During my training to become a leadership coach, one of our activities involved working in pairs to practice listening skills. At that time, we did not focus on questioning or body language, which are, of course, essential. We focused on holding different attitudes and emotions as we listened to our partners. Switching back and forth, each of us told our “story” of hurt, anger, sorrow or other concern while the listener, without speaking, embodied an assigned attitude. These included pity, being nice, trying to fix, showing compassion and unconditional love.
When we finished with the activity, we shared with each other how we felt as we listened and as we repeated our story as we experienced different listener reactions.
I often think of this exercise when I am coaching clients because the experiences during each of the 3-4 minute sessions were so different. My partner was a man I did not previously know whose wife had died a few years before. He was raising their young daughter without her. He briefly told me about a few of the struggles he was experiencing and the loneliness he sometimes felt. I told him about an injustice I had experienced in my professional career that at that time seemed overwhelming.
I remember that when my partner embodied pity surrounding my professional situation, I had a momentary sense of anger. I felt as if I were dealing with an attitude of superiority. He said that when I took on the attitude of wanting to “fix” his concern, he felt resistance and did not want to continue telling me about how he was coping. Showing compassion got better results. However, it was hard to separate that emotion from pity.
The one attitude that formed a strong bond between us and that forged a continuing professional friendship was that of unconditional love.
When I extended and experienced unconditional love as he spoke, all barriers and pretense broke away. The two of us became two people sharing life experiences that neither of us could fix but that both of us honored. The very few moments of unconditional love were very powerful. After that session, we went on to share ideas as well as personal and professional experiences. In short, we became trusted friends.
Carl Rogers long ago introduced the idea of Unconditional Positive Regard, which means that the listener accepts the speaker without judgment even if he disagrees with the speaker’s opinions or actions. “Nothing feels so good as being understood, not evaluated or judged. When I try to share some feeling aspect of myself and my communication is met with evaluation, reassurance, distortion of my meaning, I know what it is to be alone,” he said.
Whether one calls it unconditional love or unconditional positive regard, building relationships through coaching, parenting, leading, or simply being a friend, requires breaking down barriers and preventing others from feeling alone. Learning to give up the sense that we can fix a person or a problem goes a long way toward building those types of relationships.
In a speaking engagement a few years ago in St. Petersburg, Florida, Margaret Wheatley suggested that the best questions are stated in terms of “What are the possibilities?” rather than in terms of “What is the problem?” Wheatley said she became a better consultant when she learned that important distinction. This distinction serves Affective Leaders in all areas of their work. It also serves us in building personal relationships.
- When you listen to other people, what attitudes do you convey?
- Do you listen with unconditional love?
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This topic is covered in much greater detail in my book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results.