Podcast with Chris Risse

I was honored to be a guest on Chris Risse’s podcast today. Check it out. It’s about finding a niche, branding and what it means to be a life coach. And lots of other stuff I think you’ll find amusing.


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?