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  • Writer's pictureBarb Bickford

Listening skills for when you don't have time

Updated: May 2

There were just a few minutes left in our conversation. I asked Dr. Todd (names have been changed), "And regarding your staff retreat, what would you like to have happen?"

A water color drawing of seven cats huddled in a group.

Dr. Todd replied, "Some all-day retreats are about getting things done. Some are touchy-feely. This one is touchy-feely."


In the interest of time, I could have simply said "Got it." Then, based on what "touchy-feely" means to me, I would have spent hours designing a day to help this group of doctors huddle and process their deep emotions about burnout and the impacts of the pandemic on their lives.


Instead, I asked, "Hmmm...and touchy-feely and not getting things done. And when all-day retreats are touchy-feely, what kind of touchy-feely is that?" Dr. Todd replied, "It would focus on us being with each other, getting to know one another, and truly relaxing."


I continued, "And being together, getting to know one another and relaxing...Is there anything else about that touchy-feely?"


A water color drawing of cats playing around a picnic table, and another cat stretched out sleeping nearby.

"Yes...." He paused and thought deeply. "It would be informal and fun, like a field trip or picnic." His colleague, Dr. Kelly, joined in. "Yes! A picnic! I genuinely want the energy of a picnic -- a day away. Where I can have a cup of tea, a good conversation, and time to take a nice long walk." She added, "And no talk about physician burnout! We are tired of being told it's our responsibility to solve our burnout, when most of the stress is beyond our control. We hardly know each other, let alone know how to help support each other. We want you to guide us by giving us prompts (questions) that help us do that." Dr. Todd continued, "It would be OK to learn something useful, but only for about an hour or so. The rest of the time should be R and R."


That interchange took just a couple minutes, but it gave me critical insight into their desires. It kept me from wasting hours proposing something they really didn't want. Now I can give them what they do want: a fun and restful day away when they can relax with one another.


I used to think that it took a long time to build rapport, because it was hard for me to think of insightful questions while also trying to listen. It seemed faster to ask them to explore my own interpretation.

A water color drawing of a woman kneeling on the ground petting cats.

But now I believe differently. I don't have time NOT to listen. When I don't take time to listen, I can miss a lot! Listening is one of the best ways to care for my clients, as well as family and friends.


And, I no longer have to waste time thinking of insightful questions. I can use a different approach which requires me only to remember a few simple yet profound questions. It's been a great addition to my listening skills toolbox.


It's called Clean Language. Clean Language is not about avoiding cursing. It's a set of about a dozen questions and a way of asking them that enables the listener to focus on what another person is saying and what it means to them.


Clean Language questions are "clean" because they are non-leading; they are "clean" of the listener's own metaphors and pre-conceptions. They rapidly build trust and understanding between the speaker and the listener by putting all the attention on the speaker.


Developed by the late David Grove, Clean Language questions are easy to learn and highly versatile. They can help you explore differences of opinion with great curiosity and respect, at home and at work. For an in-depth explanation of Clean Language, visit this web page. It only takes about 90 minutes to share the basics of Clean Language, and I intend to introduce it to the doctors. For them, that's all the touchy-feely learning they want!


Interested in learning and practicing the basics of Clean Language? Check out Upcoming Workshops and Courses on this page (scroll down to see them).


To be notified about new blog posts, courses and workshops and to receive tips for improving your meetings, sign up for our news emails. Drawings created by Dall-E, an AI tool.




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