This week’s Happiness At Work collection #49 highlights stories about the power and effectiveness of what many would call the especially softest of the soft skills: listening, giving, empathy and quietness.
We’ve always been unhappy about the term ‘soft skills.’ Used as a catch-all for the skills that privilege human interaction over the more so-called ‘hard skills’ that are concentrated on results, efficiency, facts and figures, tasks and outcomes that, we argue, are a doddle compared to the much much ‘harder’ expertise needed to enact the highly complex demands of making high quality relationships, communications, feelings and experiences.
So here is a special selection of ideas, provocations, invitations and practical techniques for honing our soft skills into the strength, suppleness and resilience that our 21st century professional lives so deeply demand from us. There are some really potent ideas here that challenge our default assumptions about what constitues ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership and question just how valuable and necessary being the archetypal inspirational leader really is for getting high quality outcomes in a complex fast-changing and unpredictable environment…
We are losing our listening…
This is how Julian Treasure begins his deeply-felt talk, which includes, as his title promises, five practical techniques for practising better listening skills. These are some of the ideas taken from this talk that ring out especially for us:
Listening means making meaning from sound.
We listen through a funnel of unconscious filters that all go towards creating the reality and meanings we form:
The premium of good listening is disappearing partly because of our recording capabilities, which makes the need for good listening seem less needed and so less looked after than ever. In our headphone bubbles, we are living in a noisier, more impatient and desensitised world where it is becoming harder for us to pay attention to the quiet, the subtle, the understated…
We need to learn to listen as if for the very first time. Here are five tools for improving our ability to do this:
- Silence. Just make 5 minutes a day of consciously observed silence – or as near to it as you can make.
- The Mixer. Listen to how many individual channels of sound you can hear and tune into in the air around you.
- Savouring. Enjoy mundane everyday sounds. Discover how interesting and layered and dynamic and different sounds actually are.
- Listening Positions. Most important this one. Shift and play with different positions to get conscious about different ways of listening. These are some, but there are many more:
active ~ passive
reductive ~ expansive
critical ~ empathetic
- RASA. Sanskrit word meaning ‘juice’ and the acronym for Receive Appreciate Summarise (“So…) Ask questions.
I live to ask questions. But I believe every human being needs to listen consciously in order to live fully connecting to the physical world around you and top each other. In terms of spiritually connecting, every ritual path has listening at its heart.
We need to teach listening in our schools.
(And – we add emphatically – to our professionals and leaders across every different sector, organisation and enterprise.)
A world where we are not listening to each other is a very scary dangerous place.
Listening can help make connection, understanding, peace…
In this talk broadcaster and sound artist Virginia Prescott invites us to think about how we can learn to appreciate and enjoy listening more as we go forward in an environment of social media and increasingly individualised technologies…
Broadcasting means to throw out seeds. And we don’t always know where these seeds will land or what will grow from them…
In this article the ideas that Lucas Hunt writes for writers has so much resonance that I have substituted a more universal pronoun to amplify his wisdom for us all…
Any [one] who desires to get at the truth of human experience should read poetry, because it contains a multitude of possibility. Poetry is the mud that grows the seed that becomes the forest. It is the clay that makes the brick that forms the building. It is the blood that moves the body that holds the spirit. Poetry has the essence of life in it.
Poets voice that which has no voice in this world. They speak in tongues, and hope their words reach the ears and touch the hearts of those who know what it means to live. Much like fiction writers, poets struggle to remember how to make sense of existence. They share a passion for language, and a common, driving need: to imagine the world not just as it is, but how it ought to be.
Poetry tends toward silence… Poetry aspires to be a song, more than a story, to be lyrically rich. It is also full of primal messages that, somehow, can express the inexpressible. There is more than meets the eye…
And if you enjoy this piece, you might also like to check out:
“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” Edward Hirsch advised in his directive on how to read a poem.
