An Art In Which We Should Seek Mastery: Listening

I thought I listened pretty well.

I paid attention. I could recognize distracting thoughts and willfully push them into the background. I learned to maintain eye contact, nod, and when appropriate, give verbal indications that I was intent on understanding what was being said. I was even getting better at repeating back what I had heard and asking relevant questions. I practiced presence. 

The problem was that I underestimated the power of listening. I thought of listening as a skill and to a degree it is. The ability to listen can be developed. There are people who practice it long enough to achieve what is referred to as mastery or expertise. You may have experienced skilled listening if you’ve ever met with a really good coach or counselor. But, listening has so many dimensions (e.g., physiological, cognitive, behavioral, etc.). I’ve discovered that I need to think of it as more than a skill.

Listening is an art.

You are probably thinking, “Right. Nothing new there. It’s another overused phrase — just like ‘the art of writing’ or the ‘art of conversation’.” Well, maybe. But, what do we mean when we describe something as an art?


BLUE PRINT INSTALLATION 8’x8’x4′ Installation

This week, I watched a TED Talks video of an extraordinary artist sharing how her initial fascination with shadows ultimately took her art in directions she had not imagined. Her name is Alexa Meade.

As she describes the evolution of her work, she takes what most of us would see as practicing a skill (i.e., painting shadows) and begins to explore it from different perspectives. At each stage of her journey, she starts with her tools, materials and even a defined mental image of where she’s headed, but then she does something different.

She remains open to what is unfolding.

Here’s where I think the distinction between a skill and an art may lie. She’s not just trying to master a skill, she using her skill to explore what can’t yet be seen.

I loved her description of one of her early works in shadow (i.e., painting on her friend Bernie).

“I had a very specific vision of what this would like…but, something kept on flickering before my eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. And then, when I took that moment to take a step back – magic.”

To experience that magic as listeners, we have to be open to what is unfolding.

That means not anticipating what we are going to hear.

That means not hearing only what we know and believe.

That means being fully committed to the process of discovery.

Before, I was seeking mastery of listening as a skill. What I understand now is that I seek mastery in the art of listening.


Another #%$! Acronym That Might Be Just What You Need

At least once a day, I end up looking up an acronym to find out what it means. Let’s face it. The use of acronyms is less about efficiency and more about excluding all but a small percentage of the population from knowledge you possess. That’s why LOL, which used to mean “laugh out loud” (or if you were a mom trying to be hip, it was “lots of love”) is OVER. It got overused. Too many people knew its meaning and it fell out of fashion. It’s no longer exclusive enough.

I’m not a fan of exclusivity. Also, not a fan of acronyms.

There is one acronym, however (and while I am only promoting the concept it represents), I do want to bring to your attention. Maybe you have seen it or heard it before.

PLN = Personal Learning Network

So what does that mean? Let’s break it down.

Personal means it relates to you.

Learning means acquiring new knowledge.

Network means access through an interconnected system of people and resources.

You acquiring new knowledge through an interconnected system of people and resources.

Personal learning networks are pretty cool things. And, unlike acronyms, they represent access to an expansive and expanding world of knowledge for those who create and leverage them.

My graduate program is hosting an open section of Exploring Innovation in Networked Work and Learning starting today. If you are interested in “models of learning that leverage networked environments,” join in. Personal Learning Networks are one of those models that might be just what you need to lead a learning life.

Bring on the Next Challenge

I was recently standing in a country cemetery with my parents visiting with one of my father’s high school classmates and her son following the death of a long-time neighbor. I had never met either my Dad’s friend or her son though I knew of them. The son thought he might have remembered me. He said, “You were a good athlete in high school. I remember seeing you at the gym.” Both my parents immediately began to laugh. I said, “Umm. No. You are probably thinking of one of my sisters.”

Though I played tennis in junior high and high school, danced with a civic ballet and even began to run in my adult life, completing a couple of half marathons and a few sprint triathlons, no one, including myself, would consider me a competitive athlete. My participation in these activities typically revolved around the social aspects and the cute attire. I’ve never been particularly driven by my performance in comparison with others. I have, however, always welcomed a challenge that pushes me to be healthier and more effective.

For the last seven days, I’ve been participating in the Your Turn Challenge. The challenge was inspired by the Your Turn book by Seth Godin. Seth’s Special Projects Lead Winnie Kao invited a like-minded community to push themselves to write and publish (i.e., “ship”). I learned about the challenge after reading Getting Unstuck (a one week challenge), one of Seth’s daily posts, and clicking on Winnie’s invitation to join her. I joined. I failed to ship on time twice during the week, but I did manage (just under the wire) to publish seven posts in seven days.

