Deep listening

I facilitated an executive board retreat recently. In my preparation I had asked many questions about desired outcomes for facilitation, current challenges, team-building and tried to get the background on what the group was like, so I knew what we needed to work on.

After a lot of communication around desired outcomes, I crafted an agenda that balanced the interpersonal group work with the more tactical tasks that needed to be addressed.

It was a long meeting, and I knew that it was better to do the harder, group work first. We started out talking about strengths and assets. Strengths are things that come naturally to you; things you do well with little effort. Assets are things you bring to the group: resources, connections, networks, free venues, donations, finances, etc. The group had a hard time distinguishing the two ideas and a few folks even had trouble coming up with personal strengths.

I noted that this was a reason many people burn out. They don’t feel useful. And if they don’t feel useful, then they usually don’t receive positive reinforcement that their participation is impactful and helpful While it might seem that being overworked is the cause of burnout, in my experience, it’s actually that people aren’t able to use their gifts, nor do they feel appreciated (both of which fuel people and give them energy!) when they do use them.

After hearing strengths and assets, I was able to refer back to what people had offered the group, once we were trying to figure out who does what. Helpful!

But here’s what showed up that I hadn’t learned ahead of time: there was conflict within the group!

Now, if you know me personally or you know my work and my previous experiences, you know that I don’t mind conflict. Conflict seeks change. It shifts the status quo, blows the mind, and honestly, it grounds chaos so that clarity rises to the top. I love it. I had an intuitive hit before the meeting (I need to ask more questions when I get those) that something was “off.” Eventually it came out, during some sharing at the meeting, that a member wasn’t “playing nice” with the rest of the team and that was causing some bad feelings. Oh no!
Additionally, that member wasn’t present at the meeting where we needed to talk about it. Double oh no! I try hard not to talk about people not in the room (after all, how would that help?) and it was clear that the issue was much bigger and could’ve taken the entire day. So, to the best of my ability I offered suggestions (why not make this an educational moment?), let people share their hurt and frustration, and I also practiced deep listening.

I define deep listening as the practice of listening to what isn’t being said out loud. It’s easy to point fingers, but it’s a lot harder to think about why someone might be communicating a specific way. It’s hard to listen for what’s happening in the world and how that’s going to show up in our interactions. Maybe there is old, family or ancestral hurt. Maybe something else is going on we don’t even know about.
If you get a sense that the world is spewing some negative energy (climate change, command and control tactics in companies, lots of deaths, health issues, global poverty, natural disaster, etc.) you better believe that shows up in board meetings, facebook posts, and lunch tables. We need someplace real to deal with what we’re watching and experiencing. So we bring it to our relationships. No matter how deep or surface. We bring it where it’s safe to bring it.

What I learned from that meeting is that interpersonal work and connection (or the lack of it) shows up even in places where you’d think it wouldn’t. And people don’t usually know what to do with it. Good intentions and good people aren’t enough sometimes. Sometimes we need to make space for the conflict to play out…and with curiosity and compassion we need to care for it. Don’t make it personal (it’s probably true that deep conflict doesn’t come from a few acquaintance relationships, it’s probably old stuff) and give yourself time to talk about what feels true, what you’re noticing, and what’s possible.

I love this work because it’s hard, but it’s survivable. We can change our habits, assumptions, ideas, and obstacles if we’re willing. And part of what I offer is to ride alongside. We don’t have to do it alone.