Listening to your Family

I’ve been writing about writing on Thursdays, community on Saturdays. If you missed the Fusions in the Void check the archives, especially if you’re in a valley or desert season in your life, or in what has traditionally been known as The Dark Night of the Soul since St. John of the Cross identified it that way. That series ran every Tuesday for the last 15 weeks.

Time for something new on Tuesdays, and I guess at least for a one-off I’ll talk about Motivational Listening again. Once the holidays are over I’ll evaluate whether I want to run a series on Tuesdays or just do one-offs on listening. Feel free to drop me a comment and leave a request for me to comment on any particular topic.

Listening to your family:

I get so busy with coaching clients sometimes that I forget to listen carefully to the few things my children and my wife say to me. This is so convicting, it’s worth writing about over and over.

Around Christmas and New Year’s we get together with the people we most need to listen to, and we do our best to ignore their opinions and ideas. Sometimes that’s healthy. My sister-in-law announced to the entire family on Christmas Day at breakfast that she hoped we could suspend any political discussions for a day. And it’s not that we fight, so much, it’s just that we can spend one day enjoying each others’ company without digging into things that can cause friction. So we stayed away from it, because, sister, I’m listening. If you listen for peoples’ desire for peace, you can support it.

My mother-in-law said grace at brunch on Christmas Day. Halfway in she choked up, to her own surprise. She’s so grateful for the grandkids; I think she’s pleased, for the most part, with even her sons-in-law. I’m grateful for a mother-in-law who loves the family so much that praying over them would move her to tears. Mom, I’m listening. If you listen to people, you can see where their love rests, and learn from their love.

My father-in-law, a staunch Republican, surprised me this morning (the moratorium on politics over) that he’s thinking about voting for [candidate X] because he’d rather have [ideology X] in the White House than [Lord and Master of the Minions and Inhabitants of Hades X]. At first I thought he was joking, but realized that he’s not missing the big picture when he watches the GOP debates. I’m listening. He often comes across with self-degrading language that indicates we who have college degrees are smarter than he is. This is not true. He has a variety of street smarts I’ll never touch. If you listen to people, really listen, you’ll begin to see where they know more than you do, and recognize the places where you can learn from them.

My wife asked me (as I posted in a different discussion Saturday about community) to make sure to spend time with my children during the vacation, and not immerse myself in books and writing while we’re at the in-laws. I’m listening. She’s going out with her sisters this afternoon to see about mounting her deceased grandmother’s diamonds. I’ll be parent-on-duty. It’ll be fun! The kids are having such a great time with their gifts, and with their cousins. If you listen to your spouse and children, you’re clued in to their needs, and you can give them what they hope for. Jesus talked about how if a son asks his father for a fish, would he give him a stone? No! Unless he isn’t listening. Then, he might give him a stone, or just nothing. Listen, then give fish.

My dad likes to give people five dollar bills on occasion and not for any reason that they earned, but just because he loves them. He calls it “a fish”, too. I love to tell my kids I’m proud of them. They always say “why?” and I say, “because you’re my son/daughter. That’s all the reason I need.” This builds the relational capital they’ll need to have with me one day when it’s time to come to me and tell me something they’re afraid I don’t want to hear. I only hope they trust me enough to tell me. To know that I’ll be listening.

Listening like this happens out of unconditional love for one another. Learning to listen better is the best gift we can give each other for the New Year.

Once in a while at the end of my blog I like to remind you that I have books for sale and would love to sign one for you and ship it out. Please cruise over to the bookstore and purchase one … or both! I appreciate your support!


Congo: The Ancient Villagers

The joke in Congo is always “Chef du Village” which sort of refers to the village chief of course, but might be used in context of who is first in line to wash their hands before the meal or some other insignificant thing where you’re sort of the boss.

One of our trainees told a story about a time when a villager asked him a deep probing theological question he couldn’t answer (he is a theological bigwig.) When he used the word “villager” he apologized, and in the USA he might have been apologizing for calling the guy a “redneck” or perhaps a “bumpkin” or “hillbilly”. So his point was not to denigrate the villager but actually to commend his insightful question, but he didn’t have another word to describe the person’s living condition but to say “villager”.

That’s the backdrop upon which we found some pretty important contextualization for coaching in Congo: I described and demonstrated the technique where, listening carefully, I repeat back to my coachee word-for-word what he said. Not adding any analysis or interpretation of what they said, simply repeating it back: “If I understood you correctly, you said _______”.