It was an inspiring experience. The camaraderie of the community. Reading so many interesting and compelling posts. Digging deep to quell my fears. Realizing once again that, for me, it is not about placing first in my age group, or setting a new personal best (although I suppose you could say that in the category of blogging, this week’s production was my PR), it’s about pushing myself little by little to a new place.

I’m tired, but exhilarated. All I can say is, “Whew!”

Tomorrow, though, I know I will wake up ready. Bring on the next challenge.

You Have Everything You Need

In yesterday’s post Unstuck and Trying to Stay That Way, I offered some of the tactics I employ when I am feeling stuck. One was seeking help from a coach. It was fresh on my mind because I had a productive session with a professional development coach this week.

Whether you are stuck or you just want keep moving, a coach can be a tremendous resource as you “fortify your surroundings” in support of who you are becoming.

Some background …

Two years ago, I set out on what I’ve called my “mid-life adventure.” I decided to leave a job I loved and had held for 12 years. I leased my house. I took a new position in which I would be working remotely (and thus could live anywhere). I packed up my belongings and moved almost 1,000 miles across the country (from Austin to Chicago). Oh, and I started a master’s program at Northwestern University … at the young plucky age of 44.  Why would anyone with steady income, a comfortable lifestyle, a terrific network of family, friends and colleagues do this?

Good question.

First answer, which is true, but admittedly vague: I am fascinated by almost everything. I thrive in environments where there is always something new to learn. I also get jazzed by new frontiers and challenging thresholds, what Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies authors James Collins and Jerry Porras called “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” I like the possibility that lies within “almost impossible.”

Second answer: For years, I had watched strategic initiatives succeed or fail based on the support of those implementing them and how much they were willing to change. In my field (i.e., higher education), I could see shifts in both internal and external environments that would soon require new ways of thinking, but I also knew that change could be hard, sometimes paralyzing.  So, I set off on my mid-life adventure to increase my knowledge and strengthen my skills so that I might help develop an important capability within mission-driven institutions and people – to effectively manage change.

As I completed my degree at the end of 2014 and recommenced the shaping of my career, I took every opportunity to learn from consultants, mentors, counselors and colleagues. Tactics, terms, strategies. I took it all in. I sought and received lots of advice and incorporated what made sense for me. Most of it was helpful.

Some of it was not.

Some of the advice I listened to (and to which I gave credence because of the credibility of those who gave it) muddled my purpose. I won’t go into why. But I gave their advice (which was intended for a general audience) power to create fear in me. I backed off of what I had been working towards for more than two years. I began to take steps to mitigate my risk and in the process lost focus.

Enter, Jessica.

Fortunately, because I now belong to an inspiring community of learners, I connected with Jessica Catz, a professional development coach and change consultant, and a MSLOC alumna. Like any effective coach, Jessica assured me that everything I needed to clarify my purpose was within me. Employing a few deft questions, she got me to re-articulate the reasons why I had sacrificed “comfortable” and invited so many big changes in my life. Honestly, I went into the conversation seeking her advice and guidance. But, with great skill, she managed to get me to guide myself. Within a one-hour conversation, I had recognized what had derailed me and how I could get back on track.

When you get stuck or your purpose is muddled, I highly recommend seeking the services of a professional development coach. You have everything you need within you to realize your goals, but sometimes you need a nudge.

Unstuck and Trying to Stay That Way

For the last five days, I’ve been participating in the Your Turn Challenge. The challenge was inspired by the Your Turn book by Seth Godin. Seth’s Special Projects Lead Winnie Kao designed a seven-day challenge for a like-minded community wanting to push themselves to write and publish (i.e., “ship”). I learned about the challenge after reading Getting Unstuck (a one week challenge), one of Seth’s daily posts, and clicking on Winnie’s invitation to join her. I joined and it has been an AMAZING experience!

The challenge offered prompts for topics. Some of the prompts have guided my posts. I especially wanted to respond to the Day 5 prompt because the invitation to get unstuck had been what initially drew me in. The topic also gave me the opportunity to write an instructive guide for myself. Perhaps others will find it helpful, too.

DAY 5: What advice would you give for getting unstuck?

First, admit it. Admitting that you are stuck seems obvious, but stuck is sneaky. It can mimic routines. It can impersonate that doubting voice in your head. It parades around as competing priorities. At its most dangerous (at least for me), it disguises itself as contemplation without a specific deadline or goal. Until you recognize and acknowledge it, you can waste a LOT of time waiting for a break-through.

