To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight. – Angela Lee Duckworth
Last month we started a series of monthly challenges starting with Listening. The next five cover topics we view as foundational to Leadership of Self: grit, growth mindset, feedback, failure, and resilience. We start with grit because it focuses on persistence in the face of adversity, a skill which seems particularly needed given the challenges of the last year.
But what is grit? Psychologist Angela Duckworth defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Grit requires both sustained effort and a zealous interest that goes beyond mere pleasure or amusement, moving to that which is meaningful and fulfilling. Agreeing to join a friend for a lovely 2-hour hike around a local lake cannot compare to training for 9 months to complete the Badwater 135 race in Death Valley – 135 grueling miles from the lowest elevation in North America to the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. Despite the inevitable setbacks during training and the race itself, gritty individuals don’t quit.
This trait translates to legal practice as well. In Milana Hogan’s 2013 study of women lawyers in AmLaw 200 firms, the most successful women demonstrated both grit and growth mindset. Grit predicted achievement, often above and beyond other metrics such as GPA or rank in law school. A partner classified as “very gritty” brought in almost $300,000 more per year than one of average grit. When interviewed, successful women lawyers gave grit-heavy explanations for how they succeeded in the practice of law.
We believe there’s value in grit. Our challenge to you this month is to assess your own grit. Perhaps you will recall incidents of grittiness in your professional or personal life (feel free to share them in the comments). Along the way, we will share a variety of resources and experiences on the topic of grit.
Two hunters were out in the woods when one suddenly fell to the ground. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he seemed to stop breathing. The other hunter frantically took out his cellphone and called 9-1-1. As soon as the call connected, he yelled out, “My friend Bubba is dead! What can I do?” The operator calmly replied, “Take it easy. I can help. Just listen to me and follow my instructions. First, let’s make sure he’s really dead.” A short pause ensued, and the operator then heard a loud gunshot. The hunter came back on the line and said, “Okay… now what?” [i]
Our modern society provides constant noise. Everywhere we turn there is something to listen to – 24/7 news, social media videos, audiobooks, podcasts, satellite/internet radio . . . the list goes on and on. While noise is frequent, we rarely see anyone simply being in the moment, truly engaged in observing and understanding the world. Instead, we pull out our phones during any down time to check email and social media. We are losing the art of doing nothing—of letting our brains have creative rest. We also are forgetting how to really listen.
For me personally, these constant distractions make it difficult to focus on one thing at a time. This is true not only during personal time; it happens at work as well. When I am on a business-focused Zoom call, even with just a few people, I constantly glance at my phone to read text messages or check that most recent email in case it demands my attention. In doing so, I may be hearing the conversation on the Zoom call, but am I really listening? A Russian proverb says, “If you chase two rabbits, you won’t catch either one.” When I multitask, as the expression goes, am I really catching either of the rabbits I need to catch?
To compound the issue, we lawyers listen to respond rather than listening to understand. Law school has trained us – and done a fine job at it – to listen to what another person is saying and immediately formulate an argument that rebuts that person’s position. I have learned this the hard way with my lawyer-spouse, Jeanine. The mark of a great lawyer, after all, is the power of oration and persuasion, and based on how our arguments usually go, Jeanine is clearly the superior lawyer. But a different and more important question is whether the responding person really understood the first person’s position or argument before choosing to respond.
The distinction is key, particularly when personal relationships and difficult subjects are involved. From conducting voir dire to negotiating a business deal, real communication requires effective listening just as much as (if not more than) effective speaking.[ii] Listening actively to what someone says rather than focusing on the literal meaning of the words spoken can provide greater insight and improve productivity within your organization.[iii] Colleagues who feel they have been heard are more likely to feel valued and remain loyal to the organization.[iv] In addition, leaders who actively listen catch things that other would miss and are better informed when making decisions.[v]
I suspect that I am not alone in these listening faults. The lack of civil discourse present in society certainly seems to confirm that others struggle with this as well. So, how do we train ourselves to really listen to others and be engaged in the moment?
Artful listening includes hearing not only what is said but also what is not said.[vi] Non-verbal cues––body language, posturing, and tone, for example––can convey a great deal about what is really being said.[vii] Maintaining eye contact and using reassuring facial expressions convey to the speaker that you are hearing them. When you also confirm what you heard and ask open-ended questions to follow up, you increase the likelihood you are truly communicating. Resist the temptation to interrupt or think only about what to say next; both diminish your ability to listen closely.[viii] Your non-verbal cues, especially those that signal you are bored or impatient can overpower anything that you say. This skill can be especially beneficial when giving feedback to a team member as you convey that this conversation is important.
