Episode 48 – Listening is the New Leadership: Jacque Merritt

“I don’t think we can solve all these problems in the world without listening to each other as human beings. I think we all have a deep desire to feel a sense of dignity, to feel safe, to feel like we belong, and listening is a pathway to honor those deep needs in people.”

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As a Senior Executive Workplace Consultant and Executive Coach for the Gallup Organization, Jacque Merritt (bio) works with leaders in business, government, military, non-profits, etc. She sees up close those strengths that bring them and those they lead powerful positive outcomes, and those that lead to dysfunction, handicapped success, tension and loss. Jacque brings to her work her natural as well as honed skills and insights into human nature and individual and group behaviors. So when she said that she was really fascinated by and wanted to share about the skill and necessity of listening, I knew it would be a powerful topic for our conversation.

Listening is indeed the leadership skill for this unfolding time. Listening is one of the receptive skills, what we in world language education also call the interpretive mode of communication. Receptive: To grasp again. Interpretive: To distribute among. Listening is standing in the middle not to “suck all the air out of the room” but to distribute meaning as it is shared, and to ensure that we ourselves and others understand.

Listening – or at least listening at Jacque’s Level 2 and above – implies openness and vulnerability, attention to meaning and others in a way that so many popular visions of leadership do not. In the new COVID-informed world in which we live, there are many articles, essays, and opinion pieces on the struggles and roles of managers and supervisors: what do leaders do, if they don’t oversee the tackling and finishing of tasks? We see we are headed in two basic directions: toward more digital surveillance (key strokes, website visits, data enumeration of every kind) or toward a more holistic vision of what individuals’ work and contributions are going to be.

The Gallup organization’s research shows that the four needs followers have from their leaders are trust, compassion, stability, and hope. Each of these needs depends on the leader listening: listening to stated and underlying anxieties, listening to understand how a system can help reduce fear, listening for changing needs and concerns, listening to inspire hope and confidence.

We are all called to be leaders, especially in challenging times: leaders in our families, workplaces, community groups, even friendships.

And it all starts with listening.

Enjoy the podcast.


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It’s About Language – Episode 48 – Listening is the New Leadership: Jacque Merritt

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Transcript

Norah Jones:                     Folks, I’d like to welcome you to this podcast with my Gallup coach, and now I dare to call her also my friend, Jacque Merritt. Hi Jacque.

Jacque Merritt:                 Hey Norah. How are you?

Norah Jones:                     I am doing very well. I’m excited to have you here, because your work with me and with so many with regard to Gallup and beyond, it’s just been transformational. I want to make sure that our listeners know that you are the senior workplace consultant for Gallup. The Gallup Corporation is the one that everybody knows about that does all that polling and does that research. Part of that research has led to providing coaching based on strengths. I also am a Gallop Certified Coach, but I know that I kiss Jacque’s ring because of all the things that she has done with advising leaders around the world. You have also, my friend, a background in teaching psychology. Do you not? I’d like to tap on, then, how it is, we’ve talked specifically here about beginning with the idea of the importance of listening, and as a coach and as a teacher of psychology, how does that fit with the concept of listening and the importance of listening?

Jacque Merritt:                 Well, I think that’s a great question. I think that, what I hear out in the world is that listening is the new leadership. Listening is not only important for leaders, but it’s also important on the home front, and that we’ve kind of stopped listening to each other and we’re doing a lot of talking over each other right now. I think the state of our politics and some of the issues that we’re facing in the US in particular can be traced back to our challenge with listening and hearing each other speak. It’s a competency that we learn in coaching. It’s something that we spend a lot of time on. There’s techniques, we try to get better at it. If I could wish for one thing in our school system, it would be that we teach kids how to listen better. I think they do in some school systems, so I don’t want to say that they don’t, but they certainly didn’t in mine.

Norah Jones:                     There are so many directions to go from just with that opener, Jacque. I’m going to go to the schools for just a second, because so many of the listeners are engaged with the educational enterprise, or want to learn how to help with that because they are employers that are searching for, well, employees that can be part of their teams and contribute and be happy. Let’s start with, seems to me that some people would react and say, “Well, students in schools listen all the time.” What’s the qualitative difference or technique difference that you’re talking about with listening as a training that should be done in our educational institutions?

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, so they say that we all listen about 60% of the time. We all kind of think that, that’s just a natural human behavior, capacity. But, there’s, I’ll call them different levels of listening. Let me just share this and then you can react to it, and this is from coaching training. They talk about what’s called Level 1 listening. Imagine that this is levels going deeper and deeper. The surface level is Level 1, and Level 1would be what we call internal listening. We’re basically listening for what we want to say next. We’re listening to a person, my colleague calls it listening with our answer running.

