Listen Up. Exceed Expectations.

“Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. People are incessant talkers – I can give you my word on that.” 

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Listening’ is something few people do truly well. Worse, our ability to listen continues to deteriorate thanks to the constant stimulation from our devices and endless cacophony around us.

So, about six months ago, I made a commitment to myself: to listen actively and to listen consciously.

For me, it’s been an interesting challenge.  Most of the time, I want to get my ideas out – quickly – before my mind wanders off to the next thing and the idea is gone forever.  My mind is always racing, bouncing from one thing to the next, formulating responses, anticipating reactions, assuming feelings or devising solutions. Sometimes (likely, too often) I start to respond before the other person can finish their third sentence.  I know I’m not alone here.

We interrupt, because we think we know.

Conscious, effective listening, I discovered, can be one of the most difficult things  to do because to listen we must first be silent. For many of us, being quiet can be disconcerting. If you’re not speaking (read participating), then you must not be interested (read engaged). That’s one assumption. The wrong one. 

But, it’s not impossible to learn to listen consciously in our harried, noisy worlds.

To listen, we must first be silent.

Listening is possibly the most crucial element in effective communication. If we fail to listen, we will fail to meet our customers’ needs, let alone exceed their expectations. The same is true of our personal and family relationships – a failure to listen consciously to the person across the table, be they an adult or a child, can easily destroy any relationship.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned about active, conscious listening and what it can help us achieve.

  1. Nurture relationships
    When you set aside your devices, quiet your mind, purse your lips and focus only on the person and subject at hand, you will hear so much more – what’s spoken and what’s left unspoken. You may even find that doing this can be exhausting the first time. But, trust me, it gets easier with practice. Conscious listening allows you to nurture stronger relationships and build a higher degree of trust with the people around you – because for the time that you are listening to the person across from you, it will reflect the fact that there is nothing else more important to you than what they are saying.
     
  2. Discover new ideas and more solutions to a problem
    When you let someone else on your team or family speak, you will uncover new ideas or discover several more solutions to a problem. Think of that person who always hangs back, or the introvert on your crew – the one who holds back because there are already too many loud voices (often the same ones) in the group. If the same voices hold court every time, you will fail to tap the wealth of ideas within your team. Allowing, or rather, encouraging new voices at the table can sometimes take work. You may have to ask that usually quiet person what they think about a problem or idea. You may need to show them that it’s quite safe to offer an opinion and then encourage the discussion along. They might be blown away by the fact that you want their opinion, but what follows could well blow you away.
     
  3. Go beyond the ordinary to surprise and delight
    Someone I met recently said, “just shine the light on your customer and let them speak. You will hear all you need to know to exceed their expectations.” That goes for family, friends and loved ones alike. When you do this, you will discover so much more about the them. The right question at the right time to clarify or probe will give you valuable information about the speaker. You can use that insight to solve a problem for them – one nobody else could quite help them figure out. Or, at just the right time, you could use relevant information you’ve gathered to create a very personal, memorable gift for them. All of this will go a long way towards making you standout from the crowd. If you’re in business with this person, it will kick-start a chain reaction of good things for your business, simply because they would talk about what you did for them (think customer experience) – you will be known as the person who genuinely cared, someone who not only listened, but truly heard what was said. If it’s for a loved one, well then, you will only reinforce and strengthen your relationship. At the very least, it shows that you respect your speaker.
     
  4. Plant yourself firmly on the learning path
    Once you’ve discovered the three points above, this one just reveals itself. New ideas, new information, new solutions, all lead to you being on a path of constant learning, nurturing both  your personal and professional growth. We are always learning from those around us. Conscious, active listening not only enables this process, it accelerates it.
     
  5. Become a better leader
    If you think about the people you most enjoy being with, you will very likely find that you love being around them because of the way they listened to you. When I think about the people in my life who I most enjoy being with, I find that the best of them are exceptional listeners and, in turn, great leaders and mentors. In short, these people make me a better version of myself.

Having been more deliberate about the way I listen to others, and seen what it can do,  this is one skill I intend to keep building.

What does conscious listening mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Life Lesson: Picture the calm. Now Relax.

“Imagine the ground covered in snow. Picture the calm. Now relax.” – My Dad.

My dad probably never ever saw snow in his life. But that’s the image he asked me to conjure up in my mind’s eye one morning, almost 15 years ago. It was just past 9:30 and it was already a hot day in Kuala Lumpur.

I was far from calm. I had my first job interview with a financial newspaper – the country’s leading business paper at the time. The interview was an hour away and we were stuck in traffic that was inching along the highway towards the city. I was angry with my dad for being late. He’d promised me a ride so I didn’t have to take the bus that day, and he knew I desperately wanted the job. Now, beside the stress of an interview, I was panicking for I knew I was never going to make it on time.

