Listening is a skill

It’s a skill to fully listen to one or more people in a conversation. If you want to test how people are listening, ask them to repeat back to you the message or direction you were trying to convey. You will be surprised at how often the other person wasn’t fully listening or took something different from your words than you meant. That’s right, someone can be listening, but take something different from what you said than you meant.

I struggle with active listening because my mind goes into overdrive on what I want to say or how I want to respond. In my role as an attorney I have to be able to think on my feet, immediately respond to questions from judges or clients, and all the while respond in a meaningful way that answers a question or drives home a position. This doesn’t help me be a better listener, but only a better advocate for my client. Turning this off in other conversations is difficult.

The struggle to fully listen is evident in conversations with clients, friends, and family. I may be thinking about a response to a question or position, or a story I want to share, but if I focus on what I want to say, I am not focusing on what you are saying. This is human nature, but I constantly am working to be a better listener.

At a base level I try to remember what I tell my children, which is that if your mouth is open, your ears are closed. I am trying to teach them you have to listen to know what to say.

You should ask others about what you have said to see whether they were fully listening to you and whether they understood what you were trying to convey. You will be surprised by the results. Likewise, in important conversations, repeat back what you believe you heard to see when you are correct, or not.

I notice when I focus on what the other person says my responses are more thoughtful and directed at what I understand the speaker is interested in discussing. I challenge you to listen better in your conversations this week and see how you do.

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Never stop learning

A few years ago I read a quote that resonated with me. I happened upon the quote this week and had the same reaction. The quote is “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.”  This insightful statement is by Buckminster Fuller, and he is correct on many levels. 

We all have potential, but realizing that potential takes work.  Think about the intelligent people you have known who are disinterested in learning or otherwise do not apply themselves. No matter your definition of success, in most settings, hard work beats intelligence.

Learning goes hand in hand with hard work. It is part of improving yourself and makes for a better work place. It also makes for a more interesting work place.

Learning may take the form of business and self-help books, staying current on the news, or books on your chosen profession or vocation. It could involve attending seminars or taking classes. With the Internet at our fingertips, the options for learning are seemingly endless.

If you aren’t interested in learning more about what you do or how to do it better, you should ask yourself why. Is it because you think there is nothing left for you to learn? There is. Is it because you aren’t really interested in what you do? If so, that is a deeper question you should spend time considering.

This learning doesn’t really happen by chance. You may randomly pick things up from reading required in your job or from working with others in the course of doing your job, but that is haphazard learning. It is better to come up with a plan, which may include asking others for opportunities to learn from them or receiving direction on other actions you may take to do so.

What you learn depends on what you do and what will help you do what you do. The first step you should take is to figure out what your options are. They may include reading a book about networking, to taking a course online or at a local community college. The amount of options may surprise you.

Despite the plentiful options, it’s up to you to take action to stop the de-genius process. Challenge yourself and see where you can get by the end of the year.

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Everyone on your team has something to offer if you let them

Teams are important. It takes people to have a team. For a team to perform optimally, each person must have a voice and be allowed to contribute. 

This has been on my mind in relation to a corporate client who, while having a management team, really has a top down decision making process driven by a single person, the owner. I was asked to participate in a meeting on issues related to a legal matter. Each member of the team of four was allowed to speak. After each one spoke I watched and listened to the owner kind of acknowledge what someone said and then replace it with what he thought or wanted to do. This went on for two hours, after which I was directed to do what the owner had told me he wanted to do a few days before the meeting. He allowed his people to speak and ignored their thoughts and input. 

This is an example of a dysfunctional team. An owner has the right to be the ultimate decision maker, but if you give someone a voice only to ignore it, what’s the point of even giving the illusion of wanting input? 

That meeting made me think of a non-profit board I am a member of. The members of the board are diverse in many ways and each bring things to the table the others don’t. During a recent meeting on strategic issues, I listened as committee members spoke. People actually listened to each other and helped form the ideas and action steps on the matters being decided by the board. This is a functional team.

Functional teams involve input from all and team members being open to ideas different from their own. If you think about this, most of us are involved in teams at work and home. How these teams function makes a difference. Of course, at home, parents need to dictate family decisions on many issues, but allowing children a voice at the table on certain issues seems like a smart strategy for them to be part of a functional team from a young age.