Norah Jones:                     Yeah, yes.

Jacque Merritt:                 We’re just kind of waiting to get into the conversation and have our point of view and kind of be heard, and so we’re listening to ourselves a lot in that. That’s kind of where we all start. Right? I absolutely am there in coaching sometimes. I’m listening to the voice in my head, maybe not paying enough attention to what the person is saying in front of me. Level 2 goes one step deeper. Level 2 would be you’re listening for facts, you’re listening for information, you’re listening for data, and you might be listening for things that don’t fit what you already think and believe, things that catch your attention. I think that’s where a lot of students are educationally. They’re listening to their teachers for content. Right?

Norah Jones:                     Right.

Jacque Merritt:                 This person’s going to share information that I don’t know and I’m listening for content. That’s not a bad place to be. I’m there a lot when I’m listening to clients. Probably, I’ve listened to you at level two a lot, where I’m just trying to get the words that you’re saying and make sure that I’m catching that communication. Then, Level 3 is more of a, I’ll call it an empathetic listening.

Norah Jones:                     Okay.

Jacque Merritt:                 You’re listening behind the words, and you’re listening at tone, you’re listening for emotions, you’re listening for maybe values. You’re listening to the human being. You’re listening for what’s behind the words, and that kind of listening is creating a connection with a person, where they feel like they’re heard. In coaching, you would use that to maybe ask questions that that person needs to answer. You would really understand that what people are sharing with you isn’t the whole story.

Norah Jones:                     Interesting.

Jacque Merritt:                 You’re kind of listening behind the words. Level 4 is a really interesting place to listen from, and it’s called emergent listening or generative listening is the language I’ve heard around it. But, you’re listening for the future to emerge inside that person. You’re listening for their future to emerge. You’re listening for the expressions of who they want to be in the future, their future self. That’s really where you want to get to in coaching, because you want to hear, where does that person want to go? What’s important to them? Where would be an end point that they want to get to? You’ll get clues of that and what they share with you, so you’re really in that kind of listening, honoring who that person is and honoring the journey that they’re on.

I don’t think we all need to be listening at Level 3 and 4 all the time, but I think just being able to frame it like that helps people to know that there’s different places to listen from, different places to listen to, and that sometimes, I mean, we learn in coaching you have to shift your own physical self or your own mindset in order to get in these different listening places for yourself. It’s hard to be at Level 3 and Level 4. That’s not easy. You got to eliminate noise and distraction. It’s a really different way of paying attention.

Norah Jones:                     How does one go about eliminating some of that noise? Because, especially in, well, even beginning in level two, and certainly as you point out in levels three and four, you’re talking about an interaction of ways of seeing the world, that two people are coming potentially from very different directions. How do you clean up some of that background noise that might be getting in the way of understanding what they’re saying or what they’re meaning?

Jacque Merritt:                 One tech technique, and people probably have heard of this one before, because I think they use it, somewhere I heard it called the Indian talking stick or something like that.

Norah Jones:                     Okay.

Jacque Merritt:                 Anyway, it’s after somebody speaks, repeat back what you heard using the same words. Mirror it back at them, just to check in with them that you heard what you think you heard. Because, I think the challenge is that our brains kind of make things up based on our own biases and experience. If you think about, sound comes into our ears and it really doesn’t have any meaning at that point. We’re trying to make meaning of it, so that signal is trying to connect with something in our brain that makes sense and that feels kind of similar to what we already know, so it has a place to live in our brain.

We tend to actually reject things that don’t fit in our framework, our biases, our experiences, our paradigms. It’s almost as if we’re listening for what we want to hear naturally, so there’s always a little gap between what we hear and what was said. To close that gap, just repeating back to somebody simply, “Hey, I heard you say that, that was really challenging for you,” or, “I heard you use the word struggle when you were talking about that issue.” Just really simply feeding it back to them, because what that does is it allows them to either confirm that, validate that, or expand on that.

Norah Jones:                     That is fascinating, and to your point earlier, it could be trained. I think of a time, well, you have done it in your coaching with me many times. In my note-taking as you’re coaching me, it’s been phenomenal to make note of those words that I’ve heard you say, those are some of the richest then reflections for me afterwards. One time that technique was used on me to an extraordinarily strong impact of negativity for me that I had to work through for years, because I found that the person had heard something that I wasn’t hearing in myself, and that was an effective technique to bring it out and have me deal with it. When we’re talking about, then, having folks learn listening techniques, that sounds like something that could be taught. How is it that you, especially with your background in both coaching and the psychology, would create a sense of urgency in businesses, in schools to create this new leadership skill, as you said at the very opener?