So, when he said, “picture the ground covered in snow…”, I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh. Dad had a way of cutting through the tension every time, or trying to anyway. He was an eternal optimist. “We will get there on time,” he added. “Don’t worry”. I stopped talking, mostly because I thought it was pointless. I just resolved to being upset, and hoping for the best.

50 tense minutes later, we pulled up at the offices of the newspaper.  I had a few minutes to spare, so I rushed in and found my way to my interview, a little frantic, but not much worse for wear. An hour or so later, I walked out of the editor’s office with a job offer in hand. At the front of the building, my dad was still waiting for me. He had a smile on his face. I suppose he knew that I would make the cut.

He was an eternal optimist.

If my dad had ever seen a winter’s day like some of the ones we’ve had these past few years, or lived with the traffic chaos that comes in the aftermath of a major snow storm, he might never have asked me to picture the ground covered in snow to calm me down.

The thing is, since that day, my life has moved along a trajectory that I could never have imagined before. My personal and professional life changed tremendously after that job and I’ve gone places and done stuff I never thought I would.

So, when life gets a little stressful and I panic from the fear of not being able to make it to the end of the day, I remember these words from my father…

“Imagine the ground covered in snow. Picture the calm. Now relax.”

And I do.

After all, for anyone who has lived through a major snow fall, it really is pretty, peaceful, and calm after the snow.  Wouldn’t you agree?

Calm after the snowfall

Calm after the snowfall

Life Lesson: It’s OK to Fail. It Sets You Up for the Next Thing

I’ve always envied creative people. That’s a strong emotion, but it’s the truth. Growing up, I often wished I was more like those who could whip up a beautiful painting, craft a gorgeous christmas wreath with bits and pieces of pine branches, pine cones, some string and whatnot, or sew a pretty dress for themselves. I grew to accept that I had two left hands when it came to crafting or art, and so I resigned myself to always be an admirer of the arts and crafts.

Growing up in Malaysia, I never found (really, I didn’t try very hard) to explore my creative side. I didn’t like the idea of being a failure. But since moving to Canada, I’ve been inspired by the people around me. Almost everyone I’ve met has a creative outlet of some sort. Bruce, my other half for one, is a brilliant artist (he blogs about his artwork here and here). I recently met a 75-year-old woman at a local art show who is a prolific artist. She does amazing artwork in watercolour – everything from still-life to portraits to abstract art. Here’s the best part. She told me that she didn’t know a paint brush from her elbow until about 15 years ago! How’s that for inspiration?

Most people I’ve met in the recent past generally aren’t squeamish about trying their hands at pottery, needlework, crocheting, quilting, refinishing reclaimed furniture, candle-making, cake-making, jewellery-making, soap-making, baking, sketching, or whatever they decide to try. So, I decided to shed my fear and try something new. Failure was always an option. Last year, I started crafting and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience since.

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.” – Chris Bradford

So, a few hands-on classes later, and through the generous guidance of some crafty bloggers and YouTubers, I’m mostly happy with what I’ve created so far.

I signed up for a beginner’s class in sewing fundamentals at The Make Den and made a sugarloaf pouch (top right) and headband (we also made a pillowcase). Inevitably, there were many times when I got frustrated, unpicking and resewing, unpicking and resewing…, but it eventually came together and I was quite chuffed by the results. So, I kept moving. Following a couple of online lessons (including this one),  I made the other pencil cases you see above (all of which are now in the care of my nieces in Malaysia and Brussels). I continued with sewing fundamental two at The Make Den, where we made tote bags and apron skirts (I never got around to taking photos of these). But, once I got hooked on using my hands to make things, I wanted to keep going. Not only is it fun to do, but it’s been a great way to relieve stress. And, they make great presents too. Last Christmas, following this pattern for a child’s apron by the super creative Aesthetic Nest I made these reversible aprons for my nieces.

Aprons for Children

Reversible aprons for kids

Then I switched gears and tried my hand at knitting. That didn’t go too well, but as failure was an option, I simply moved on to the next project, crocheting. Thanks again to Aesthetic Nest, I made this warm cowl for myself. There are a few mistakes in this, but for my first one, I was pretty pleased.

IMG_0086

I’ve started on a few more projects like this one, and am trying some cross stitch work, based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design pattern (this project’s been going on for awhile 🙂 ).

I’m also figuring out if I have it in me to sketch. So, I’ve taken to reading and practicing the lessons by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’ll see how this goes. It’ll be a fun way to practice creativity now that the weather is finally starting to warm up. And, as failure is always an option, trying never hurts. 🙂

If you’re new to crafting and art, I would love to hear your experience.






Life Lessons from My Chocolate Lab

If you’ve ever owned a pet, you’ll recognize much of what I’m about to say. I was never one for pets, not until about five years ago. Late one evening, we wandered into PJ’s Pets in Sherway Gardens and a couple of hours later (just a before closing time), we’d become proud owners of a five month old chocolate lab. Bruce had been visiting this young pup for a few months now. This time though, we asked to meet the pup in the little room off to the side of the store. The rest, as they say, is history. Looking back, I think he’d carefully orchestrated that late evening visit to the pet store.

