Listen for Possibility: Ten Transformational Takeaways

Chapter 9

In this chapter:

Two monologues do not make a dialogue

In previous chapters, we started to collect the dots on what makes people come alive: their hopes, dreams, and natural abilities. This is your human resources inventory, the raw materials. Here, and in the coming chapters, we start to connect those dots to harness passion and purpose as powerful resources to grow your business.

Emotional energy, we have learned, is the cornerstone of systems design. How do we tap it, move it through a workplace, and get it to the level of emotional resonance that inspires innovation and action?

The answer, in a nutshell, is to initiate clear and open two-way communication and build in thoughtful touches that speak to the subconscious mind.

Most employers complain they can’t find good people, yet others draw talented candidates in droves. What makes one environment repel people and another attract them? Success is largely a function of how we listen, and ultimately respond, to the people and situations around us.

As employers, we reap what we sow. When we relate to people as if they are “things” to serve our needs, we shut them down. If we see employees as tools or robots performing tasks for us so we can make money, they disconnect, cut corners, stop caring about service, show up late—all the human resource issues we face.

Do you want to tap into the ingenuity, passion, and latent talent in your organization? We have to stop thinking we have all the bright ideas and start listening to the people around us. Everyone has something valuable to contribute to the design of an effective system, regardless of his or her position in the company, education level, or social class. Each person sees a different part of the elephant, and the elephant is our business.

As individuals, we tend to compress listening and speaking into one broad idea called “communication.” What’s more, we think of listening as passive and speaking as active. Listening is not a passive activity! A good listener is like a good audience member: someone who both watches and listens with undivided attention. It takes commitment, focus, and discipline to listen well because our brains have been conditioned to listen for what we want to hear.

If you’re watching as you listen, you can catch what people are not saying. As Peter Drucker states, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

People are generally stingy listeners. Our attention is on our own thoughts and insecurities. We’re busy relating the information to what we already know, to our own lived experiences. We judge and assess the person speaking instead of focusing on the message being communicated.

The rush of daily living doesn’t help. We get propelled into motion on the hamster wheel of life. In the whirl, we concentrate on our own story. Striving to get what we want overshadows what other people say to us. We miss so many opportunities and clues, some of them as big as an ocean barge.

In our haste to forward our own agenda we’ve lost the ability to listen, really listen to others, eyeball to eyeball. We put structures in place to control behaviour and avoid making mistakes. Then we judge employees for being disengaged at work or talking behind coworkers’ backs. It’s no wonder people are risk-averse and afraid to follow their intuition and pursue big dreams.

It took me years to appreciate the impact that listening (or not listening) could have on a person’s life. Had I not felt like a lonely outcast in my youth, I may not have had the motivation to listen and empathize with people from all walks of life. I would have missed out on valuable life lessons.

Those who have been shut down, cast aside, or shunned by mainstream processes know better than anyone that compassion, empathy, and listening are too often missing. We need to ensure the voices of those who are impacted by our policy decisions are heard, understood, and included in the process.

I offer ten simple yet powerful strategies to help you listen for possibility.

1. Start with yourself. The first step in improving your listening is learning to observe yourself more objectively. Most of us have ingrained habits of responding to people in well-meaning but ineffective ways. Notice the strategies and tactics you unconsciously use to shut people down. Notice your habits and patterns of letting your mind drift and being distracted when you should be listening. I invite you to commit to bringing your awareness to them. Self-discipline while listening will kick-start your performance into high gear.

2. Approach conversations with a goal; listen for possibility. I’ve come to recognize that the performance of people around me is correlated to my listening of them. If I listen to them as being failures, they fail. If I listen to them as being winners, they win—or at least hold a strong position in the race. It’s inspiring when the right connection is made.

Listen to people with the aim of recognizing their value. Find the best avenue for them to express their passion toward the outcome you want to achieve. Alignment is key. Does the discovery process take a little longer? Yes. But great leaders make it their business to know what motivates people to act. Getting to know a person’s true worth is an investment in better systems design, not a time waster.

