The Cutting Edge for Global Thinkers
A big thank you to ACCJ members for reading – and to the Journal for inviting me to begin a 3-part series based on the newsletter I’ve been sending to friends and clients.
WHAT IS ANDREW’S AX?
I started taking wild swings with Andrew’s Ax back in 2002. As musicians know, “ax” is slang for their instrument (especially a guitar, which I happen to play). And anyone who has been fired from work or had a budget cut knows only too well what it means for someone or something to “get the ax.” You’ve probably also heard that when someone feels resentment or a grievance, we say, “They’ve got an ax to grind.”
And then there’s the actual tool used to chop wood. A framed one, known as “the Stanford Axe,” is awarded to the winner of the San Francisco Bay Area’s “Big Game,” the annual college football clash between Stanford and my alma mater, UC Berkeley.
So you can see how all these meanings are connected to my newsletter. Think of Andrew’s Ax as a tool primarily (but not exclusively) for directors here in Japan to keep themselves and their staff motivated, engaged and improving. The time you take reading it is an investment in yourself, as there’s something in each issue you can use to sharpen your own skills.
Today, let’s take some swings at what has become a bit of a lost art.
THE LOST ART OF LISTENING
In Listening: The Forgotten Skill, author Madelyn Burley-Allen divides listening into three levels. This may over-simplify things, but it’s is an easy-to-digest, effective model. Along with her basic model, I’ll share with you some real-life cases of each level that I’ve encountered here in Japan.
The highest, Level One, occurs when you are fully engaged in empathetic listening. (Some say “empathic” listening, and that’s where I will grind some ax. Because I’ve only seen one true empath, and that was Deanna Troi, the half human, half Betazoid on the television series Star Trek: the Next Generation. Still, it is true that some expert listeners may appear empathic. Not a bad appearance!)
Burley-Allen says Level One is “…listening non-judgmentally with understanding to the intent, paying attention to the speaker’s total communication, processing what is being said.” At Level One, you are fully in tune with the speaker, and if engaged in a one-on-one conversation, you find yourself in a subtle verbal and non-verbal dance, where even micro movements mirror each other.
Notice that in order to engage in Level One Listening, you need your eyes and your ears open. When I arrived in Tokyo in 1991, I remember being told, “Don’t be surprised if someone in a group closes their eyes while you or someone else talking; it doesn’t mean they are not paying attention–it may mean they are concentrating.” Well, yes, it could mean they were trying to concentrate, but this “trying” is also shutting out the body language expressed by the speaker. And I have since attended several meetings where a senior person closed his eyes in what could have been interpreted as “concentration” by some, only to then watch the person slump over in his chair and snap his startled eyes open.
On the plus side, I’ve witnessed both foreign and Japanese leaders – expert listeners – engaging in Level One listening. One way to tell is that they answer unspoken questions. Japanese are especially adept at this, and some have even received formal training in it. For example, years ago a client, a JAL purser, shared that he was taught to “listen for what the passenger might want.” The only way to answer unspoken questions is to be truly “in tune” with your counterpart, noticing micro-movements: a raised eyebrow of surprise, or a sudden shift from nodding in agreement to a hint of doubt. Since many Japanese feel that direct questions are rude, your listener may decline to ask for clarification; this means you need to be in listening mode even when speaking, and you may need to be the one to check whether or not your message is being understood. Don’t wait for their questions.
Level Two listening is when you are “hearing the words but not making an effort to understand the speaker’s intent, appearing to listen intently when in fact only slightly concentrating.” Many of us deal with people stuck at Level Two. I bet you can think of a Level Two listener right now, and if you’re honest, you can even recall the last time you engaged in Level Two listening. Today, perhaps?
I’ve seen this often during group discussions, especially with mixed culture teams. Such teams in Tokyo often span across the spectrum of language abilities. Last month, one small group we were working with consisted of two native English speakers (one with Japanese skills, one without) and two native Japanese speakers (one with English skills, one without). This situation poses all sorts of communication problems, but the biggest one is the selective lack of effort by the non-fluent speakers to do anything but wait for one of their bilingual counterparts to interpret for them. We suggest that everyone, even those not understanding the vocabulary, modify his or her behavior to match what it would be in Level One mode. If the listeners do this, the speakers will feel more encouraged, the will disclose more information, and communication will flow.
Level Two is not really listening, but it’s better than…
Level Three, which Burley-Allen calls “sporadic listening.” That’s when you are listening in spurts, just hearing rather than listening, and where you are most likely being either passive, judgmental, or both. You may think that only you know when you’re at Level Three, but your counterparts pick up on it.
A common complaint is that people rely too much on email or instant messages to communicate with someone in the same room, but often that’s because people want to at least get the feeling that someone is paying attention to them rather than being “half” listened to, at Level Two. One client’s team member complained that nearly every time she went to visit her “open door” manager, he would answer her questions without even looking up from his computer screen.
This is happening all too often, and certainly not just in Japan. Technology in general – Blackberries and iPhones in particular – has led many people to forget how to listen, at least how to listen at Level One. Just the other day, after a full morning session with a team here in Tokyo, three of us went to lunch. A Japanese HR manger (who had attended only the first part of the session), their Europe-based leader and I crossed the street for some sushi. We would have just 40 minutes together.
Less than three minutes after sitting down, the first call came to the director. He politely (is this polite?) excused himself to take the call away from the table. Five minutes later, he was back, apologized, and then halfway joined the rest of the lunch. Why “halfway”? Because he was also checking his Blackberry throughout. The HR manger said, “I never take my keitai to lunch, for exactly this reason.”
I shared with the director a true story about two long-time friends who’d gotten together for dinner after not seeing each other for over a year. The conversation was getting interesting when one of the two received a call. “Oh, yes, I’m here in ABC restaurant….oh, nothing much, just chatting with a friend….” This happened two or three times. The other friend was about to go outside and call his dinner partner so they could have an extended conversation.
This is either sad or funny – maybe both – but being “on call, 24/7” is one of the reasons for burnout and a key reason for losing the art of listening. Level One listening takes time. It takes effort. And it can’t be accomplished between cell phone calls, text messages or while looking at a computer screen.
A CRUCIAL TEST
There are many ways to test your listening, and I recommend Burley-Allen’s book as a starting place. It is chock-full of assessments, exercises and insights. And perhaps your best test would be one you give yourself after your next conversation with a person with whom you’d like a better relationship. Prepare by writing down a communication goal, something like, “Level One Listening” or “Let Mr. B fully express himself.”
After the interaction, you can ask Mr. B directly, or at least ask yourself if Mr. B. would say he felt truly listened to. Did he feel better, worse or the same about himself as before the conversation? If you really listened at Level One, he should feel better.
Sharpen up your ears, pay attention to what Level (One, Two or Three) listening you’re engaged in. Listen to yourself and your team, and practice. Tune your ears first and the words you speak will be music to your followers.