Effective Leadership By Mick Ukleja

Observational Listening: Seeing What People Say (Putting Out The F.I.R.E.) Mick Ukleja

November 20th, 2012 - Bad listening skills will hurt your career. We all have our style of reacting. Some people are submarines and some are destroyers. When people react with their emotions the destroyers will throw out depth charges. Submarines are under the surface plotting and maneuvering when to fire the “surprise.” Both types, when following their emotions, create barriers to healthy communication. The tactics are just different. But the results are destructive.

Why is this important to the topic of listening? Every conversation involves four layers. The four layers are Facts, Interpretations, Reactions, and Ends (F.I.R.E.). Facts are those things that can be proven empirically. The next layer is the Interpretation of those facts. Now it starts to get dicier. From those interpretations we develop a Reaction that is usually driven by our emotions. And that reaction is directed toward our desired End.

Our brains are wired this way, and we think our reaction is totally rational. At the center of our brain is the limbic system that controls our decision making in the context of uncertainty and high stress. These high pressured situations are where we make snap judgments. The facts are instantly interpreted leading to an appropriate action and desired end.

This works great in a jungle setting. When I was in Botswana, I experienced this phenomenon on more than one occasion. The main campsite was about 200 yards from my tent. In the dark of night I could hear distant animal noises. Then there came a rustling sound from the bushes. I immediately took flight and retreated up the stairs to my elevated tent in world record time.

The FIRE model was working to perfection. The Facts? Sounds of wild animals followed by rustling in the nearby bush. The Interpretation? A lion or leopard which were known to be in the area, and nocturnal as well, i.e. they hunt at night. The Reaction? Move as fast as possible. The End? Make it to the safety of my tent.

Now the problem is that most of the facts we encounter are not life threatening. Therefore the flight or fight scenario is really not necessary. Yet we tend to use the FIRE approach by default. It takes over the moment we hear trouble. No more facts needed. We have all we need to react.

How might this look in the office? Tim shows up late. There is a team meeting in 15 minutes, and he was supposed to get some materials to the presenter (who happens to be his boss), a half an hour ago. Nobody seems to be taking the rules of protocol and punctuality seriously anymore. Add to that the seemingly lack of dependability on the part of Tim’s co-workers. So Bill, his boss, has seen all he needs to see. No more facts are necessary. Late is late, which translates into “slothful,” “inconsiderate,” and “undependable.” So Bill makes an immediate interpretation (just like in the jungles of Botswana where my knowledge of lions in the area made me fear a man-eating predator instead of a guinea foul).

So Bill goes off, “Tim is late. He doesn’t take this job or its commitments seriously.” The facts have now been interpreted. The reaction follows naturally, along with the desired end. So Bill could set down the law. “From now on you be early, or there will be penalties.”

Did Bill have all the facts? Probably not. But once the limbic system takes over, who cares! The dominos will fall. The facts become irrelevant to your system.

Let’s gather more facts since this is NOT a life or death situation. Ask Tim why he was late. You discover he was helping Mary (who had recently had a baby), bring in all the reports that were in boxes too heavy for her to carry by herself. The reports were for the meeting and Tim was making sure they would be there. After all, this was his boss’ meeting.

Bill’s interpretation of the facts has gone from “a lack of dependability and commitment” to “an act of teamwork and kindness.”

The FIRE model works in the jungle, but it rarely works in our homes or at the office with colleagues, or on the freeways when tensions are high. So step back, breath, allow your limbic system to relax, get more facts, then determine the appropriate action. This improves your listening skills which is a powerful skill for leadership. Observational Listening is seeing what people do and say from their perspective. This eliminates the knee jerk reaction and helps you become the leader people depend upon when the stakes are high and emotions are on edge.

(Mick Ukleja is a consultant, author, coach, keynote speaker and president of LeadershipTraq, a leadership consulting firm. His clients have included Fortune 500 corporations and non-profit organizations. Check his weekly blog at www.leadershiptraq.com.)