When you take the time to win people’s hearts by discovering their strengths and limitations, without judgement, you can put them in the game and let them run a play that no one else is expecting. The whole team wins and the fans in the stands (your clients and other primary influencers) will be happy when that person scores a touchdown.

3. Suspend judgement. Have you ever invited someone’s opinion only to begin rebutting it as soon as that person started sharing? When we do that, we send a signal that the environment is not safe. If we can keep the space judgement-free, people can show up authentically and speak what’s on their minds and in their hearts. Now we’re getting somewhere!

It’s normal and natural for us to judge what other people are saying. Strong leaders actively work to suspend judgement, and certainly to resist sharing judgements too early. Notice your judgements and choose whether it’s appropriate or helpful to share them to move the conversation forward. Your judgement could be relevant and powerful—but not if it’s presented as the only interpretation.

A feeling of being judged or watched can trigger a pattern whereby an otherwise competent person makes more and more mistakes (underfunctioning). Pressure builds internally, anxiety brews, and mistakes ensue. Has this ever happened to you when someone was watching? Even praise can be a form of judgement if your words don’t match the other person’s perception. Keep this in mind if you work with a perfectionist or an artist.

Commitment to lead systemic change is not somebody else’s responsibility. The onus is on each of us to do our part to listen for what’s missing in the system. By getting present to other people’s pain, we stand a better chance of working together to devise practical solutions to complex problems. That process involves standing in the heat of our own discomfort as we listen without judgement. When we hold space, others are granted the freedom to unpack their life lessons so they can learn from their unique experiences and mistakes.

4. Seek out the Crazy Canaries. Often the people we are least likely to listen to have brilliant and practical ideas that could have a big impact. They understand what people with shared experiences need and want better than those who have never shared those experiences. Their stories provide valuable insights on how we can innovate, engage people, and increase the effectiveness of our systems and processes.

I prefer dealing with people who talk straight. The moment I detect anger, frustration, or hostility, I switch to a different channel of listening. Instead of tuning out the “hotheads,” I listen for the emotion and commitment behind the words. A prize always waits to get cracked open.

Now, how should we respond to keep the conversation going?

5. Resist the urge to start with advice. If you are a supervisor, manager, or business owner, you may have developed a habit of solving problems and telling people what to do—particularly since people will often seek out an authority figure to ask for advice. If you’re the boss, you’re usually more than happy to dish it out.

Be warned: Advice giving is a trap.

When you tell people what to do, you disengage their thinking and undermine their ability to problem-solve on their own. Your constant flow of solutions can prevent others from thinking things through for themselves. Advice giving limits creativity and discourages people from exploring other possibilities.

Unsolicited solutions that imply the other person is unable to solve his or her own problems can trigger resistance. People feel disrespected and judged. In our haste to save time, we can bark out commands with little regard for people’s feelings. We do it without thinking, an automatic response to our own responsibilities and time pressures, triggering resistance and resentment.

In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier illustrates how starting with advice leads to three vicious circles:

  1. An over-dependent team: The more your team comes to you for advice, the more advice you give, so the more they come to you for advice. You train your team not to be autonomous. The pattern becomes disempowering for them and unsustainable for you.
  2. A sense of overwhelm: The more you’re solving other people’s problems, the more you lose your strategic focus. The more you lose your focus, the more of other people’s problems you have to solve.
  3. Disconnection from the work that matters: Advice giving pulls you away from the impactful, meaningful work you should be doing on core strategic objectives. Proactive and preventive work gets pushed aside.

6. Don’t drive the conversation. 
Asking probing questions makes you drive the conversation. That may feel great for you, but it distracts the person trying to tell a story or address a concern. Your line of questioning answers your concern but can derail the other person’s train of thought. People need space in a conversation to share ideas and feelings. Asking too many questions trains people to share half-truths. They feel anxious about approaching you, or they passively withhold their sharing.

Telling your own story implies you can teach them through your experience, which may indeed be the case. If you have an agreement to teach a lesson, storytelling is an effective way to convey learning. But watch out for engaging in one-upmanship or implying that your life is more interesting or more important than theirs. Driving the conversation diminishes other person and inadvertently shuts down communication.

