E46 - There's more to listening than hearing - a marvellous interview with Oscar Trimboli
- The 5 levels of listening and how to start
- Why the 125-400 rule keeps us from being good listeners
- The patterns to pay attention to in conversations that will help give you big insights
- How to model process leadership not just content leadership
- On being a systemic listener (this is hard - but we can all do it)
- The ancient art of Ting, and what we can bring to modern communication that uplifts listener and speaker
My favourite quote from the interview: “Agendas and schedules are the cellular building blocks of leadership.”
Oscar Trimboli started his professional life as an accountant with Dyscalculia, a difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic, such as difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, and learning facts in mathematics. He then leapt into technology. working for organisations including Microsoft, PeopleSoft, Polycom, Professional Advantage and Vodafone. He has experienced the wonder that comes from multiple perspectives as his school and work environments were steeped in diversity.
Oscar is a curious and systematic executive coach who is driven to make an impact beyond words and generations. Through his focus on Deep Listening, he is working to transform teams and organisations through listening to what’s said and more importantly listening to what’s unsaid.
He is the author of Deep Listening - Impact Beyond Words and an avid runner.
Oscar’s Deep Listening - Impact Beyond Words Podcast
About Ting - Ancient Chinese skills for listening
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast, your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader. Influence. Improve. Inspire.
Zoë Routh: Hi. It's Zoë, and you know who we have on the podcast today? Oscar Trimboli. I love this man. He's such a wonderful human being, and I'm delighted to share him with you. Oscar started his professional life as an accountant. What's funny about that, or maybe it's not so funny, he actually had dyscalculia. It sounds like Count Dracula. But he was not Count Dracula. Dyscalculia is actually a difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic. So you can see this as a challenge if you're an accountant.
So he moved off of accounting into IT, so he made a giant leap into technology, where he worked for organisations like Microsoft, PeopleSoft, Polycom, Professional Advantage, and Photophone. He's had a very interesting and diverse background, so he's really a master of perspectives because of this diversity. So from this background, he's moved into being a curious and systematic executive coach who is driven to make an impact beyond words and generations. I love your long-term thinking here, Oscar.
Through his focus on Deep Listening, fabulous new book, he is working on ... Sorry. He works to transform teams and organisations through listening to what's said and more importantly listening to what is unsaid. It is the most underutilized skill. So, welcome, Oscar. He is the author of Deep Listening: Impact beyond words and an avid runner. Hi, Oscar.
Oscar Trimboli: Hello, Zoë, and, yeah, coming off the back of a week before Sydney Half Marathon, half marathon 68 as part of my fundraising for cancer research over the last nine years.
Zoë Routh: So you just ran your 68th half marathon, or 68th full marathon?
Oscar Trimboli: Sixty-eighth half marathon this Sunday coming up, and, yeah, that's over a period of nine years. So it sounds like a lot of half marathons, but when you just divide it by nine, it's not as many as you think, and during that time I trained for five half marathons, uh, for five full marathons and ultramarathons, which is over 42 k. So I knocked off quite a few half marathons in the marathon training as well.
The most important thing is that as part of Can Too, where we raise funds for first-time cancer researchers because they struggle to get funded, we believe that the breakthroughs come from the next generation, not those who are expert in applying for research funding, so we create multi-year grants that ensure researchers don't spend a third of their time applying for research grants, which is what most researchers who are successful do. And for those who are unsuccessful, it's nearly 50%, a tragic waste of talented resources in this country.
Zoë Routh: That's crazy to spend all that time just to get the money to do the thing that you really need to do instead of doing the things that you need to do. We share a little bit ... I'm not sure if you know this or not, but we share a passion for running, though it's been a long time since my last marathon. My last marathon was 2006, so 12 years since I ran the 42.2 k. I have done one half marathon since then, but the other link that we have in common is that I had cancer in 2005, and I've ran a fund run myself to raise funds for cancer.