Jacque Merritt:                 Oh, what a great question, and I don’t know that I have an easy answer to that. I think a lot of organizations make decisions based on analysis, data, and facts. I think the first place to start is to share with them why it’s hard for people to listen, the difficulty of it, just from a data perspective. Just as an example of that, they’ve done in studies of this actually, and they say that we think at 900 words per minute and we talk at 150 words per minute.

Norah Jones:                     Oh my, what a gap there.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, yeah. It’s hard for people to listen just because of that. Right? When we’re speaking, people’s minds wander. They make stuff up, they go off track, and so it’s very natural for their brains to get bored when they’re listening. It’s interesting, because they studied Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, and he speaks at about 200 words per minute, so he’s pretty speedy. Then they studied Brene Brown, who speaks at about 150 words per minute, so she’s more like normal speech patterns. But, there is a range, but nowhere near up to 900. Here’s the thing. When you have those facts in front of you, you recognize that people have a lot more brain power that they’re not getting out, because they’re not getting it out loud. Right?

Norah Jones:                     Oh, right.

Jacque Merritt:                 It’s almost like they say our brains are like these washing machines that are constantly in the spin cycle with these 900 words circling around really, really fast. When you can take teach people to be better listeners, it allows people to be better thinkers, because when you’re listened to, you’re more likely to get more words out.

Norah Jones:                     Interesting.

Jacque Merritt:                 There’s a book by Nancy Kline, I think it’s, I don’t remember the name of it off the top of my head, but she says the quality of our listening increases the quality of our ability to think. If organizations really want to tap into people’s intellect and talents, there needs to be more space for people to talk and think.

Norah Jones:                     You’ve mentioned that space, and it’s interesting because one of the workshops that I provide is on wait time, which in the research shows that, of all of the different disciplinary areas that teachers and world languages actually wait less to respond to a student’s basic utterance, usually though responding with a praise or an affirmation of some kind, and that providing training for students in the instructor doing wait time, allows a lot more ideas to flow and provides, indeed, that new ideas, extra ideas, higher quality thinking, higher quality responses. What kind of experience, then, do you bring and reflection do you bring on this, how you use waiting and listening with your work and with the good quality work that you have seen with Gallup coaches and beyond?

Jacque Merritt:                 I love that, Norah. I haven’t heard it called wait time, what we call it is pausing.

Norah Jones:                     Okay.

Jacque Merritt:                 I mean, you hear it called sometimes the pregnant pause, because people don’t like it. Right?

Norah Jones:                     Right.

Jacque Merritt:                 It makes people uncomfortable to have a little bit of silence there, but I think you are exactly right. I don’t know that there’s a right, I don’t like to say right, but there’s power in that wait time, because it does two things for the speaker. I think it allows more of those 900 words to get out there.

Norah Jones:                     Yes.

Jacque Merritt:                 For the listener, I think what it does for them, like anytime we pause, we can take that breath and come at our world from a more centered place. We’re not just reacting.

Norah Jones:                     Yeah.

Jacque Merritt:                 We’re responding. We’re responding from a place of being that person who we want to be. I mean, in coaching, that’s what we try to teach people is, boy, you can go on autopilot all day and just react to everything that’s coming at you. But, if you can just give yourself that little bit of a wait time, you can show up with more intention, you can show up from a place of making other people feel what you want them to feel. That gives you just, the extra two seconds or five seconds makes you more thoughtful in your response.

Norah Jones:                     That’s beautifully said, and keeping with that, Jacque, I remember so much that when I was using this myself in my classroom or when I would do workshops where people would give me feedback on how they were using it, that they themselves as instructors recognize that the students in front of them were more dimensional. They hadn’t, as instructors I mean here, realized that they were going for the content, going for the student to get it right, to move forward. But, that, that wait time also helped them as listeners to understand the humanity of their students more, as well as providing the students an opportunity to interact with each other and to hear each other and to hear themselves. That kind of power comes in, doesn’t it?

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, it’s so fascinating. I mean, I don’t know the world of teaching in the way that you do, but it’s so fascinating to hear you talk about it, because it’s so related to coaching. Being a good coach is very similar, I think, to being a good a teacher. In coaching, we say focus on the who, not the what. People bring all this stuff about things that they want to do different or fix, and it’s easy to sit and stare at that with the person, like, “Oh, there’s that thing over there that we need to get to, that what.”

Norah Jones:                     Yeah, boy that-

Jacque Merritt:                 Turn around and look at the person.