7. Ask careful questions. Listening is a two-way street. I ask people different questions than most interviewers do. I want to understand not “if” they bring value to the project but “what” value and energy they can add to our understanding and quest for solutions.

Asking open-ended questions of a general nature invites thoughtful input. It gives people room to share their perspectives. People know when we enter a conversation with a chip on our shoulder. It’s in our body language, our facial muscles, and our way of being. The second these nonverbal clues escape from us, people put their dander up, and then nobody is likely to get the desired outcome.

Success leaves clues. Open-ended questions reveal passions, natural abilities, ways of being, emotional triggers, motivations, values, and insights about how a person thinks and learns best. This valuable information cannot be gleaned from scanning a resume or asking questions that elicit canned answers. Relationships get established through two-way dialogues, not two monologues.

8. Seek a common denominator. The path to collaboration can sometimes be lit by one shared characteristic, a common denominator both parties are willing to work toward. From this starting point, take it one step at a time until you get somewhere, bypassing resistance as you go.

Even in the most polarized relationship, a common denominator exists that can inspire collaborative action. You won’t find it in a pretentious meeting or six-hundred-page government tender document. In my experience, workable solutions are front-line operational ones. (I have an example in my next chapter.) Innovative results start small and grow to displace the status quo.

9. Remove “Yes, but …” from your vocabulary. Responses that start with “Yes, but …” are arguments in disguise. People don’t feel listened to; they feel inadequate, challenged, and inferior. The conversation will go straight downhill, ending in political posturing and counterarguments.

10. While you’re at it, remove “At least …” Sometimes the most well meaning listeners are too quick to sympathize, reassure, and offer silver linings. This reaction ignores how the other person is feeling, making the person liable to shut down, on one extreme, or lash out, on the other. An easy reminder is never to start a sentence with the words, “At least …” 


I want to emphasize that these ten strategies to help you listen for possibility are not about doing something to other people. Listening for possibility is about showing up with authenticity and a desire to understand root causes so the best possible outcomes can be co-created for all stakeholders.

It’s important to establish early wins because people are afraid to admit they don’t understand—especially supervisors, managers, and business owners. We think we should have all the answers. We have years of social conditioning that suggests there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer. Let’s recondition our people! By listening to our team, we teach them how to listen to others. As leaders, we model how our team can learn and grow more effective, together.

Great leaders know they don’t control the story plot. The best any of us can do is control our own character. You can’t know in advance when the timing will be right for you to connect the dots. What’s for certain is that no one accomplishes his or her end game solo. We all need help along the way.

Remember your skunkworks project? The small group of people who seek radical innovation? When we see our outcome as a game that everyone is playing together to win, feedback is invaluable. Feedback helps us lay out the playing field, establish the sidelines, and position the goalposts. 

Breakthrough Boosters

​Knowing people’s hopes and fears is sacred knowledge. It can never be used against them. If you can’t honour a promise to hold it in trust, don’t have the conversation in the first place.

  1. Get to know the people in your workplace not only by what’s on their resume but by what’s in their heart—their hopes, dreams, and passions. Collect your dots. You may not use every bit of this value-added information now, but in the future, the day you finally get to connect the dots, it may be invaluable.
  2. Spend time listening instead of formulating your response. Resist the temptation to be the expert. Instead, cast people less qualified than you in the role of expert and listen to what they say. Take time to understand what inspires other people about the business opportunities you are pursuing. Aligning their interests to your business outcomes is key to establishing their emotional engagement at work.
  3. Ask yourself, “What’s not working as well as I’d like?” Begin an appreciative inquiry in partnership with your team. Ask them what they notice, think, feel, want, and are willing to do (the Conscious Communication process).  Look beneath the surface to identify root causes. Don’t get swept into the sea of opinion or take sides on issues. Be a Generator by attending to what is both said and unsaid.

Remember:  If you want your people to dream big and take responsibility, call your attention first to your own energy and reactions. When you know you have yourself under control, invite your people together to examine a problem or challenge them to invent new, inclusive solutions. Try to remain impartial, with your attention fixed on the overall effectiveness of the system and the satisfaction of all involved.

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