Second, seek and accept help. Help comes in many forms. You have to figure out which forms works best for you in which situations. Here are some of my “go-to helpers”:

  • Can’t complete a thought? Take a 20-minute power nap.
  • Distracted? Go for a brisk walk.
  • Difficulty identifying next step? Ask a trusted colleague.
  • Undecided? Create a decision-making matrix.
  • Established practice isn’t working? Seek new approaches from other industries or sectors.
  • Keep running into same obstacle? Reroute.
  • Cluttered mind? Clean off your desk. (This is just me. I understand for some, a cluttered desk works.)
  • Feeling off-course? Revisit purpose.
  • Completely derailed? Get a coach.
  • Need a push? Accept a challenge!

These are just a few ideas. Keep experimenting with what works best for you.

Third, fortify your surroundings. When you are trying to achieve something, create an environment that supports you and your vision. Your surroundings include your workspace, the people you encounter and the places where you spend your time (on and offline). Even if certain surroundings were helpful to you in the past, they may not be able to offer what you need now. That’s ok. You are in a process of becoming. Your focus plus who and what surrounds you determines how fast and strong you grow.

The Value of Knowing What is Valued: Lessons for Liberal Arts Colleges

Honoring Questions about the Value of College
Before I left to pursue graduate studies at Northwestern University, I led constituent relations at a small liberal arts college. Much of my work entailed being tuned in to alumni and parent perceptions and communicating about issues of mutual interest. Not surprisingly, around 2008, with the tuition rates rising and the economy’s effect on the job market, questions about the affordability of college, which college administrators and staff had heard with increasing regularity, began to transform into questions about the value of college.

One of the capacities important in constituent relations is to search for the realities in perceptions. I’d found that you can learn a lot by attending to questions, concerns and criticism, looking for patterns and exploring, “What is going on here?” But, as someone who had greatly valued my own undergraduate experience and spent most of my career in higher ed, honoring the questions around the value of college challenged me. My deep appreciation of and commitment to education clouded my view of what was happening. I needed to give more credence to how people were feeling and what factors were shaping their views. With some effort, I set aside my beliefs and began to dig into this perception, listening carefully and reading everything I could to understand what was affecting the perceived value of a college education.

The Value Equation
There are two sides to the college value equation. On one side is the investment students and their families make, financial and otherwise. On the other side are the outcomes (i.e., benefits) of a college education. To increase perceived value, you can reduce costs, increase benefits or, like many colleges have attempted, tinker with both sides of the equation.Value Equation

In my role, I did not have influence over college costs, but I could try to improve how we communicated outcomes. A common criticism, even from within the higher education community, is that we’re not very good at communicating outcomes. (There are lots of reasons for this, but I’ll have to explore them in a future post.)

I decided to collect what I called “value data” to embed in constituent communications. I wasn’t sure what I would find, but I began to look at our performance on surveys like the Higher Education Data Survey (HEDS), National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), Educational Benchmarking, Inc. (EBI) and the American Collegiate Testing Student Opinion Survey (ACT). I also arranged for us to conduct video interviews with parents talking about their sons’ or daughters’ college experience. Both the data and the anecdotal evidence indicated we were doing well on outcomes. Of course, there were areas where we were strong and areas where attention was needed, but on the whole, we had good stories to tell. We began to use “value data” and outcome anecdotes in what we said, printed and promoted.

Discovering Most Valued Outcomes
Then I began to wonder which outcomes were most important to parents. (I focused on the moms and dads because of my responsibility for parent relations.) It’s one thing to generate positive outcomes, but to increase value, you have to produce the outcomes that your constituents deem most important. In 2012, I conducted a survey of parents of incoming students to see what outcomes they hoped to see when their students completed their degrees. I compiled a list of outcomes that we already measured through various assessment instruments and asked parents to rank them. I also gave them an opportunity to write in outcomes not on the list just in case we were missing an outcome they sought. Given all the articles that had been written about the “employability” of college students, I was prepared for gainful employment to receive the highest ranking. It didn’t. What did? The ability to think analytically and critically.

Please note that I surveyed parents whose sons and daughters had been accepted and were enrolling. They had specific reasons for choosing a liberal arts college. Nevertheless, the results informed us about what mattered to them. More than anything else, these parents wanted their students to develop the ability to think analytically and critically. Did they want their students to be employable at the end of their college career? Of course. Gainful employment ranked in the top ten of desired outcomes. Were there outcomes that parents wanted that did not rank in the top ten? Yes. Critical to our ability to increase perceived value is understanding expectations. Survey results like this enable us to be more strategic about reporting on the outcomes that are most important to our constituents.