So it's deeply important to me too, both running and cancer research, and a lot of my family have had cancer: my dad, my sister, many of my in-laws, and so on. So the more we can do to fix that, the better. So, yep, Oscar, you're a crazy, crazy runner, and I love you for it. It's great. You were going to say something. I heard that intake of gasp.
Oscar Trimboli: No, I was just waiting for your question, Zoë.
Zoë Routh: Okay. We'll get into the questions, then. I guess I love looking at people's careers, and this leap from accounting to tech, well, we've explained that. How did you go from technology into coaching? Because from the people I've met in IT, it's not a natural synergy to go form tech-based work into coaching, so tell me a little bit about that.
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah, probably behind that it's an assumption that I'm technical, which I'm not. I've never written a line of code in my life, though I've led teams who have, ironically. The transition came about while I was working at Microsoft and I got quite frustrated sitting at a graduate recruitment fair at a couple of the universities and realized that people were just walking past the Microsoft booth because they thought the only roles available at Microsoft were technical roles.
Like any company, Microsoft employs financial professionals. They employ lawyers. They employ marketing professionals. They employ HR people. They employ project managers. It takes a lot of people to feed technology companies and make them successful. So I took a proposal to the then country manager and said to Tracy, "Our recruitment for graduates is broken. Our brand as it relates to graduates is broken. Give me one month, and I'm going to come back with a proposal to the leadership team about how we change that." She said, "Okay. What do you think you need help on from the leadership team?" I said, "I'll be fine. I'm just going to go and listen to our past graduates, and I'm going to listen to our current graduates about what they thought about Microsoft, and more importantly what they didn't."
A month later after interviewing 13 graduates inside the organisation and about 12 graduates who had gone through the graduate program but had left Microsoft, a couple of really basic things were discovered. The first one was they all came to Microsoft by mistake because they were worried about a technical role, and it wasn't until someone actually spoke to them and explained that there are many roles at Microsoft that they decided this might be an interesting organisation to learn from.
We took a business case a month later, and it was presented by the graduates, not by me. I helped them create it and present it. As a result of that, we created a program called Microsoft Protégé, which subsequently got taken to 26 subsidiaries for Microsoft around the world, effectively the Western developed markets. This program didn't necessarily fit well into developing markets, but a top-down version has since been taken there.
Throughout the year I basically coached the graduate team to own the project themselves. They loved the project because it took them outside of their functional silos. It gave them a unifying purpose. It got them external and facing the university market, and helped them very simply to create an employment brand.
Ironically, the next year's graduates then took on Protégé and ran it, and ever since then, every year of graduates coming through in Microsoft locally and globally do this as well. That spark of amazing energy from the graduate team taught me that I could have a powerful multi-generational impact just by listening and helping teams to have an impact beyond words. What that taught me was there was a skill inside me that probably was fostered when I was only a teenager, whether that was in my sporting career, where I was really good. I was always good as a captain, not necessarily good as a player.
So I was never the best player in cricket or soccer or tennis, but I was always looked to as the captain. I wasn't always the most academic at school, but I played leadership roles in the school. And spanning a school with 23 different nationalities, it was great fun to listen to all the inclinations in people's voices, have great lunches, and learn to play card games in Chinese, Italian, and French as well. So-
Zoë Routh: How do you learn to play card games in different languages? Is that all about listening and paying attention?
Oscar Trimboli: Well, the good news is pictures are the same, whatever language you're in. So, the high-value cards are the same in those languages. You just have to learn the rules, and after playing and failing cards a couple of times, a couple of games, you learn to pick it up quite quickly. You have to remember that I'm sitting next to somebody who's from Laos or Cambodia or Thailand or China who's actually teaching me this in English as well as showing me the cards in their home country, and French and Italian card game were very similar, so that wasn't as big a jump in learning.
But the power is if you could learn to listen to people's body language, they give it away. They give it away what cards they're holding. So I think from the very early age, I've learned to listen beyond what was said and started to watch people's faces and the congruency between what they were saying and what their body language was giving away.
