Conversations aren’t contests: Good listening is more than just waiting your turn to speak

Adam Grant recently tweeted a link to this Harvard Business Review article, What Great Listeners Actually Do. It’s based on research on what truly effective listeners consistently do.

Excellent listeners don’t just listen quietly, nod occasionally, and summarize what was just said. Instead, they engage and ask thoughtful, encouraging questions. The research suggests being a trampoline, not a sponge:

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

It’s not about simply politely waiting your turn to speak while giving the impression that you’re trying to understand the other person.

I know I think I’m pretty good at nodding and seeming engaged while in my brain I’m crafting what I’m going to say when it’s my turn to talk.

I have the best conversations, though, when I’m genuinely present, when I listen to truly understand without much thought given to being understood myself.

Most of us probably think we are better listeners than we actually are. What most of us are good at, though, is appearing to be good listeners.

Listening takes effort and discipline. Next time you’re face to face with someone, ramp up your focus. Tune in as closely as you can to the other person. Ask excellent questions as you attempt to get at what they mean and where they’re coming from.

Be a trampoline that enhances the energy they’re giving you and takes you both to a higher level of understanding and connection.


Obama’s greatest legacy: Family

From a Washington Post article I read on Father’s Day about President Obama’s remarkable commitment to his family:

Soon after being inaugurated, Obama established what New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor has called “an unusual rule for a president.” As he informed all his aides, he vowed to have dinner with his family five nights a week. That left just two nights a week for out-of-town fundraisers or dinners with fellow politicians.

At 6:30, Obama and his wife sit down with the girls for a family dinner without any outsiders — not even Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who typically retreats to her own “home” on the third floor of the White House.

The evening meal, observed Obama’s former body-man Reggie Love, was treated “like a meeting in the Situation Room. There’s a hard stop before that dinner.” While aides sometimes call him back to work at 8:30 or 9, they rarely dare to go upstairs to bother him during the sacred dinner hour.

On most days, Obama also eats breakfast with his daughters. And as part of his commitment to his girls, Obama has been reluctant to visit Camp David, since various school activities typically require the youngsters to be in Washington.

Obama is extremely proud of his résumé as a parent. He boasts of having read aloud with Malia all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series; in his first fall in office, he also managed to read all of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” to Sasha. But performing as a head of household did not come easily to him. As this supremely self-confident man acknowledged in 2006, “It is in my capacities as a husband and a father that I entertain the most doubt.”


Even in his unimaginably demanding role as President of the United States, Obama created a system for prioritizing what is most important to him—his family.

If we know that quality relationships are the key to a happy life (and they are), why shouldn’t we all build systems, habits, and routines that prioritize our connection with family and friends?

Whether it’s nightly dinner with your kids, a standing date night with your spouse, or regular meetings with your closest friends, build barriers around what may be the most significant commitment of your attention, the time you devote to the relationships that matter most.

You are not running a country. If Obama can do it, you can, too.

In summer…


Image by **Mary**

It’s day one of summer.

And it’s day one of my commitment to seize the season and make the most of the warm weather and longer days.

Work less. Play more.

Make a list of adventures that you can only take on in summer.

Read in a hammock. Walk barefoot in the grass. Go jump in the lake.

Go places. Do things. Daydream.

Eat real food. Cook it over real fire. Have real, face-to-face conversations with people you love.

Embrace your primal nature and your connection to the natural world and to your senses.

Life is more radiant and more visceral in summer. Don’t sit it out as you tune out in your artificial escapes.

Make contact with your life right here, right now. In summer.

“‘Cause a little bit of summer’s what the whole year’s all about.” –John Mayer, Wildfire

Tribe: Sebastian Junger’s book on what’s missing from modern society

When something is sparking your curiosity or rolling about in your subconscious, you start seeing it appear in your everyday life as though the universe is in sync with you. 

For example, when you buy a new car, or have your eye on one, all of sudden you start seeing that particular car everywhere. Your brain is simply more attuned to what you’ve chosen to focus on. 

Lately I’ve been exploring the significance of community and connection and meaningful relationships as keys to a good life. And stories and articles and books that propel that theme even further keep popping up on my radar. 

I just came across (and downloaded) Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe. His TED Talk on the topic is compelling, and his interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast is fantastic. 

The premise is that millions of years of evolution shaped humans into social animals, and tribal creatures particularly. Our modern society is deficient in some of the basic tribal dynamics that are necessary for us to be fully functional and to more healthfully deal with the traumas of life. 

It is all about relationships

Sebastian Junger’s TED Talk: The consequences of a more disconnected society

This theme, that it’s all about relationships, keeps appearing in what I’m reading and watching. 

I watched this sobering TED Talk today by the author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger. It is a pointed indictment of a culture that is more disconnected and less tribal than ever. 

The rise in PSTD among returning soldiers, he asserts, may be more about the culture they’re coming home to than it is about their combat experiences. 

We are wired for community, for connection, to be a part of something beyond ourselves. If our culture is trending away from genuine, face-to-face human relationships, it’s on us to cultivate that connection. Our health and well-being are dependent on it. 

The quality of your relationships will determine the quality of your life. 

Coach Smart has a process for building relationships. You should, too.

Kirby Smart is the new head football coach at my alma mater. It’s Coach Smart’s alma mater, too.

This recent column highlights some of the methods the new coaching staff is implementing, and this part stood out to me:

Smart said the most important charge he has given his staff is to build trust with the players. To do that, he has directed Georgia’s assistants to meet with at least one player every day, and they’re to talk about anything but football. He also has the coaches ride the team buses to the temporary practice fields at the Club Sports Complex and never with their own position group.

“It’s about developing relationships with players,” he said. “If they don’t trust you, they will not give you everything (they) have.”

The cynic could see this as leveraging relationship-building merely to get better results on the field. Are these relationship efforts simply a means to an end, a savvy tactic to make the team more successful?

However, my own career experience has demonstrated repeatedly that it is indeed all about relationships. The culture of an organization or any kind of team is shaped primarily by the quality and authenticity of the relationships within the group.

It’s common for the leaders of an organization to be generally in favor of strong relationships and yet have not much to show for that sentiment.

What’s remarkable about Coach Smart’s approach is he’s building a system to take action on something most people passively hope will head in the right direction just because of good intentions.

Putting a system in place to support, realize, and build accountability for your good intentions is crucial.

I have learned this in my job recently, and it was my employees who showed the way. The student tour guides who lead the campus tours at our university have always been directed generally to make the tour experience conversational, to get to know the prospective students on their tour. But the tour guides systematized this directive themselves by setting an expectation that by the end of each tour they would have had an individual conversation with every prospective student on the tour and know each one by name.

That focus and that specificity has made our campus tour well known for its surprisingly personal nature and its emphasis on relationships. Visitors routinely remark on how delightfully surprised they were by the genuine connection our tour guides made with them.

It’s the clear, measurable expectation, though, that elevated the experience we offer into a consistently remarkable success.

What if we built systems and habits and routines, a process even, to make sure we take action on our professed priorities, especially about something as important as the quality of our relationships?

Schedule a standing date night with your spouse for every month and have the babysitter pre-booked.

Schedule a weekly time to call your parents or siblings or children.

Put time on your calendar to invest in conversations with your coworkers. I appreciate that Coach Smart forbid the assistant coaches to talk football in the daily meetings with individual players. Your relationship with your team members should be a relationship with a fellow human being, not just a coworker.

For family, friends, work, and community, be intentional about building and strengthening the quality of your relationships.

Make a plan. Put it on a calendar. And get busy investing your time in what matters most.