(This post was first published here on September 28, 2015.)

Everyone who has been through PILOT/LEAD 365 has spent time in jail—the Ottawa County
jail—as a setting to learn about living systems. A living system is any group of people who spend time together and therefore become “emotionally wired together.” A Living System is the people and the stuff that connects the people in a defined group. That “stuff” includes things like behavioral norms, emotional tendencies, physical laws, and current context. Some of you may remember the image of the spider web that was used.

Here are some great things that we learned (or in some cases were reminded of) about Living Systems:

  • Living Systems naturally resist change.
  • If one part of a system changes, the entire system must change.
  • Trying to change a part of the system (like a person) is futile if you think you won’t also have to change. Personal change precedes corporate change.
  • How leaders respond to the anxiety in the system while consistently leading with courage and compassion is the single greatest determinant of whether positive change occurs.

Most of us probably recall the illustration of the shaken bottle of Diet Coke and the shaken bottle of water. This reminds us how important it is to respond to an anxious situation when we are not “fizzy,” but when we are calm.

For many of us, we can look at our own work context and find examples of the characteristics of an anxious system. Those characteristics include Reactivity, Herding, Blaming Others, a Quick-Fix Mentality, and the Lack of Emotionally Mature Leadership.

Some of us can also look at ourselves and our contexts and see some of the individual responses to anxiety, which include Conflict (Fight), Distance (Flight), Over or Under Functioning, and Triangulation and Projection.

An incident occurred in one of our recent visits to the jail that captured many of the important things we learned about how High-Impact Listening breaks through Living Systems. On this particular day, while we were being given the tour of the jail, an inmate asked Captain Baar if he could speak with him. Captain Baar actually stopped the tour, listened to the inmate, and received vital information about something that was being planned by other inmates. A really bad situation was avoided because of it.

This short incident captured many of the things we learned about high impact listening:

  1. Though we do not know what went through Captain’s Baar’s mind when this happened, we do know that he was able to shut off the inner monologue (perhaps related to the tour he was in the middle of) and give this inmate his full attention.
  2. Captain Baar recognized that listening to the inmate was his job.
  3. He listened all the way through to the end of what the inmate was saying.
  4. Because he kept communication pathways open, he received vital information that he otherwise would have missed.
  5. And as he does so well, he remained calm and non-reactive in the face of what he was hearing.

He followed the simple but difficult advice to stay calm, give your best response, and stay connected to others in the Living System.

How are you doing with building trust, opening communication pathways, and helping people develop responsibility in your Living System through your High-Impact Listening?

Image by BillDamon. Used under CC by 2.0 license.