But how, exactly, does one cultivate such “true poetic practice”?…
The poet and novelist James Dickey, winner of the National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice, offers some timeless and breathtakingly articulated advice…Ultimately, James Dickey champions the enlivening potency of the learn-by-doing approach:
The more your encounter with poetry deepens, the more your experience of your own life will deepen, and you will begin to see things by means of words, and words by means of things.
You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images.
You’ll understand that this condition is one charged with vital possibilities. You will pick up meaning more quickly — and you will create meaning, too, for yourself and others.
Connections between things will exist for you in ways that they never did before. They will shine with unexpectedness, wide-openness, and you will go toward them, on your own path. ‘Then,’ as Dante says, ‘will your feet be filled with good desire.’ You will know this is happening the first time you say, of something you never would have noticed before, ‘Well, would you look at that! Who’d ‘a thunk it?’ (Pause, full of new light.)
‘I thunk it!’
Brazil born, US based artist Dalton Ghetti carves minute masterpieces on the tips of pencils.
Here is some wisdom we can all learn from him by attending to the five things a pencil should never forget:
1) Everything you do will always leave a mark.
2) You can always correct the mistakes you make.
3) What is important is what’s inside you.
4) In life, you will undergo painful sharpenings which will only make you better.
5) To be the best pencil, you must allow yourself to be held and guided by the hand that holds you.
In this talk at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, occupational psychologist Adam Grant begins with a story of his experience building motivation in a call centre. To improve things, he brings in two very different students who had benefited from the scholarships that these people were trying to raise money for to talk about how their bursary had changed their lives. The first, Will, a student who was achieving meteoric success, came in and gave a dynamic high-imact presentation. The average caller who heard Will increased the revenue they raised by 170%. The second student, Emily, was painfully shy, and could barely get through her words. But Emily’s effect was 2.5 times stronger than Will’s – leading to a 400% increase in revenue by the people who heard her. Partly this is because of empathy, her audience really felt for her, but even more it was because of Emily’s authenticity: her listeners knew she was telling the truth about how important her bursary was because it was clear that she was not speaking to them for any pleasure.
What stood out for me was they never once had to hear from a leader. And this led me to thinking why do leaders think they have to be the ones who deliver the inspiring messages? Why is this common sense but not common practice?
He then provides a quick self-assessment for Introversion and Extraversion which is not visible in this video, but most of us will already be familiar with our preferences across this scale.
This site – Myers Briggs Test – is a helpful place to start to explore your own preferences if you don’t know whether you are more of an Extravert, Introvert or Ambivert (half-and-half)
Grant tells us that Extraversion is how your neocortex processes stimulation, and helps govern willpower and self control. Optimal arousal is that point when we are fully engaged, ‘in the zone,’ neither overloaded with too much stuff coming at us, but not getting so little stimulation that we are bored. This is also the place where we are likely to be happy and flourishing. A high Extravert preference wants lots of social interaction because that’s what brings stimulation for the neocortex, whereas people will an Introvert preference will be trying to get time to themselves in order to get their version of this same high level of optimal stimulation.
Even though Extraversion-Introversion preferences are cut right in the middle for the whole population, meaning that there are just as many Introverts as Extraverts, a piece of research in 2009 found that 96% of American leaders score on the attention seeking Extravert side of this continuum, and only 4% below the mid point, and there is no reason to think that results in the UK would be significantly different.
If most leaders are the Extraverts, they feel they need to be the ones in the centre of attention…to be the ones who are delivering the inspiring messages…
When these figures are broken down further they reveal that 50% of supervisors are actually in the top 25% of high Extraversion scores, so are very extraverted, and this has increased to 80% of top level executives who score at the high end of Extraversion. For Adam Grant this leads to the question: ‘What are the consequences of this? Is it good to be an extraverted leader?’