Practicing artful listening can be done on a daily basis with friends, loved ones, and strangers alike. Becoming a master will help you build and maintain relationships. These deep relationships will pay dividends years after the first conversation. For lawyers, active listeners are better at witness examinations and voir dire during trial, at connecting with clients, with catching the nuances of office politics, and is critical for developing cultural competence. And for leaders, artful listening contributes to team trust, good decision-making, and fewer unpleasant surprises.
Law school provides ample opportunities to teach students to listen to respond, but it also provides opportunities to train students to artfully listen. Any course that focuses upon developing Legal analysis and problem-solving skills would be well served to include a section on active listening. Specific classes that focus upon relationships, such as client counseling, negotiations, or ADR, are also ripe for an artful listening discussion. Below are some exercises that can be used to practice artful listening.
Have each student sit in a comfortable position and engage in mindfulness, closing their eyes, calming their breathing, and noting their heart rate and physical self. Are they calm and relaxed? Is some part of the body tense or tight? What is going on mentally – is the brain active and scattered or focused and calm? Spend a few moments with the students getting in touch with their bodies and minds using one or more of the following techniques:[x]
Focus on the rising and falling of the breath;
Pay attention to how your feet feel as they touch the floor;
Do a full-body scan, starting at the top of the head and moving to the feet. Note any areas of tension.
Imagine bright, warm sunlight streaming down on you;
Let your mind think about whatever it wants – no judgment
For faculty comfortable with leading a meditation moment, feel free to use the techniques noted above. If you’d like to use an internet video, take a look at the resources available on Headspace.com.
After the students try these methods, have them think about what felt easiest and most calming for them.
Next, have the students think about a difficult or stressful situation. Note how the body and mind react. Now, try to refocus the students back to the state of physical and mental calm they were in previously.[xii] How might they do this in a professional setting while listening to a boss, judge, or client?
Pair all of the students. Ask each pair to arrange their chairs so that they are back to back. One student in each pair will be given a piece of paper with a couple of shapes on it. The second student sits with his or her back to the student holding the paper. The second student should not be able to see his or her partner’s paper, or the paper (with shapes) of any other student. Using only the methods of communication instructed, the second student will attempt to duplicate the shapes on the paper in front of the first student.
The shapes on the paper can be anything (they can be a star inside of a rectangle, a circle overlapping a square, trapezoid, and diamond, etc.). For an example, please see below.
For the first round, the student with the paper with shapes will describe the shapes and instruct his or her partner on how to draw the shapes on their paper. Give the students about a minute to complete the exercise, but explain that this is a one-way communication exercise; the students drawing cannot talk to their partners or ask questions.
After a minute, telling the drawing students to take out another piece of paper and try again. Give them another minute, but this time, it is a two-way communication exercise; allow them to talk to their partners and ask clarifying questions about the instructions they’re receiving.
Once done, have the students show their partners and each other their drawings, compared to the original. The first example (with one-way communication) is usually way off from the original, but the second example (with two-way communication) is usually much closer (comparatively speaking).
This exercise demonstrates how hard it is to understand exactly what someone is saying when they’re speaking to you. It also demonstrates the power of artful listening and the importance of asking good questions to clarify understanding.
[i] John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold: Lessons I’ve Learned from a Lifetime of Leading 50 (Thomas Nelson 2008).
[ii] See Elle Kaplan, “Active Listening”: The Key to Strong Workplace Relationships, Productivity, and Personal Empowerment, Medium (Aug. 22, 2018), https://medium.com/@ellekaplan/active-listening-the-key-to-strong-workplace-relationships-productivity-and-personal-72650f32da4c.
[vi] Sir Andrew Likierman, The Elements of Good Judgment, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Jan. 2020), https://hbr.org/2020/01/the-elements-of-good-judgment.
[vii] Kaplan, supra note 2.
[ix] Erin Olivo, Two Simple Mindful Meditation Exercises for Teachers, The Guardian (Dec. 6, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/dec/06/two-simple-mindful-meditation-exercises-for-teachers.