People on a team won’t always agree with the decisions coming out of the group. Once a decision is made, those who may not have agreed with the decision need to align so there is a singular message coming from the team. This happens with high functioning teams: respectful discussion and disagreement when meeting and then sending a unified message to those not on the team.

If you are on a functional team, it just makes things easier. If you are on a dysfunctional team, make changes. Change is hard, but it’s the path forward to more ideas and better decision making.

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Disconnect from your work

Most of us are connected to our phones, tablets or computers more than ever right now. From the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep, most of us are a few steps from our office from anywhere in our home. Like many, my summer travel plans were cancelled, taking away a time I actually disconnect from work and email. Losing that time and the current circumstances are wearing on me and those around me. We all need a break, but it’s hard to do when day and night are spent in the same place.

It’s always hard to disconnect because of some perceived emergency situation for a client I may or may not remember a year in the future. When I do disconnect, I am reminded we all need to do so. It’s so relaxing and provides a much needed break from work and the continuous need to stay on top of email and various forms of electronic media and information. When is the last time you disconnected?

It’s more important than ever to do so, but it takes even more planning. Maybe you are willing to travel by plane or car and take a few days away. Even if you aren’t, there are ways to take time. Plan an outdoor activity. If the weather is bad in your locale, you may have to drive a few hours, but you can do so and be home the same day. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something and force yourself to disconnect.

We walk around with these small computers in our pockets that we use to communicate with others, take pictures, surf the Internet, and stream video and audio content. We also use them for work. Most of us really are connected all day long whether because of a level of addiction or the need to be accessible at all times to customers and clients. For those working at home, the lines have become even more blurred.

As an attorney, I definitely have clients who think I should be able to immediately respond to any email or text at almost any time of the day. I try to set reasonable expectations of my availability and general response times, but many people think because a message was sent it will be immediately viewed and responded to. I had one client who used to text me “????” if I didn’t respond or call him within a few minutes of his text. When I would get back to him he logically understood I have other clients, a family and things going on, but because he is an instant responder on email and text, his knee jerk reaction is that everyone else is too.

Use your phone to Google it and you will find numerous articles and studies about how bad it is for your brain and, generally, your well-being, to be using technology so much and accessible at all hours. How bad has it become? Someone my wife previously worked with used to (and hopefully, for her and her husband’s sanity, doesn’t) keep her phone under her pillow and answer texts at all hours of the night. That is so bad on many levels.

Just like your body and brain need you to take vacation, they need you to disconnect from technology for at least short amounts of time. But it isn’t easy to disconnect – our phones help us fill downtime or dead space. The problem is that our downtime is time we used to spend thinking, coming up with ideas, and being creative. In the big picture, for most of us, technology is a creativity killer. For me it may mean the great legal argument or idea for one of my cases won’t come into my head out of the blue like they used to. For you it probably means something different, but there is something you have lost from not taking time to let your mind be unoccupied, even for a moment.

At the same time, I am a big fan of technology both in my professional and personal worlds. I continually am trying to balance its use better, with varying results depending on the day. The truth is you have to focus on turning away from your technology to reconnect not only with the people around you, but yourself.

Try taking a short break from technology and see what positive effects it has for you. I know some of you are saying to yourselves “but when I turn it back on I will be so behind and have to catch up.” You have to do that anytime you go on vacation, are in a meeting or unable to constantly be online, so accept that as a given. If you try to take a break, even for a short time, you will come back looking forward to the next time you can do so and try to make it a regular thing.

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Patience

Imagine you are in a car with others on a long drive, have somewhere to be, and out of nowhere traffic on the highway comes to a stop. What is your first reaction? It may be to curse under your breath (or out loud). It may be to voice your frustration or you may be upset knowing you will be late to your destination.

I had this happen earlier this week. My first reaction definitely was frustration. But then I sat back and thought about what I can control and what I can’t control. It didn’t make sitting in traffic for around an hour stopped or barely moving fun by any means. At the same time it gave way to good conversation, made it easier to change the music and provided some time to think. There is good and bad with all things and I tried to find the good and let go of the frustration.