Extraverts, Grant suggests, are great for people who like to have a strong steer, but not at all for more proactive people who have a high degree of initiative and self-sufficiency. These are the very people that we need most when the environment is turbulent and uncertain. We know that it is impossible for leaders to recognise all of the problems that might be going on in these conditions. And these people need Introverts to lead them, but in a more proactive and dynamic way than we might think. This is not to say that all Introverts lead proactive self-starting people well, but, if they do, they get much better results.
And the evidence suggests that most Extraverts will be leading these people ineffectively. Extraverted leaders tend to feel threatened by suggestions coming from below, and tend to ignore or reject what their people bring. This in turn discourages these people and decreases the likelihood of them bringing more suggestions. Grant’s research found a 28% lower output when people brought their suggestions to an Extravert rather than an Introverted leader.
So maybe there are some benefits to leading in a more Introverted and quiet way…
Grant owns up to being an Introvert. He was once told that he was so nervous when he spoke that he caused his students to shake in their seats. As a manager he felt he had to be constantly engaging and became completely exhausted. Introverts that operate at high rates of engagement all the time are at high risk of burnout and ill health. But he goes on to wonder if ‘sometimes we get trapped into roles more than we meed to…’ Rather than quitting another job he was failing in, Grant did the job of his people were doing and became a salesman for a week, and, even though he was pretty rubbish at it and began by doing very badly, he ended up achieving a reasonable amount of revenue by going out to find new people that were not currently aware of their product. This stimulated his thinking about whether he needed to be very extraverted in order to be an effective leader.
We can all act outside of our preferred style so long as we get a restorative retreat, a chance to return to the way of being that re-energises and refocuses us – quiet reflection for Introverts, social interaction for Extraverts.
Leading by doing, behavioural integrity, is one way of leading quietly. When Grant spent time doing the job of the people he managed, he found his words took on far more meaning for people.
Our ‘first nature’ or signature strengths are those ways of being that just feel right, easy, natural for us. But all of us develop a second nature, an out-of-character role, which we master because it helps us achieve something that we care about. For Introverts, this is public speaking. For Extraverts, it might be to do more stepping back, shutting up and listening and accepting others’ ideas and suggestions.
Grant gives us three practical ways forward in his call-to-action for leading more quietly:
- Spend time actually doing the work of the people you lead. One expert recommends 10% of your time actually doing the work your employees do.
- Outsource inspiration. Just as with the call centre, maybe the ideas about what is really valuable, and thus the inspiration and big ways of motivating people, are better brought by beneficiaries, clients, patients, customers, stakeholders, partners rather than you as the leader. For example: Facebook engineers regularly get to hear invited users to talk about the actual differences that Facebook has made to their lives.
- Think about the other 80:20 rule. Do not talk more than 20% of the time and spend at least 80% of your time really listening to the people around you. Grant says to remember that ‘I do not learn anything when I am talking’…
As an Extravert, myself, I have to say that this is only partially true, because, as an Extravert, talking and thinking are synonymous and I often literally do not know know what I think until I hear myself saying it. I have great respect for the Introvert’s mystical ability to make fully formed fully considered conclusions without saying anything to anyone, but this is not easily in my gift, but rather something that I have had to develop as a consciously applied ‘second nature’ skill. But back to Grant:
I’m not going to say that all Extraverts are narcissists but the correlation is positive…
So just as I’ve made myself feel better about my over-talkative style Grant points up the joy of talking for Extraverts, who tend to find listening to themselves talking exactly the happy learning experience I was just defending. And research has found that the more Extraverts talk, the more they like the group they are with, even saying that the more they talk the more they learn about the other people in the group. Ouch.
I do recognise wholeheartedly and without any reservation that I do not hear anything when I am talking and this matters. And I would add to this that we cannot do exceptionally well more than one thing at a time, even if we are woman, so that if I am mostly concentrated on listening, this will be what gets my fullest energy and attention, whereas if I am thinking about what I want to say, it will not, and I will miss important and potentially vital things.
