Listen & Learn – Part 1

Transform Your Team Without Saying a Word:
4 Quiet Tools to Enhance Performance and Joy

Written by:
Kedren Crosby, VP for Strategic Organizational Behavior, E4 Strategic Consultancy
Sarah Colantonio, Professor of Communications at Millersville University

Brandon was working in finance in Chicago when he started taking pictures of strangers on the street just for fun. Then, abruptly, he was fired from his job. He moved to New York City and kept taking pictures of interesting New Yorkers (is there another kind?) as if it were his full-time job. He not only asked the people he encountered on the sidewalks if he could take their photo, but more importantly, he also asked them questions about their lives. Next, Brandon listened to what they told him. He chronicled what he heard and saw. Now his Humans of New York has millions of followers on Facebook and a book on the NY Times best seller list. “When I was younger, I thought listening was just about learning the contents of someone’s mind. I’d always try to finish their thoughts just to show them that I knew what they were thinking. As I got older, I learned to listen better. I realized that by trying to anticipate their mind, I was ignoring their heart.” Brandon Stanton’s success was made possible not because he is an exceptionally talented photographer, but rather because he now knows how to hear their hearts.

In spite of the fact that we (Sarah and Kedren) are professors and consultants who specialize in COMMUNICATIONS, we’ve both been guilty of the same thing Brandon Stanton was guilty of; ignoring what’s most vital by failing to listen. We’re learning from our bruises some concrete ways to be less ignorant.

We’re a team. Chances are you’re on at least one team, too – maybe it’s a work team or a sports team or a marriage or a family. Since we hope to have another 40 years of teamwork ahead of us (with our colleagues, family members, fellow parishioners, board members, friends, each other…), we decided to make a concerted effort to learn how to listen in ways that will improve the success and spirit of our teams. Each month, we are putting ourselves through the paces of a new ‘listening challenge’ to develop new receptive communication skills. Subsequently, we are writing about how these listening tools help us grow, learn, wake up and hear our epic fails.

The Listening Challenges
The following four Listening Challenges have the ability to transform your team in quietly miraculous ways. Being part of a fully present and openly hearing team can position you for unprecedented success. You may want to work together to adopt one Listening Challenge each month and then incrementally build your collective capacity for actively listening over a year. You may be ambitious and decide to dive in and adopt of them simultaneously. Agree to become accountability partners and gently remind your team if they slip. Envision how your team’s productivity, communications, creativity and values will grow in authenticity, respect, empathy and even speed if you master the following Listening Challenges.

1. The Lean-in-and-we-mean-that-literally Challenge
Show physical interest and attention to your teammates using eye contact and overall receptive body language.

The results of a survey taken with New York City hospital patients regarding 2-minute visits by doctors is telling. All of the visits were just two minutes long, but the doctors who stood to talk to patients were perceived as spending far less time with the patient and not really listening. Patients reported that those doctors who pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed and looked into the patient’s eyes were truly interested in the patient and were perceived to have spent more time on the visit.

Julia Wood’s Communication Mosiacs shares the results of an experiment where researchers taught college psychology students responsive listening techniques (eye contact, nodding, open posture, smiling). The researchers then had the students apply these newly learned responsive listening techniques on a painfully boring history professor. This professor was notorious for reading his notes in a monotone voice for a torturous hour. On the day of the experiment, the psychology students came to class and, after a few minutes of their normal listening posture in the painfully boring lecture, the students all kicked into high gear with their newly minted responsive listening techniques. It was if this professor became an entirely new man. He blossomed. He became animated. He started to interact with the students. He flourished – just as we want our teammates to do! But here’s the kicker – the experiment required that at a certain point there would be a preplanned signal and the psychology students would cease all responsive listening techniques. Upon the signal, the students suddenly returned to slouching and passively taking notes. The professor tried vigorously to reengage the students for a few minutes, but after his failed attempts to reignite their responsive listening with the students still unresponsive, he reverted to his dreadfully monotone note-reading. The moral to this story is that you can positively and enthusiastically morph others into the greatest version of themselves without saying a word.

2. The iPhone Challenge. Put it away (both physically and emotionally) when you are trying to connect with a real human.
One of the greatest gifts you can give another person is your full attention. When Sarah asked her students how they felt when they were truly listened to, one respondent resonated, “I’m surprised!” We are all distracted by the threat or hope of dinging notifications from our devices. Just how essential is that new email or comment on our Facebook post or meeting reminder? NPR sponsored their own related challenge in March 2015. “The Bored and Brilliant Challenge” encourages participants to keep phones in their purses or pockets with the goal of looking up, seeing the world and interacting with other people. A visionary Vice President at a local multi-million dollar organization refuses to allow smart phones into his office. Say no to the phone while you are trying to connect in person.

3. Pregnant Pausing. Don’t interrupt and see how magically the silence works for you.
In yet another study with doctors and patients, researchers studied the impact of doctors interrupting patients less than 30 seconds into the patient’s description of their illness. The study also tested what happened when doctors waited until the patient finished fully explaining their problem. The surprising findings were that on average, patients spoke for only 90 seconds before finishing their description, AND the uninterrupted description provided the doctors with a far clearer picture of the underlying cause of their patient’s illness. Almost as important is the fact that the doctors who allowed their patients to speak for 90 seconds were perceived to be more likeable and competent simply because they listened. Often our instinct is to jump in to demonstrate our own brilliance which prevents other people from finishing their equally brilliant thoughts. We miss out on their truth (and their respect) if we finish for them.

4. Grow a Third Ear: Listen to hear your teammate’s motivations, anxieties and underlying interests.
This is a grown up challenge and the culmination of the other three challenges. It requires the listener to tap into intuition, ultimate interests and attention. Theodor Reik, a Freud trained psychoanalyst, wrote a book in 1948 which describes how to understand and relate to others using observation and analysis that requires both self-awareness and a deepened awareness of the speaker’s interests and motivations. It is easiest to grow this third ear by beginning to listen to yourself. Read between your own lines. Listen to your own themes. Hear what you emphasize and the repeating of certain words. Note your own sequencing and cadence. Write down what you hear and then branch out to listening to the interests and motivations, themes, words, sequencing, and cadence of the words of others on your team. You will be surprised at what you learn. Learning how to ‘hear between the lines’ gives you the jet fuel you need to effectively motivate, strategize and organize both yourself and your teammates.

We would love for you to tell us how the Listening Challenges are working out for your team! As much as we like success stories, we particularly love the epic fails. We’ll be listening!

Kedren Crosby is VP for Strategic Organizational Behavior at E4 Strategic Consultancy. Contact her at or 717.690.2056.

Sarah Colantonio is a professor of Communications at Millersville University. Contact her at

Learn more about the Importance of Listening in our upcoming NRN workshop Outstanding Customer Service, part of the Nonprofit & Municipal Professional Development Series. Register today!

Stay tuned for our next blog post – Listen & Learn Part 2: Leading by Listening

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