Patience is defined as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.” Being able to do so is a learned talent. We all want what we want now. Learning that isn’t how the world works when you are young is a hard lesson. Aging, and hopefully maturing, doesn’t make it any easier. It also is impacted by the situation, whether you didn’t sleep well last night and a host of other factors.

That is why patience always is a work in progress. I try to exercise patience in situations where it’s needed. Sometimes I do better than others. No matter my reaction, I do look back to try and figure out how I could have reacted better and with a plan (and hope) to do better the next time.

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Organize yourself

Organization is more important than ever. Many of us are working remotely. Even if you aren’t, being organized makes a difference. If you have children, school is about to start around the country with remote learning, pulling even more on your time. Being organized will put you in the best position to be successful in all facets of your life.

Now is the time to organize or, if you are organized, to reorganize. Delay rarely helps in any situation and disorganization leads to disaster. It not only can make you late on your commitments, it can adversely affect your business and personal life.

We live in a “what have you done for me lately” world that demands that expectations not just to be met, but exceeded. Through being organized you can regularly set realistic expectations you know you can meet. If you are unorganized you will have trouble meeting expectations and your clients, co-workers, and others will see it as a negative.

To do this you need to come up with strategies that work for you. It may be keeping lists and calendaring items. Maybe you need another person, such as an accountability partner, to help keep you on track. There are many tools you can utilize to be better organized and keep on task. You have to know yourself well enough to know what will and won’t work for you. Of course, you then have to put what will work in motion and commit to it.

You should start today. The better you organize yourself, the sooner you will set yourself up for success. The point is you have to work hard to be organized. If you try you will see how it benefits you in business and generally.

If you are not sure where to start, find someone you know who is successful and organized and see if they will formally or informally serve as an accountability partner for you. It is investing in yourself and worth every minute you put into it.

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Mentoring is more challenging than ever

Most professionals still are working remotely and will be for the foreseeable future. This makes mentoring relationships more challenging. You can have phone calls or Zoom calls with a mentor or accountability partner, but mentoring relationships grow from forging a relationship based on knowing each other. Getting to know each other is harder to do by phone or Zoom unless that close relationship already existed. Even then, it’s not as good as being able to spend time together in person.

All of this makes beginning new mentoring relationships more challenging because it’s easier to build the relationship and trust through meeting in person, which then can be supplemented by phone calls or other manners of communication. This doesn’t mean solid new mentoring relationships can’t happen without meeting in person, it just means it is harder.

Imagine you switch jobs now. You are coming into a new company. Maybe it even has a formal mentoring program to help integrate new employees into the company and its culture. It’s much more difficult when you are sitting in your home office than if you are at the company’s actual office.

This is because the basis of the mentor mentee relationship is trust. Trust may be assumed at first, but it really is earned over time. The better the level of trust, the more both parties to a mentoring relationship gain. If you are in a mentoring relationship and it isn’t helping your professional growth, it may not be a good fit or maybe it has run its course. Your hope should be that by participating in such a relationship, you both evolve in many ways that benefit you in the long run.

So, depending on where you are professionally or in life, it always is a good time seek out a mentoring relationship. It will help if you are doing so now to acknowledge it may be more difficult or take longer to forge the bond that really allows such relationships to grow and flourish. But I challenge you to do so and look to play an important role in another’s story.

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Preparation is everything

Have you ever trained or practiced something with a goal in mind, such as improving your time on your daily run, memorizing your lines for your role at the local theater, or something similar? When you do, you have to make time to work up to your goal. With no preparation, you may finish the race, but it won’t be fast and you likely will feel it in your body for quite some time. If you don’t practice those lines and really get them down, the opening night will be uncomfortable, at best. These are examples of why preparation matters.

Similarly, why wouldn’t you prepare for any important event or conversation, such as a meeting with a supervisor regarding performance, salary or bonus issues, a job interview, an important conversation with a child, co-worker, spouse, etc. If it’s important to you, it’s worth your time, and not preparing hurts your chance to achieve whatever you define as success for the event or situation.