A recent class focused on the importance of active listening. One of our students, James Fryer, wrote about a transformative experience he had when his boss used active listening skills with him. We enjoyed reading it and thought you might too. – LWT & SLR
What do you mean, Mike?
My final year at the University of Oregon was one of my best years. I had finished my graduation requirements the spring before, so I was rounding out my undergraduate experience with a light-and-easy class schedule and a job as a Resident Assistant to pay for housing.
Oh, did I mention I had a girlfriend? I did, at least until one Friday night when she broke up with me. To salt the wound, I was also “on duty,” so I had to put on my happy face and patrol the residence hall. Continuing my bad luck, that night saw a half-dozen conduct violations, including a resident who decided to toss every toilet paper roll in the building in the dumpster as a zany prank. It was so late that it was early before I finished writing the required reports and fell asleep.
I awoke to a note my boss, Mike, slid under my door which said that I had not put enough effort into my reports from the night before and asked me to do a rewrite. I saw RED. He clearly didn’t have a clue how hard I had worked! After all, even though I had been dumped, I spent hours keeping the residents from breaking things when all I really wanted to do was feel sorry for myself! And he had the audacity to put a note under my door! He didn’t even have the nerve to talk to me about it!
Instead of meekly rewriting last night’s reports, I went to Mike’s office to have the conversation he was so obviously keen to avoid. His door was open, so I walked in brandishing the note.
“What do you want me to do with this?” I started.
Mike looked up, closed his laptop lid and didn’t respond. He didn’t respond long enough that I tried again.
“I wrote those reports last night and they are fine. You got the story; why do I have to rewrite something I already did?”
“What happened?” he responded.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, MIKE!” I replied, too loud.
“What happened, James?” he repeated, “something did….so SIT.” It wasn’t an offer; it was a command.
I sat. The pressure in my chest released slightly despite my efforts to stay mad.
“Give me the note,” he said.
When I handed it over to him, he held it over the recycling bin and let it drop.
“So,” he said, “What happened…?”
I broke and spent the next half-hour explaining to him everything else I had carried into his office that morning, along with the now-trashed note.
“Probably start there next time, eh?” Mike said once I was done. “But, I need you to rewrite those reports. Your writing was sloppy and rushed. I can’t use it. As for why I wrote the note? You had a late night and I thought you should be sleeping. That’s why I wrote you a note and didn’t knock on your door.”
I left Mike’s office in a haze. But I knew something extraordinary had happened. When I asked Mike about our conversation the next week, he said:
“You told me everything before you said anything, James.” He continued, “your face was red, your eyes wide, and you didn’t knock before you raised your voice at me… there was no way you were in my office about a note or rewriting a report. Sometimes,” he finished “you’ve got to listen with your eyes.”
Since that day, I have tried listening with my eyes. What a person says is so much more than words they choose. By actively and attentively listening with more than his ears, Mike understood my Saturday morning trip to his office had little to do with his note.
Active listening is a critical skill to develop because communication is inherently imperfect. No person can make themselves completely known to another; something is always lost between thoughts and words. However, by giving a person your full attention and listening with all your senses, you can be like Mike and understand a bit more than what is said.
I emailed Mike the rewritten reports that afternoon.
Who among us is not convinced of the importance of being a leader who listens? Study after study has addressed the value of listening, and many articles have chastised us for being poor listeners. Many writers have encouraged us to work harder to develop that skill, including an article that I wrote with Dr. Hal Ritter nearly 20 years ago. I submit that most of us are in agreement that listening is a skill to be developed and fostered. Speaking for myself, however, true active listening frequently falls by the wayside unless I’m intentional about it. Between multitasking during telephone calls or Zoom meetings, contemplating other tasks on my to-do list, or simply formulating my response to what a speaker is saying, I often recognize belatedly that the speaker has not had my full attention and engagement, and that I have indeed missed important verbal and nonverbal cues. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Consequently, our first challenge—literally and figuratively—for the next 30 days is to become more intentional about listening. Your challenge—and ours—is to listen actively to the people with whom we speak, giving undivided attention. We challenge you to not just hear or even listen superficially, but to listen intently, in a quest to understand the speaker’s words, perspective, and motivations. We also urge you to listen for what isn’t being said. Over the next few weeks, we will share with our progress and thoughts and items to encourage you to focus on listening. We hope you’ll share with us your own thoughts.