Norah Jones:                     Sit and stare at the what, so let’s go back to that level three and four, and especially that four, the emerging person. Speak more about some of those things, about discovering maybe that the person at the third level, even, is surprised about what they say about themselves, connecting it to their own deep beliefs, their own deep intentions. Then, the emerging self – that’s an art.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, it is. When you’re in that listening space of level three and four, Norah, you know this, you’re seeing the person as they want to see themselves in some ways, and you’re also mirroring back what you see. Right? There’s nothing more powerful than seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, because it’s almost like when we look in the mirror. We only see ourselves sometimes from one angle, we can’t see ourselves from the side or the back.

Norah Jones:                     Yeah.

Jacque Merritt:                 But, other people can see things that we miss and bring those to our attention and help us connect the dots, and see the best sides of ourselves that, we all have that voice in our head that kind of cuts ourselves down and judges ourselves, and sometimes we just need that person in front of us to lift us up and make more visible the beauty inside of us. I think that’s so important for teachers to do that.

Norah Jones:                     Well, teachers and leaders both, and this brings me to something, thank you for putting it that way, is just recently I had a personal experience that reminded me of another aspect of the wait time as I was working with it in my workshops, namely, from besides training people to not think that you’ve suddenly had some kind of a problem medically, that you’re not saying anything back, as people tend to respond right away: that pause is planned. You do have to do the training.

But, also that, when we do respond, when we do begin our interaction, again, that level three and four, that if there is something to praise, that it can be done then specific to what the person has said or the action that they have alluded to, or something that is concrete. That, per what you’ve just said, is something from the side or the back that they may not have noticed. If it is done specific to that which they have accomplished or that who they are, that, that makes a profound change in their sense of skill, of worthiness, even. Imagine that’s a good part of the concept of listening as leadership.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, yeah. Because, sometimes we’re just observers, right? We’re there observing and sharing those observations. “Hey, I noticed that, you really were struggling with that, and you found your way through it.” Or just noticing how people work themselves through to their own solution can enable them to use that again. It’s like you draw attention to what you’re noticing, and then they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t even notice that that was a strategy that I use.”

Norah Jones:                     Interesting. They can apply I that again, and you’ve reflected that back to them so that they gain that agency themselves.

Jacque Merritt:                 Mm-hmm (affirmative). I was listening to a podcast recently about the whole praise thing, and I’m a big, positivity person, so I see so much power and being able to share with people the things that lift them up that they don’t see in themselves. But, this leader in the podcast was also focused on giving critical feedback too, and the importance of that. I know there’s a lot of books about this, how much negative weighs in relation to positive. That positive, you can say a lot of positive things to people, but if you say one negative, it kind of weighs more than-

Norah Jones:                     Tips that scale.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, tips that scale, right. He was saying getting that balance right is just so important. But, as long as you position critical comments from a caring place and from a place of observation, it doesn’t have to be truth. You don’t want to say things as if they’re truth, like, “You should do this,” or, “I see your problem. I think you should do this,” or, “you did this wrong there.” There’s judgment in all of that. But, giving a critical comment with a little bit of observation, and then maybe using different language, like, “I’ve got an upgrade for you.” Something like that, that feels more like, “Hey, I’m in your corner and I have a recommendation for you. I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, but here’s something I notice that you’re having a challenge with. Here’s a way you might upgrade your behavior around that.”

Norah Jones:                     Interesting. That change of language, but that’s tapping onto, well, again, almost that emergent sense of the possibilities here.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, yeah.

Norah Jones:                     You know, Jacque, this sense in the podcast series that I provide is that there’s an urgency in our world for people to understand the role of language and culture in identity, in belonging, and in impact so that we can bring hope. Your choosing this concept of listening has a feel for solving problems. You even opened it in that way. What is the urgency, do you think, of making sure that people hear about the need to develop listening in their lives and in their workplaces?

Jacque Merritt:                 Oh, wow. There is so much conflict in the world right now. I don’t think this can all be solved without listening. Conflict between groups, conflict between individuals, conflicting points of view about things. It’s only when you’re able to listen to the human being, the speaker, that we can understand, I think, the other side, and understand that there’s more commonality than difference. We all want a better world for our children. We all have hopes and dreams. We all see tomorrow as better than today in our hopes. We have different ways of getting there, but I have our heard and listened to a lot of people who are in the work of mediation and diplomacy, and things like that. They say that listening is really the first place you go, and it’s the place that everything opens up from.