It helps if you know what you want to accomplish in a given situation. If it’s an important conversation, knowing the message you want to communicate will increase your chances of making sure you and your position(s) are understood and you will be able to give it your best shot. Preparation will put you in a better place to communicate clearly and effectively, which can help you achieve goals or desired results. Being prepared also will bolster your reputation and what others who deal with you think about you, which is important because reputation is everything.

So prepare for those important events, meetings or conversations, and see where it gets you. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Don’t be that person!

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Change is constant

I have been thinking about change during the last few months as many businesses have had to convert to remote working, and others have lost their jobs or businesses. It caused me to go back to a post I wrote in January 2014, which resonates today (and everyday). I have updated it, but it remains truth that change is constant.

Winners know this. What do I mean?  Being able to adjust on the fly is important.  In my world it can mean abandoning the entire oral argument you spent hours preparing because of a question or statement by the judge, a position taken by my opposing counsel or a client question. It also means having change forced upon you where you need to figure out how to network and develop business in a world where social distancing is the new norm and many businesses remain closed. The ability to shift gears on the fly allows you to be focused on the prize, whatever it may be.

Many times the change or adjustment does not need to be a split second decision.  What if you plan a new business initiative, spend hundreds of hours on it and then learn something has changed or you missed a piece of information that makes it more challenging to succeed?  Change is needed. Is it to scrap everything in the face of adversity?  Is it to rethink and tweak your plan?  Of course the true answer is that it depends on the situation.  But once you acknowledge change is needed you have taken the first step.

Change matters in your professional life.  Don’t become stagnant because the current circumstances don’t allow it, i.e. if you don’t change and adjust others will do so and pass you by.  To be on the top of your game you have to know when to adjust.  Stay up to date on what you need to know to do what you do.  Information is power.  Information is another thing that lets you know when you have to change or adjust.

Life is both a gift and a challenge in which we all can do a better job of doing our best for our customers and clients, as well as ourselves.  So pay attention!  Look for when you have to make adjustments or when change is being forced upon you by circumstance. Being open to change will bring creative ideas and opportunity, and allow you to shape your future.

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Reputation matters

Reputation takes a lifetime to build and mere seconds to lose. This is why your reputation and the reputation of your business matter in all you do during work hours and outside of those hours. This relates both to an overall picture of what others think and what you do that fits within those general thoughts, or not.

We all are ambassadors for the companies we work for. No role is bigger or smaller than other roles, just different. All roles are important and allow your business to function. It’s important to act in a manner that reflects well on you and your business to allow the business to function and to maintain its good reputation you have helped it earn.

Reputation is mainly is defined to two ways:

  1. the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something ; and
  2. a widespread belief that someone or something has a particular habit or characteristic.

I think the definitions are different, though connected. Your reputation clearly is what others in your circles or communities thing of you. An example could be that you have a reputation for being honest, charitable and a hard worker. At the same time, the beliefs of others are built on knowing your habits and characteristics that support such a reputation. An example of this is that each Saturday morning you volunteer at a local foodbank. Because of your habit to volunteer, part of your reputation is that you are charitable. What you do translates into who you are in your own eyes and the eyes of others.

Actions and inactions that can affect your reputation, and that of your business are numerous. Examples include not getting work done timely or within expectations, lying, or being careless on social media, even on your personal accounts. Do one or more of these and the response will be swift and negative.

On the other hand, when you do good, you have to continually do so for it to become part of your reputation. If you continually miss internal or external deadlines others at your business or the customers you need to succeed may not want to work with you again. If you volunteer each week, it may be months (if you are lucky) or more likely years before that habit becomes part of your broader reputation. It may not seem fair one bad act or mistake can follow you for a long time while doing good can take years to penetrate your community as to who you are, but knowing this should help guide choices you make.

Your reputation is built on peoples’ experiences with you. The reputation of your business is built on peoples’ experiences with you. We all deal with a broad group of people. This includes co-workers, clients, vendors, and people we deal with in our personal lives, from friends and family, to the person who cuts your hair or services your car. How you deal with and treat these different people reflects on you and your business.

Doing your best at all times is one way to work on and protect your reputation by doing things in a way that reflect well on you and your business, and positively affect the way others think of both. Once in a while, think about whether there are things you can do better at work or home. Then do your best and a good reputation will follow.

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