One more idea at the end of this talk caught my interest: apparently Extraverts are more likely to be optimists and Introverts more pessimist. But – crucially since realistic optimism is such a critical element of resilience – both optimism and pessimism are largely learned orientations, as we know from, for example, the exercise of spending 21 days writing down what you most appreciate that day which literally rewires the automatic circuitry in our brain and leads to long-lasting levels of increased optimism and positivity.
Susan Cain is one of the people Adam Grant references in his talk about Leading Quietly. In this talk Cain speaks passionately about the problems that come from the world that we have made that biases the preferences and needs of Extraverts over what Introverts need to be able to flourish:
We set up our workplaces and schools for maximum group interaction and we’re losing sight of the importance of solitude for creativity… There is no correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas…
We are living in a world that has become so overly extraverted, so lopsided in that direction, that even extraverts don’t feel they have permission to tap into that side o themselves.
In companies, it has been found that the most effective teams are those that combine Extraverts and Introverts. The two types are really drawn to each other and need each other.
In her TEDTalk Cain outlines her thesis in more detail and here are some of the things she tells us:
The key to maximising our talents is to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us. And when it comes to creativity we need Introverts doing what they do best.
Introversion is not about being shy, which is fear of social judgement. Introverts feel most alive and most switched on and most creative when they are in quieter environments. Not all of the time. None of these things are absolutes. There is no such thing as pure Extravert or Introvert, and some of us, now called Ambiverts, actually fall right in the middle.
But now here’s where the bias comes in. Our world’s most important places, our schools and our workplaces, are designed for extraverts, for stimulation.
And we’re told that creativity comes from an oddly gregarious place. In schools students sit in pods, face-to-face, are encouraged to work in groups, and the ideal student is said to be outgoing, assertive, extravert, even though, according to research, Introverts get better grades and are more knowledgeable. At work we are arranged in open plan offices, where we are subject to the constant gaze and noise of our co-workers. And when it comes to leadership, Introverts are more likely to be passed over when it comes to promotion, even though Introverts are likely to be much more careful, much less likely to take outsized risks, and, as Adam Grant’s research has shown, much more likely to let proactive employees run with their ideas, whereas Extravert leaders are likely to get so excited about things that they end up always putting their own stamp on everything and other people’s ideas have less chance of being able to bubble up to the surface.
Culturally we need a much better yin and yang between these two types, especially when it comes to creativity ad productivity. When psychologists look at the most creative people they find that these people are very good at exchanging ideas and working with others, but they also have serious strands of introversion in them. And this is because solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity. Darwin took long walks in the wood and turned down dinner party invitations. Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer sitting alone, and he said that he never would have had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up. And he needed Steve Jobs to get it out into the world.
For centuries we have known about the transcendent powers of solitude. Only recently have we forgotten it. Profound epiphanies tend to happen in solitude in the wilderness.
Groups famously follow the best talkers or most charismatic personalities in the room. They may not have the best ideas. None of this is to say that we don’t need social skills and teamwork. In fact the problems we face in the world today are going to need armies of people to come together to solve. But the more freedom we give Introverts to be themselves the more likely they are to come up with unique solutions to bring to some of these problems.
And here are Susan Cain’s three calls to action:
- Stop the madness for constant calls to constant group work. I deeply believe our offices should be encouraging chatty cafe-style spaces for the conversational interactions where people can come together and serendipitously get exchange of ideas that is great for Introverts and Extraverts. But we need much more time for freedom, autonomy, solitude.
- Go the wilderness. Be like Buddha. Have your own revelations. Unplug and get inside our own heads more often.
- Look at what is in your suitcase: Extraverts – grace us with your joy; Introverts – guard what you have but know that the world needs what you carry with you and have the courage to speak softly.
Here are some ideas about the value and importance of giving taken from The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubormirsky
Acts of kindness
Altruism—including kindness, generosity, and compassion—are keys to the social connections that are so important to our happiness. Research finds that acts of kindness—especially spontaneous, out-of-the ordinary ones—can boost happiness in the person doing the good deed.