Know what is valued by your constituents and you will be one step closer to increasing value.

If you would like to learn more about increasing value for your constituents, contact me.

Finding Love, Navigating Loss and Championing Kid Heroes: What’s Your Digital Purpose?

I am not a digital native, but I consider myself a digital enthusiast. Having instant access to more information that I could ever process, being able to learn about any topic imaginable and the opportunity to connect with friends and strangers around the world fills me with possibilities. In the end though, if we don’t use digital tools for a purpose then we squash all that possibility. I’ll be the first to admit that I have lost hours to watching laughing baby videos, scrolling through #DowntonAbbey feeds and looking up words and phrases I hear from college students on Urban Dictionary. This time is not completely wasted. The babies make me smile, #DowntonAbbey tweets provide entertainment and the Urban Dictionary definitions keep my face from turning red (at least some of the time). It’s such a powerful tool though. Wielding it requires focus. I’m trying to focus my digital presence and have developed a set of questions to guide me.

What’s your digital purpose? This is a big question. Our digital lives reflect our real lives and thus can have many facets. One of the struggles we face is figuring out how to separate, balance or integrate the personal and professional dimensions of our lives. Whichever stance you choose, it will help in defining your digital purpose. Another helpful question is, “What do you want to be known for?” Get as specific as possible.

Does the content you produce consistently align with your purpose? If a stranger conducts a search on your name, what does your digital identity say about you? If it is not want you want said, develop content that is consistent with who you are, what you care about and the mark you want to make.

How are you connecting with others who share or can advance your purpose? This is where things get exciting. The barriers for networking in the digital age are lower than ever. It must be stated that there’s still much work to be done to ensure people around the world have access to digital technologies. Nevertheless, it is easier than ever to connect with people with whom we have little or no connection, people we admire and people who share our interests. Leverage your network. This becomes much easier when your digital purpose is clear. Now, I am still working on all this for myself, but I have four friends who inspire me because their digital identities reflect a clear purpose (see below). Please share any good examples you can offer, too.

Duana Welch Ph.D. recently launched the book Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do. It’s the first book to take men and women from before they meet until they decide to commit, based on science, and it fits her digital purpose to make relationship science accessible to everyone.

Martha Atkins Ph.D. writes, speaks, and leads conversations around death, dying, life after death, and living life as empowered humans. Check out her website. She calls us “shiny humans.” I love that.

In 2009, Samia and John Joseph founded Superhero Kids to address quality of life issues for children and their families battling cancer and blood disorders at the Children’s Blood and Cancer Center of Central Texas. Samia admits that her familiarity with social media was limited when they started, but she has learned to use it for the purpose of championing kid heroes.

I’m going to keep working until my digital purpose is clear. How about you?

My Thread

About a week ago, I read a blog post by someone I greatly admire – Parker Palmer. Palmer is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His writings often linger with me for days, but his weekly Onbeing column titled, “A Thread to Guide Us” pursued me like my mother does when she wants to know if there have been any developments in my love life – gently, with love, but persistent and unwilling to go away without an answer.

Here’s where it’ll help to know more about Palmer’s blog post. He shared a poem by William Stafford (see below) and posed some questions for reflection.

The Way It Is by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Pretty straight forward, right? Sure. I’ve got a thread, maybe several. Family, friends, humanity, faith, love. These are my constants. They are my way back home. Contemplation done.

Well, not so fast. Family changes. Last week, my brother-in-law’s mother died and then he met his first grandchild days later. Friends grow closer or slip away. Humanity? Hmmm, reading the news makes that a tough one, but maybe. Faith? I’m one of those that never wants to stop questioning. Love? That’s closer. Sing it with me. Love, love, love … all you need is love. I do think of it as a guide. But, is that my thread?

What is one thing that has never changed for me? What guides me? What keeps me on my path?

My parents tell a story about how one of the first words that I could say and spell was EXIT. They explain that I was always on the go and any threshold presented a new adventure. Out the door was always something new to see, experience or with which I could find a connection. That’s my thread – learning. I am never letting go.

The Inviting Question

If you’ve ever engaged in one of those spiraling conversations with a three-year-old child that begins with “Why?,” you know that this powerful one-word question can be exasperating. When we don’t know the answer, we can feel inadequate. When an answer is complex, we may be unwilling to take the time to dig below the surface. When we do try to answer … and answer … and answer, we can feel like a quiz show contestant trying to outwit a very short host before the buzzer.