When I was done demonstrating this technique, Jacques pointed out that the Ancient Ones (Elders) in the villages had this skill down pat. In fact, it’s an aspect of oral culture that they’ve lost. It was easy for the Congolese guys to see the value in this aspect of coaching, because it’s something that, at least in the past, had value in their culture. There are aspects of wisdom that village elders have had all over the world that have been lost, or nearly so. Interesting that modern leadership techniques might revive the value for them. Something to chew on as you become a better listener today. Perhaps you’ll even become such a good listener that they’ll call you “chef du village” without any irony!

USA: Muzak to my ears

Written August 24: I’m writing blogs in advance because I’m not sure how easy it will be to get online and post from Congo.

Megan and I went out to Culver’s for a sundae. We like ice cream.

She wanted to do a “marriage check in” and that starts with the things we appreciate about each other.

She launched into a bunch of things she appreciated about me and after a while she paused and said something like “Sorry I’m talking so much, but I appreciate you listening!”

Well, she was just talking on and on about things she appreciates about me. So I said, “This is easy listening. All this appreciation is muzak to my ears!”

It is easy to listen when we are being appreciated. If you want to improve listening with those you love the most, start by asking them to listen carefully to how much you appreciate them. It’s a great way to start a date off right!

Dr. Seuss and J.R.R. Tolkien

Seuss and Tolkien got together to write a pledge to becoming better listeners.

This is what they came up with:

I would listen in a box, and I would listen to a fox. I could listen to a hobbit, I will listen ’til you stop it. I would listen in a house, and I would listen to a mouse. I will listen on the train, and I will listen in the rain. I love to listen, Sam Gamgee, I‘m listening right where I be.*


(above: this is just a picture of me being ridiculous. It has nothing to do with anything.)

*You don’t have to memorize this to pass any test.

Eephus ain’t nothing

A Philosophy of Listening

Carpe diem

One day I think in 2010 while I was volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I walked past a bookshelf full of romance novels. Serendipity means finding a book worth reading on a shelf full of romances. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was sitting there. I’d never heard of it before, but even the way the spine is designed said “this is not a romance novel.” So I seized the day, plucked it from the shelf, took it home, and began to read philosophy again.

In fact, I had read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by Elkins a few years before but perhaps didn’t see it as the philosophical book that it is. But the point is, since graduating college I hadn’t really engaged my brain that way. Once I read The Black Swan I had to admit to myself I was reading stuff that was a bit over my head, and from there I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and so on. I began again to engage philosophy, this time in a much more serious way than I had during my undergrad years. You don’t have to have a graduate program to make yourself read.

My basic conclusion after reading Why Art Cannot Be Taught was that Elkins was correct in saying that Art cannot be taught, but incorrect in failing to offer a more excellent way to engage with art students. Coaching, I believed, and a community of authentic relationship, may not teach anyone to become a “great” artist as defined by fame or wealth. But it could help artists to become better people, more well-adjusted, less prone to isolation and even to suicide or self-medication – things which have been known to destroy artists in their prime. If you want to become an artful motivational listener, that is, if you want to listen to people and watch them walk away and succeed at attaining goals and dreams, this is a science to some extent which can be studied like the science of mixing color. Just because you can mix red and yellow to get orange doesn’t mean you can move people. Just because you can ask powerful questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this session” doesn’t mean you’re going to become the most famous or wealthy coach. But then, this isn’t necessarily the end of an art-form like listening. As Ronald Reagan said (or repeated) “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Perhaps the first thing we have to lay down to learn this art is the idea that it will somehow become a great career and that it might make us famous. (Incidentally the same goes for writing. You have to come to the place where you don’t care how much money it makes or how famous you will become – you simply have an idea or story to tell. Then you become productive.)

One of the biggest philosophical questions of all time is this: What is Truth?

