Listening

Listening, you said?
The carpet in the hallway is from the seventies: brown-orange pattern and you can notice the color differences in the spots where vacuum cleaners don’t reach. I leave the scent of dust and cleaning agent behind when I enter the big room through the swinging doors. Fortunately, there’s no one there yet, the disaster is delayed. On the left are some tables, set in a U-shape. At the front there is a flip chart.
“Welcome”, someone has written with a black marker. I’m doubting where to sit. Not too close to the edges but certainly not in the middle. That is the spot where the jury sits, usually the know-it-alls or the brave. I hear voices even before the swinging doors open. A loud, high laugh rolls into the room on a wave of dusty odor. I turn around and pull my freshest greeting: self-assured, but not too much, interested, but not curious. Hannah comes from the Munich office, so does Dieter. Peter (or Pjotr) is from Prague. I don’t ask if he wants to repeat his name, nor whether Prague is in Poland. Hannah cheerfully continues her giggly talk until the trainer arrives together with colleagues from the Moscow and Madrid offices.
“You can have another cup of coffee and then find a place”.
His English is just as spotless as his white shirt. I sit at a table corner. On my left is Hannah from Munich, a timid man in a dirty suit on the right. The trainer welcomes us and says precisely what I am afraid of:
“Let’s start by introducing ourselves!”
He looks at us expectantly. His gaze stops at a scrawny guy who sits in a bright yellow T-shirt at the end of the table. The trainer nods encouragingly while aggravating the punishment:
“I want you to also say something about yourselves. Something personal. Your strengths and weaknesses.”
The tall guy avoids his gaze but the supervisor does not let go:
“Come on, you first.”
While the poor man starts to stammer, I count the number of turns until it’s me: seven. My mind goes to work immediately: I can write software. Nice, just like a few million others. I was the youngest department manager ever in our office. Don’t brag. Father of two children. Who cares, especially when they just grow up at home, do not have amazing talents and I am still married with their mother. About myself. Certainly do not show family photos. The third colleague is already speaking. The trainer laughs at something he says. I laugh with them, although I have no idea what it is about. Say something about Brussels. But that is not really about me. Shouldn’t I say something about our office? The pressure is increasing and I still haven’t figured out what to say. It’s already Happy Hannah’s turn, I need to know now. About how I wanted to become a funeral director when I was young. Then Hannah stops and the room is suddenly silent. It’s up to me, much faster than I thought. I start hesitantly, nobody looks at me. All eyes are still on Hannah, can I hear her sob softly? I do not dare to look aside and begin to bravely talk about myself. When I say the word ‘undertaker’ and start laughing, I feel the room freeze. The trainer looks at me straight in the eye. I am silent, a silence that lasts forever. Then he says in an icy tone:
“And now maybe a few strong points?”
I can hear myself stammering:
“I think I am a good listener?”

How often do we stop listening, because we want to be prepared to speak? Especially consultants, who are supposed to bring the answers, are susceptible to this risk. At HazelHeartwood we try to listen first, so we understand the context. We need to understand this context to make sustainable change.