For seemingly inquisitive toddlers, however, pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene suggests that the question “Why?” may simply indicate that they find something interesting and want to start a conversation. They want more than a pat answer; they want to engage us. “Why?” is their invitation.

As invitations go, “Why?” invites much more than the particulars. It’s not merely who, what, where and how, it’s the driving force. Describing that force is not always easy (especially to a toddler), but it is essential for establishing relevance. “Why?” explores value. Is this person, thing or effort worthy of our time and energy? Whether we are three, thirty-three or seventy-three, “Why?” is one of the most critical questions we can ask.

In the early 1990s, while working for a hospital, I was trained as a member of a continuous process improvement team. I learned a lot from that experience, but one of my clearest memories was the colorful consultant who started each training session by imitating W. Edward Deming. In a slow, low, even-toned voice, he would ask, “Why are we here? Why are we here? Why are we here?” and then pause for us to contemplate. I don’t know if Edward Deming really sounded like that. Honestly, that was my first introduction to Deming as I had recently graduated from college with a degree in art and knew very little about management. But, it left an impression on me. In both work and my personal life, I’ve found “Why?” to be THE QUESTION.

If we are willing to accept the invitation, take the time, dig below the surface and explore that driving force, we can get to the heart of just about everything.

Today, thanks to Winnie Kao, Special Projects Lead for , who invited people to join her for the Your Turn Challenge, I am asking myself:

Why are you doing the Your Turn Challenge?

For me, this challenge offered the right mix of risk, commitment and reward.

Whatever has driven each person to participate in this challenge, we’re doing it together. That means I am in the company of others who think that there is value in this effort. It is giving me the courage to do something I should have already done on my own.

Seven days is long enough to make it matter and short enough not to feel overwhelming.

From past experiences, I know that the act of writing daily produces benefits beyond what you can imagine. However, “shipping” what you write does take it to another level. That is a reward that only I can give myself. I’m sorry to say that I have allowed fear to get in the way of doing this sooner. I’m doing this now to take a risk, grow and learn.

Finally, there’s no room for excuses. I’ve wanted to blog for a long time. Why? Because nothing happens when you keep your thoughts to yourself.

My Virtual Classroom

Although I have a personal blog titled Life Twice, whose main reader is my mother, today I am launching a second blog that will focus on my interest in education. It’s not that I expect that anyone will read this blog either (other than my mother, my father and the few people my mother tells about it). Nevertheless, I am doing it for these reasons:

1) I have found that writing to an unknown audience, risking your words being read by people you don’t know and who may not agree with you forces you to declare your point of view and defend it. For most of you out there, this would not be hard. But, I am a diplomat at heart. I am much more comfortable at finding valid points in other people’s opinions than forming my own. Writing on a subject about which I care deeply will give me practice in articulating my own views.

2) I am currently enrolled in the MSLOC (Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change) program in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. I specifically selected this program because of my concerns about the rapidly changing landscape of higher education. Because of their size and oft-misunderstood mission, liberal arts colleges, like my own alma mater Southwestern University, are particularly vulnerable to the economics of education and the growing criticisms about the value of college. I believe liberal education and its outcomes are essential for democracy and the development of global citizens and ethical leaders. It scares me when I read about some of the proposals being put forth by leaders who seem to have a limited view of the purpose of education. While I am only one voice, I believe liberal education is worth fighting for.

3) One of the courses in my graduate school program is Creating and Sharing Knowledge. Even before taking the class, I knew I would love it. Who wouldn’t? Creating and sharing knowledge sounds noble. It’s the very reason American institutions of higher education have been held in high esteem for so long. Indeed, it was an amazing class and not necessarily for the reasons I thought it would be. Certainly, I learned about tacit and explicit knowledge, boundary spanning objects, communities of practice, Enterprise 2.0, the Cynefin framework and much, much more. But, my most meaningful take-away from the class took me by surprise. Over the course of the semester, I was reminded that we human beings have an innate desire to connect, to authentically know each other and the world. Undoubtedly, the tools of this technological age, if misused, pose a threat to human connectedness, but they also give us an extraordinary capacity to create and share, not just knowledge, but the human experience.

I’ll close by acknowledging the origins of Learning Life Itself. Six years ago, I drew the title of my personal blog from a quote by Anaïs Nin: “We write to taste life twice.” This time around I borrowed a phrase from John Dewey: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

And so, this is going to be one of my spaces, my own virtual classroom, where I try to learn about life, education and if I am lucky, humanity.