As a motivational listener, you’ll be listening for that too. But not so much in the way of a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Instead, you’re listening for the truth like a hunting guide looks for bear or cougar spoor. Yep, the old biologist’s joke is true: bear spoor happens. The real value of being a hunting guide is in recognizing the unexpected for what it is. If you were teaching people to hunt for deer in northern Indiana, where I live, you’d think it’s not so difficult to avoid the danger of becoming prey. But there have been stories in the area of bears visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some years ago, perhaps around 2007, I was working in Ohio and saw a newspaper article discussing the fact that several people had spotted a cougar in their backyards. A representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was quoted as saying “there are no cougars in Ohio.” Now there are many current articles about cougars in Ohio woodlands. As unusual and unexpected as they may be, you would do well to recognize the signs of this animal in your vicinity – and to be able to say to yourself the first time it happens, “I know there are no cougars, but here is a cougar,” and to take appropriate action. Being able to recognize something which is highly improbable is a key component, possibility as a critical piece of truth, that takes awareness and alertness that’s worth paying for.

On the flip side there are things we may uncover as we track that could help, as we listen to people’s story, which could lead to discovery of something spectacular, perhaps even resulting in some sort of breakthrough, and dare we say, greatness. To continue with the hunting guide analogy, knowing how to find not just any buck, but the twenty-point buck; to not just locate the hole where any northern pike are hiding, but to catch a record fish.

So, the art of motivational listening, like any other art, perhaps cannot be taught. But there is one thing I can tell you: you are looking for something you do not know. This is the core idea behind Taleb’s Black Swan. The Black Swan event is “an outlier, as it lies outside the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme impact… Third, in spite of its outlier statues, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. … It Is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks… Black Swan Logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.

This is what we’re looking for when we listen. Where are the handful of shocks, positive or negative? To refer to an earlier essay where I discussed the nature of the knuckleball, say for example that you are the batter, and the knuckleball pitcher makes a mistake. He throws a pitch that rotates, and the ball, rather than knuckling impossibly, suddenly becomes very hittable. The only problem is that you may be so surprised by the relative ease that you miss the pitch anyway.

Another pitch, even more rare than the poorly-thrown knuckleball, relies on the surprise. This pitch, called an eephus pitch, is served up to the batter in such a way that it is intended to be so hittable that the batter misses.

Wikipedia notes: “The delivery from the pitcher has very low velocity and usually catches the hitter off-guard. Its invention is attributed to Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s. According to manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word אפס (pronounced “EFF-ess”), meaning “nothing“.[2]” 

The Eephus pitch must be used with terrible infrequency – a complete outlier. The minute it becomes expected, it becomes worthless. It’s no longer a Black Swan Event. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes a strike, usually makes the batter laugh, fools even the umpire, and once, Ted Williams hit a home run in the All-Star Game on an eephus pitch. Ted Williams was the kind of batter who was always ready. Ted was one of the greats.

Greatness, in terms of “no limits to what may be accomplished” is often the result of flexibly and appropriately responding to a Black Swan event when it happens. It means the ability to recognize bear or cougar spoor and get out of the woods, or being ready for the eephus pitch, that moment in which things become so easy for you to knock it out of the park that you’re likely to completely miss your chance. I think the worst thing we could do when we see the eephus pitch coming is to freeze. Better to swing away and miss than not to try at all; as Shakespeare famously said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to love at all.”

The issue becomes one of preparation. How do you seize the day if you aren’t awake? Again, the quest for not only the truth of what is now, but the truth of what might be possible even if it has never been done, seen, or thought of, is where greatness exists, and yes, it’s improbable.

All the more reason to be on the lookout for it.


You can look like you’re listening when you’re not.

But your responses in the conversation will betray you.

Here’s an invitation to tell your story:

When were you listening, but not really, and how did you get caught?

OR, when did someone pretend to listen to you but really miss the point? How did you know they weren’t listening?

Top three reasons coaches should read fiction

Self-reflection: Because literary fiction uses techniques that dislocates our minds and call our attention to strangeness in the world (called foregrounding) that may lead us to be unsettled and look at things differently (defamiliarization) which interacts with stillness which includes self-contemplation and appreciation of art (which I believe is a component of what I’ve called hedgerows) and causes self-reflection.

Empathy: Kidd and Castano: We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits Theory of Mind. In other words, fiction may increase empathy – both accurately identifying peoples’ emotions cognitively, but also giving us the flexibility to place ourselves in their shoes (affective empathy). There is some indication that reading fiction helps us suspend judgement of others.

Goal Setting: This one surprised me. According to Oatley, narrative fiction constitutes simulation that runs our “planning processor” which is the part of our minds we use in daily life to plan actions in order to attain goals.

The academics have much more work to do, but the more studies they do, the more links they find between reading literary fiction and several of the major pieces we need to become really good motivational listeners.