Reasons why acts of kindness make people happier:
- Being generous leads us to perceive others more compassionately; we typically find good qualities in people to whom we are kind
- Being kind promotes a sense of connection and community with others, which is one of the strongest factors in increasing happiness
- Being generous helps us appreciate and feel grateful for our own good fortune
- Being generous boosts our self-image; it helps us feel useful and gives us a way to use our strengths and talents in a meaningful way
- Being kind can start a chain reaction of positivity; being kind to others may lead them to be grateful and generous to others, who in turn are grateful and kind to others
Compassion fosters happiness, but being sacrificial reduces well-being
Being kind and compassionate is linked to greater happiness, greater levels of physical activity well into old age, and longevity. One important caveat: if people get overextended and overwhelmed by helping tasks, as can happen with people who are caregivers to family members, their health and quality of life can rapidly decline. It seems being generous from an abundance of time, money, and energy can promote well-being; but being sacrificial quickly lowers well-being. This seems to be a good argument for communities sharing the burden for everyone’s benefit.
Choose2Matter is a global movement that challenges people to solve problems that break their hearts.
In her article Angela Maiers lists the essential attributes that cause people to know that they matter, and they are all about being quiet, listening and empathetic. She writes, people know they matter when:
You see them…
You listen earnestly…
You ask meaningful questions…
You believe they can…
You dwell in possibility…
You celebrate them…
You do small things with great love…
You show up…
These traits, typically associated with women, make for great leaders – whether women or men, writes Leah Buchanan. How close are these to the capabilities you are trying to develop and master, or, perhaps, to those you are trying to nurture in others?
Empathy: Being sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others.
Vulnerability: Owning up to one’s limitations and asking for help.
Humility: Seeking to serve others and to share credit.
Inclusiveness: Soliciting and listening to many voices.
Generosity: Being liberal with time, contacts, advice, and support.
Balance: Giving life, as well as work, its due.
Patience: Taking a long-term view.
This theme is explored and continued in this talk about the new importance of nurturing excellence in empathy and how we might start to do this…
The 20th century was the age of introspection. That was the age in which therapy and self-help told us that the best way to discover who we are and what we are was to look inside ourselves. And combined with capitalist individualism, that pointed us towards pursuing the good life through self interest and luxury lifestyle. And what we’ve discovered is that has not delivered the good life for most of us.
So the 21st century needs to be different. Instead of the Age of Introspection, we need to shift to the Age of ‘Outraspection’ – discovering who you are and what you are here for by stepping outside yourself, discovering the lives of other people, other civilisations. And the ultimate artform for the Age of Outraspection is empathy…
In this talk, cultural historian Roman Krznaric sets out his ideas about how the art of empathy can not only enrich our own lives, but also bring about social change, in six habits to try and master:
Habit 1: Nurture curiosity about strangers. For example, George Orwell used to dress and live as a homeless person in order to discover and learn. We have assumptions about people, especially those who seem least like us. Finding out about what they care about increases not only our compassion, but also our capacity for empathy.
This reminds of Louise Bougeoise’s Instruction: Smile At A Stranger which you can see in Maria Popova’s summary of Do It: The Coppenedium by Hans Ulrich Obrist in her
Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities. Look for what you share rather than what divides us. For example, white extremist C.P.Ellis co-chaired a group looking at racial problems in schools and discovered a shared sense of oppression from poverty in common with his co-chair, a black civil rights activist. This resulted in him tearing up his Klu Klux Klan membership card and the two becoming friends for life.
Habit 3: Extreme sport of experiential empathy. For example, US industrial designer Patricia Moore decided to dress up as an 80 tear old and visited 100 cities to come up with inventions for new products based on her experience.
Habit 4: Practice the art of conversation. Listening to and sharing ourselves and emotions. For example, the brass roots peace organisation, Parents Circle which brings together Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost a child for conversation, picnics, sharing stories. Includes the “Hello Peace” freephone telephone line to be able to speak to someone from the opposite community.
Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change.For example, the anti-slave movement was built on empathy with exhibitions, writing and presentations about what it was like to be a slave by former slaves.
Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination. Be more adventurous in who you think about and how. For example, ‘those greedy bankers’ – think about their lives, values and have conversations that help to bridge divides.
Only through high levels of empathy can we start to create social change across time as well as space. Failing to empathise through time with future generations will be extremely hazardous to all of our futures.
Socrates wrote: Know thyself. This can also be achieved by stepping outside ourselves and discovering people least like us.
In this talk, psychiatry professor Simon Baron Cohen presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals down negative paths, and challenges all of us to consider replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-erosion.
He provides a two-dimensional definition for empathy that combines:
Cognitive component – the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes; and
Affective component – the drive to respond with the appropriate emotion to another’s thoughts and feelings, the emotional reaction we bring.
Most of us are in the middle of the normal bell-curve distribution for empathy. Females score slightly but statistically significantly higher in empathy than males.
Philosopher Martin Buber identified the point you start treating a person as an object is when you switch off empathy: the “I” ~ “You” relationship is switched to “I” – “It.”
This is worth thinking about in our relationships – to what extent do we talk about you and what you feel, think want, need and to what extent do we only talk about the task, what needs to be achieved, the problem, the thing that needs doing…?
John Bowlby argued that early experience makes a major difference, and insecure attachment as child can lead to delinquency, because attachment is key to the formation of empathy.
Baron Cohen’s research is finding that the more testosterone in the womb the more different the empathy reading in the later 8 year old. This links somewhat with the lower readings of empathy in males.
We know that there is not one part of the brain responsible for empathy, but rather Baron Cohen counts at least ten highly connected parts of the brain that are activated in a highly connected ’empathy circuit’ when we are being empathetic.
If psychopaths are one example of having no empathy, he asks whether zero degrees of empathy is always bad, and answers “No.” The condition of Autism tends to cause people who have it to be extremely moral rather than cruel, making them likely to avoid or withdraw from social situations rather than want to harm. Zero positive means their unusual attention to detail often leads to giftedness.
Evolution suggests that empathy has been positively selected. In the 1960s Masserman trained rhesus monkeys to learn that when they pulled a chain they would get food. He then changed this so that, as well as getting food, they also saw another monkey getting an electric shock, and found that they soon stopped pulling the chain that gave them food but hurt another monkey.
Like language and memory, empathy is likely to be influenced by many different components including our culture and our society.
Empathy is the most valuable human resource because it has the power to resolve conflict, either between two individuals – or extended to two nations – empathy allows us to understand the other’s point of view. Empathy is cheaper and more successful than either military or legal solutions.
For a wonderful creative illustration of these ideas in action see Mario talking about his enterprise, The Happy Post Project, an initiative that in less than 2 years has reached millions of people in over 30 countries, and today continues to spread happiness all over the world.
Most recently, Mario founded Make it Happy, an organisation devoted to the generation and support of positive social change, by creating projects that spread and inspire happiness, while cultivating a grassroots network of social innovators.
In this article Toelle looks back over the rapid recent advances in the various disciplines that put happiness at their centre and wonders…
Some fascinating and potentially powerful happiness-related frameworks and initiatives exist on multiple levels and across geographic regions. Happiness matters for many reasons, but most of all, because business as usual is leading to a staggering increase in mental disorders, mental health costs and a massive loss of human potential. Arguably, it should therefore become a key agenda item in boardroom meetings and at policy roundtables. Yet, it remains to be seen who and what will hit off the tipping point.
And for some advice about creativity, making art and living the life you want, see these ideas in
Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.
Here is a link to this week’s entire Happiness At Work which includes more ideas linked to these themes in my reflections about what made the Beyond Glorious Symposium so exceptional in my piece:
Enjoy your week – especially its softer moments that we really hope you will be able to hold gently open…