were considering making an offer on a house, and I’d texted my dad to see if he was free to talk it over.

On our way to the topic at hand, he asked: how are you? I mentioned that I’ve been busy at work recently, and that I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of my digestive problems. He picked up on the digestive thread, and said: I’ve been reading a book that could help you!

He started talking about the book. To be honest, it didn’t sound that related. But I listened politely, waiting for “my turn,” knowing he had my best interests at heart. We’d get around to talking about the house eventually.

And then the barest hint of an insight scraped the inside of my brain: he is so excited about this book.

“Dad!” I said at the next pause. “You sound so excited about this book.” And then a pattern that’s second nature from coaching tumbled out of me almost automatically. “What’s—what’s exciting about it?”

What happened next made me kick myself. That one simple question, born mainly of frustration, opened up an entire treasure chest.

The book was changing his life. He was realizing its topic was part of his life purpose—so much so that he’d added it to his Twitter bio. It wasn’t his discovery, but he figured that by steadily sharing the findings within his community of economists, he could still make the difference in the world that mattered most to him. It was a huge deal.

Before my question, my dad had been halfheartedly trying to wrap up his story—halfheartedly, because he couldn‘t really contain his excitement. His passion and the model of a balanced, see-saw conversation were in tension. After I asked my question, he shared at length—his voice going high and low, really expanding on what it all meant. As I listened, I couldn’t believe I’d nearly missed the chance to hear about something that mattered so much to him. Once I stopped rushing him with my polite, trying-to-be-patient silence, I started hearing about who he is and how he’s changing. One question changed the course of the conversation—and I wouldn’t be surprised if it changed the course of our relationship.

In the end, we got around to talking about the house. When we did, it felt natural—no more than a few minutes of comparing notes from a place of connection. Come to think of it, connection was probably all we both wanted in the first place. Connection comes from whatever’s true in the moment. And you can only hear what’s true in the moment if you’re really listening.

Listening creates possibilities. That’s what I’ll be fighting for in an online workshop this Sunday, October 29th, alongside my friend and fellow leadership coach, Edmond Lau. We’ll share stories from our own work as product & engineering leaders and coaches, and facilitate exercises that open you up to hearing what people aren’t saying. The work we do together will give you the superpower of moving conversations forward, no matter where they start—or where they’re stuck.

After twelve months of training intensively side by side as coaches and leaders, this is the first workshop Edmond and I are leading together. It’s a rare chance to be stretched by two people who’ve grown by leaps and bounds in each other’s presence; we know where we each started, and where we are now. We’ll be sharing our most meaningful takeaways from a year of learning together, because we share an unshakeable belief: leaders share what they’re learning, even before they’re done. (By the way—they’re never done.)

I’d love for you to learn alongside us. Claim your spot here, and use the code “feedback patron” for $100 off—we’ll be following up with all our feedback patrons afterward to learn what the workshop changes for you, and how we might be able to make it even more meaningful the next time.

Diana Berlin