A researcher named Oatley famously said that “fiction is twice as true as fact”. I believe that this idea is related to my concept of “absolute truth” that by extending our possible world views we broaden truth, rather than narrowing it.

All these papers have one major commonality: they all acknowledge that there isn’t definitive proof of cause. When it comes to encouraging the reading of literature for the sake of improving empathy, some major issues come up. Your personality type, how do you define “literature”, whether your empathic personality predisposes you to reading, or does reading really cause empathy? There are a lot of outstanding questions.

Here’s one more statement I found interesting:

Because fiction gives us a low-threat context, it gives us an optimal aesthetic distance for constructive content simulation.

I in 2011 and 2012 as I finished my first novel, our financial situation was treacherous. (What, you’ve never heard of a first-time novelist who’s broke?) There were days it seemed it would be easier to just ditch everything, get in my car and leave my family behind. It wasn’t that my wife and I were having problems, certainly not that we had fights or marital issues, in general, but perhaps the best way to put it was that I felt pretty strongly that I wasn’t helping our situation, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to shake that for a long time. The character in that novel named Arnold, who leaves his wife and young children and goes to Alaska, was, for me as a writer, constructive content simulation. I was able to enter the world of a man who leaves his wife (entertain a fantasy, one might say) from a safe aesthetic distance, which allowed me to engage my “planning processor” and think through the ramifications of such activity, experiencing it virtually, without doing something destructive. None of the research I’ve read says anything about writing fiction. But it seems to have done the same thing for me. The immersion for the writer is, in many ways, far deeper than it is for the reader. The writer has to read the work dozens of times over, correcting it for authenticity as much as possible, which means the planning processor mode works overtime.

Sometimes it feels as though that planning processor, like a microchip, is at risk of overheating. It occurs to me now that this sort of overheating may be one cause of writer’s block.

Note: I haven’t included links, but if you want to read some of the papers, just email me.

The Garden Gnome

Want to improve your empathy? Go read a novel.

Once upon a time, there was a simple garden gnome named Bill. Bill was the kindly looking type of gnome, with half-glasses he used for reading. It wasn’t so much that he was looking down his nose at you, as he was looking over his cheeks. You know the type. Of course he wore a red cap and a green vest, except on Tuesdays when he wore his plaid one. Bill the Gnome knew all the woodland creatures by name. Hubert the Turtle, Wally the Rabbit… Bill even had tea with Guinevere the Red Fox on occasion. One sunny morning, as he walked along, he came across an old copy of The Wind in the Willows, upside down in a patch of ferns. “I know,” said Bill, “I’ll take this over to Nancy the Field-mouse. She’ll love this story.” So off he waddled, to find Mrs. Nancy, without even stopping to wonder who might have lost this beautiful book. And so his adventure began.

I have for some time this year had a theory that reading fiction would make one a better listener. But now I’ve found some exciting research that proves it, so don’t take it from me. When it comes to social sciences, I’m no academic. I’m just a simple practitioner of empathy and fiction. But some folks discovered that fiction does indeed increase empathy – and even more importantly, reading non-fiction is a negative indicator!

Of course the volume was something Old Gravel-Pit the Snow Owl had dropped one night. He’d been reading by the light of the moon when he saw something far below his treetop perch that caught his attention. It glistened as though it were a very large rodent with one eye open and the other eye closed. Was some cheeky woodchuck winking at him? How dare he? And so, forgetting his book, Old Gravel-Pit (we have long forgotten how he came by this name, I suppose that somewhere along the line they added the “Old” part, though perhaps he was born with it, being an Owl and all) and … Where was I? Oh – and forgetting his book he swooped down to take what was rightfully his; that is, anything he sees, as far as he is concerned, be it a woodchuck or a pocket-watch.

Here is the Abstract from an October, 2006 paper by Raymond A. Mar, et al, in the Journal of Research in Personality:

While frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward, this may only be true of non-fiction readers and not readers of fiction. Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels. Frequent fiction readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities unlike frequent readers of non-fiction. Lifetime exposure to fiction and non-fiction texts was examined along with performance on empathy/social-acumen measures. In general, fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores. Participant age, experience with English, and intelligence (g) were statistically controlled.