If you’re trying to negotiate for a hostage release, or something like that, your ability to listen and really understand where that person is coming from opens the door to a relationship, and relationships are where you can find that common ground, because you have that respect for the other person. I don’t think we can solve all these problems in the world without listening to each other as human beings. I think we all have a deep desire to feel a sense of dignity, to feel safe, to feel like we belong, and listening is a pathway to honor those deep needs in people.

Norah Jones:                     That’s powerfully said, the listening to evoke that sense of hope and belonging. When you look at the work world, especially in the coaching that you do and do so effectively at such a high level, how do you help to orient those with whom you are working to hear themselves and hear this message and begin to apply it in the work that they do in their own lives and in their corporate setting?

Jacque Merritt:                 Sadly, sometimes I have to point out where they’re not listening.

Norah Jones:                     Okay, so we can start there too. All right.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah. I mean, in coaching, a lot of times I’m doing a 360 at the beginning. I’m doing a set of key stakeholder interviews, and then sometimes it’s a little bit of a shocker for people to see the difference between what they mean and what people think they mean.

Norah Jones:                     I’m quite confident that happens a lot. Right?

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, yeah. I mean sometimes we think that people know our intentions, but they don’t. They only see our behavior. They judge us, they thin slice us from watching our behavior, and then they make a story about us. That story is usually wrong. They don’t really see our deepest desires and beliefs. I work a lot with leaders on communication. How do you share who you are? How do you share what’s important to you? How do you share your values? How do you make sure that the values that you espouse are the values that you live and the values that people see every day in your behavior?

Norah Jones:                     The consistency of it. What role does listening play in that reflection, that mirror that you hold up to them with those insights that you provide?

Jacque Merritt:                 Well, I think it’s listening to themselves first. Listening to what’s emerging from themselves, which is where I always start in coaching. You have to know yourself before you can start really to know others and focus on others. Listening to the own voice in your head. What is it telling you? Is there truth in that or not truth? Who do you want to be? That self-discovery, I think, is a first part. Then, listening to others and really getting them to understand that everybody is different, and that the differences aren’t disadvantages, they’re advantages, because people can do things differently than you. They have different talents, different strengths. We may always feel that our way is the right way, but if we’re listening to others, we may recognize, “Wow, I have a blind spot there, but this person can do something I can’t do.” Really, being able to listen allows for more collaboration, more partnership, and ultimately stronger organizations and higher productivity. I would say, to a business, you can’t rely on one person to do everything.

Norah Jones:                     Yes.

Jacque Merritt:                 They really have to be listening to each other to see where each person can add value uniquely.

Norah Jones:                     You know, Jacque, you’re talking about powerful results for what is basically some straightforward, simple work. Doesn’t sound very complicated, just sounds like one has to get down to it. Learn more about one’s self, listen, and apply certain listening techniques. These different levels, for example, being aware of them so that they can be applied to slow down things a little bit, but mostly to allow the other to be heard and to do that blending. Sounds like a pathway that so many people could take.

Jacque Merritt:                 Yeah, and I love the way you just summarized that, Norah, just beautifully. You said it really well.

Norah Jones:                     Appreciate that. Now, I’ve got one more question for you, though. There is, I know, something else that you would love to make sure that people that are listening to this podcast today go away with. Another exhortation or invitation or warning, or however you would like to take it. What do you want to make sure that the listeners today remember from you?

Jacque Merritt:                 One more thing, and maybe this is a whole other podcast at some point.

Norah Jones:                     We can do that.

Jacque Merritt:                 Is that the listening process is fed by powerful questions. Just like you’ve been doing in your podcast, you’re asking people questions that allow them to do great thinking, and allow them to get more of those 900 words out. I will say that there’s a little bit of a magic to what you’re doing. It looks easy, but great questions are open ended questions. Great questions are short questions. Great questions tend to begin with words like what and how, and not so much a why question. Why sometimes throws people into more of a defensive place where they have to find the right answer. I think what you’re doing, that ability to ask questions allows people, and then you listen. Right? You’re listening for words and phrases, and then you keep that conversation going, that’s really part of that whole listening, is being able to ask great questions like you do.

Norah Jones:                     Well, I appreciate that shout out, and I also appreciate the fact that that nailing that important aspect of how we indeed treat each other with dignity and invitation. Speaking of invitation, I’ll go ahead and say I’m going to be inviting you to do another podcast, and we’ll focus on questioning. How about that?

Jacque Merritt:                 I would love that, and you’ll be able to be the expert too.

Norah Jones:                     That would be delightful. But, Jacque, while we await that next one, thank you so much today for sharing about listening and sharing the approaches, and just that wonderful sensitivity and integrity that you bring to all of your work. Thanks for sharing that today with all of our listeners.

Jacque Merritt:                 No, thank you, Norah.

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