Today, I can’t imagine life without Powder (yes, that’s what we creatively called her). Over the years, I’ve grown quite attached to her. I love her excitement and energy when she greets us at the door every evening. It’s amusing how she never gets bored, even when she’s had the same bowl of kibble for the 3,000th time. 🙂 Somehow, each time, it’s a new experience. Over the years,  I’ve learned many more lessons from her. Here are 10.

  1. Even when it’s cold outside, play, romp, roll, laugh, and generally have a rocking good time – especially when you are with the ones you love.
    Play
  2. Dance, like no one is watching.
  3. Enjoy cuddle time, every time.Cuddle
  4. Listen closely when someone else speaks. Besides the tales they have to share, they feel great when you are really listening.Listen
  5. Practice self-control and patience. It’s highly rewarding.Self-control
  6. Be ready for play, even when friends drop by unannounced. They’re the best kind of visits.Friends
  7. Take time to explore your world. You may never come back to the same spot.Explore
  8. Dive right in. The water’s never too cold. And you never know what you’re going to find.Dive In
  9. Be there for the one you love when they’re feeling low. Sometimes all they need is to be in your quiet company.
  10. Take time to rest. You deserve a break every now and again.

Rest

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” – Roger Caras.

Share the lessons your pets have taught you.

“I Collect Friends”

I spent February 14 with a girlfriend this year. We, of course, talked about life and love (it’s just what girls do) over a sumptuous lunch of mutton keema thosai (an Indian crepe, stuffed with spicy minced mutton). We talked about the pressures of being over 30 and single and the relationships that just never seem to get off the ground because of this, that, or the other. The conversation meandered through the afternoon. A little later over coffee, she said, “I don’t know about you, but I collect friends”, referring not just to her already large circle of friends, but also to a few friendships that had started out online (or otherwise) as relationships… “no matter what’s come between the relationship I’ve had with someone, if I’ve made a connection, I will forgive and forget…I want them to stay in my life… I collect friends.”

“I don’t know about you, but I collect friends”

Briefly, just briefly, it struck me as odd, that she would use the words ‘collect’ and ‘friends’ together. Humans, after all, aren’t a box of hot wheels or a stack of stamps for collecting. We’re not ‘things’. But I quickly realized that I liked that combination of words. We all need to be surrounded by people we love. It’s natural. And, so we do ‘collect friends’ throughout the course of our lives (even if we never think of it as such). There’s no doubt that friendships don’t stay the same as the years roll on; they evolve and grow, some might deepen and others may fizzle, naturally. Yet friends, like family, are so essential to helping us stay grounded. We build memories through friendships. We are inspired to create, discover new ideas, learn and grow emotionally, personally and professionally, through friendships. Friendships (the real time, physical one-to-one type) are also an excellent antidote to depression, because friends interact both when times are good, and when the going gets rough. The simple act of a real conversation with a friend can change your mental, physical and emotional state. We all know intuitively what the physical presence of another person, a touch, a hug or a real conversation can do for us. Yet, more often than not, we cling to our devices and our virtual worlds to connect.

Today, the term ‘collecting friends’ is irretrievably tied to the online world – paradoxically called  ‘social’ but is, in fact, far from it. Through technology, we are inventing loneliness and a whole whack or other social and medical complications – all of which we can fix by simply shutting down our devices or turning off the telly to make time to connect and communicate physically, in the flesh.

Through technology, we are inventing loneliness and a whole whack or other social and medical complications

I love technology and what it’s enabling us to achieve on so many levels. I love trawling through Facebook and catching up with distant friends. I can’t imagine what my life would be without Facetime and Skype – the mediums through which I connect with my family and friends scattered around the globe. I love that technology is allowing me to share my thoughts here freely.

But, too often we get lost in social friendships (as we tot up the number of friends we have on our ever increasing number of social platforms, or spend  hours on end curating the best, happy stories of our lives to share). I know, I’ve done it. I’ve spent many hours online, interacting, but never feeling truly connected. As humans, we need to share more than just our happy times to grow, and often we need real interactions with true friends to make that work.

True friendships though need realtime action, and it’s up to each of us to nurture them  in realtime – so the next time, you’re inclined to strike up an online chat with a friend, try a call instead (if they’re online and available for a chat, they’re likely available for a conversation). Meet up when you can, even if it’s just to go for a walk. If you had to meet online, meet up in person online –  Skype and Facetime have made it possible do so.  I know when I make an effort to connect in realtime (whether it’s with someone close by, or miles away), I feel better…more tangible as a human being and more a part of a community. I commit to doing so more often.

In writing this post, I came across this  animated video by Shimi Cohen on the Innovation of Loneliness.

which led me to this TED Talk by Sherry Turkle. Listen to what she says about how we interact with our devices today.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you think technology has shaped your friendships.