Of course it turned out to be a pocket-watch some careless gnome had dropped; it would go nicely with a plaid vest. Gravel-Pit the Snow Owl was disgusted to find that it was both inedible and also useless at telling any sort of story. He went in search of his book again the next evening as the sun went down, and it was just as Bill the Gnome turned out of the woods and into the field, that Gravel-Pit finally saw his book waddling along. Without thinking how the book might be moving on its own, he snagged it in one talon. Poor, surprised Bill forgot to let go of The Wind in the Willows as it lifted off, and soon he realized that he didn’t want to let go of it anymore, now, being so high off the ground, and up he went, higher and higher, sailing towards the Great Wheat Field where one could get lost, and beyond!

Do you feel for Bill? What would you rather do, read more about Bill, or go find this Study online and read it all? Did you really read the abstract, or just skim it? Did you just jump ahead, absorbed in the story, to read more about the silly gnome? (If so it’s a good sign for you as an empathetic person and for me as a writer!) Now I’m not saying that this little story I slapped out in a few minutes about a gnome and an owl contains any sort of literary brilliance, but the truth is, we hunger for story (which gives us something to think about), more than we do for non-fiction (which is where we get told what to think). Chances are you aren’t reading this article while on a date. No, you go to a movie!

Today I was working with a new coach, who was trying to get a visual picture for himself of what he wants to become in this next phase of life as a coach. I asked him to think of characters in movies or books that he admired, and he came up with Gandalf the wizard, (for how he’d like to be) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (for the types of clients he wants). The key is becoming deeply involved in reading a story, not in movies.  Movies don’t count for developing empathy (at least not as far as the research shows.) Still, asking people about movie characters is an excellent way to help them visualize. Fewer people are reading fiction all the time. And we wonder why we’re lacking soft skills? You could go read the report, or you could take my word for it and go grab a novel.

Adam G. Fleming is a leadership coach specializing in creativity and the author of one novel, White Buffalo Gold, 2012, available on Amazon.



Wendell Berry loves to talk about how we need to maintain healthy hedgerows where the wild meets the cultivated. Those hedgerows are places where foxes live, where biodiversity is maintained in favor of monoculture.

My wife does most of the gardening. Along the south side of our house, nearly invisible from the street, we have a variety of fruits and vegetables in a narrow strip. (We have a city plot so I’m talking about a strip south of the house between our foundation and the property line only six feet wide.) There are squash, tomatoes, rhubarb and raspberries this year. I know my veggies, but I’m always making up names for the flowers because I never know which name goes with which blossom.

“Look at these chrysanthemums, they’re nice,” I say.

“Those are peonies,” she says.

“I like the daisies,” I say, and she tells me they are lilies. I shrug. Doesn’t matter. Can’t eat them. As a writer I’m more Garrison Keillor in this way than Barbara Kingsolver. Keillor admits he doesn’t know from trees. Kingsolver manages to write novels that are more about plants than they are about the people who cultivate and destroy them.

But I know milkweed; I’ve known it from childhood, and I’ve become more excited about it since reading Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I’ve allowed it to come up in a corner of my back yard. That’s because milkweed is the only plant on which the monarch butterfly will lay her eggs. It’s called a weed, but the blossoms do have a sweet smell. Today, while I was looking over the raspberries semi-productively, and suddenly, halfway through our second summer of allowing milkweed to stand in my mini-hedgerow, I got the reward: a monarch butterfly showed up and flitted about.

Making space for hedgerows are important to biodiversity, and when we strive to become better listeners we also need to make space for a hedgerow. The analogy works two ways. First is the milkweed. That’s the space in your own life for time to create; I mean down time. It’s really hard to help someone slow down if you haven’t practiced it yourself. Taking time today to snap photos of “our” butterfly was that creative down time when it doesn’t matter if anything really gets accomplished.

The second hedgerow is like the butterfly itself showing up, and it happens during a listening session. This is a conversational border area, a place (usually at the beginning and end) of a conversation where we aren’t just cultivating our usual corn and beans, that is, trying to be productive with our time. Instead we’re just wandering through some down time together. The biodiversity in the hedgerow of a conversation can show us that wild side in our humanness. There’s value in that wild side, beauty, moments of migratory musings and shy potential which can lead to the best stuff. It’s why I prefer an hour session to a half hour. In 30 minutes, I can coach and issue beginning to end, but I don’t have the time for that extra moment to notice the best little pieces of life. Hedgerows have to be cultivated, too, but it’s a cultivation of non-plowing, non-sowing. Make space for these kinds of margins in your week (allow milkweeds), and then in your conversation (be alert for butterflies).