Zoë Routh: So this notion of having a poker face, does that really exist where somebody can actually blank out all their micro cues in terms of what's going on, you reckon, or you think people are a little bit, they give away things no matter what?
Oscar Trimboli: Even the world-class poker players give it away, and that's why they wear caps. That's why they wear sunglasses in professional tournaments to try and take away as many of those visual cues as possible, but in my professional voyeurism, I can pick up nuances even in the way they hold their cards and what position their fingers are on the cards at any one time. But that takes pattern-noticing as well as well as listening. So you'd have to play multiple versions of card games to get an understanding of those hand positions and what they mean.
I'm not painting a great picture of myself, am I? Although I don't play poker, the card games we played at school were played for lunches. You'd have to bet your lunch against somebody else's, so you would literally lose your lunch if you didn't win the card game.
Zoë Routh: I would so not cope with that. I would get so angry and stressed out. I love what you mentioned, though, because you talk about card players, and it's about pattern recognition in terms of noticing people's behaviour and the patterns that come with what they have in their hand. Reading through your book, you talk about that, some of the skills that you require in conscious listening. You talk about four different perspectives: intentional, systemic, curious, and progressive. I'm wondering if the pattern recognition piece is essential to the systemic. Could you just talk a little bit through what you mean by these particular perspectives, in particular the systemic one? because I suspect this is actually the harder skill, is being able to recognize patterns and systems in what people are saying.
Oscar Trimboli: Probably best if we start at the five levels of listening that are the foundation that sit behind these four perspectives. Then we'll go to the four perspective, Zoë. Level one listening is listening to yourself. A lot of text and literature and the majority of the field says focus on the speaker. That is true, but it's only part of the picture. If you don't turn up to the dialogue with an empty mind or no judgment, you're unlikely to have a space available in your mind to actually listen at what's being said.
So turning up to a dialogue without going back to back for meetings, without taking a moment to pause before you get into this meeting and go, "What's my intention for this meeting?" Rather than going, "Oh my goodness, I've got to pick my friend up from the airport. It's garbage night. Oh, did I feed the dog? My stomach's grumbling. Oh my goodness, I better get into this meeting," which is quite common for all of us. The difference between good listeners and great listeners is how long they're in that state and how quickly they notice they're distracted.
This brings us to the 125-400 rule, which basically says if we can speak at 125 words a minute and there's 400 words a minute you can listen for, you are by design set up to fail to listen completely all the time. People speak too slow because you can hear 400 years a minute, and you get a little frustrated, and you get a little distracted, and you're saying, "Hurry up," and you're saying, "Can you do it faster?" So, in doing so, again, notice when you're distracted. That's the first trick of being a deep listener. It's not the fact you are going to be distracted. I get distracted when I listen. It's how quickly you notice and how quickly you get back into the dialogue. Second-
Zoë Routh: This sounds like a meditation practice to me because it's exact same thing: You notice when your brain drifts off, and it's like, "Come back to centre. Come back to center." Is meditation part of your practice and training in order to be able to listen to self?
Oscar Trimboli: The research shows that the deeper you breathe, the deeper you listen, and also when you synchronize your breathing with a counterparty, the conversation is more productive. So this research came out of Canada in 1992. Now, I wouldn't suggest that everybody needs to become a Buddhist monk to become a deep listener, and I think a lot of people get confused with the concept of meditation and assume meditation is a place rather than a practice.
So for me, if I'm walking from one meeting to another, that is my time to create a space, to meditate for my intention for the next meeting. It doesn't mean I'm in a quiet place with the room closed and the candles burning. It means that I'm closing my mind and setting my intention for the next meeting. I think in modern workplaces for the leaders I work with and no doubt the leaders you work with, Zoë, giving them another thing rather than integrating meditation into their practice become difficult.
So I would say to you, meditation is something you can do while you eat breakfast. Meditation is something you can do while you're going between meetings. Meditation is really difficult to do if you're going between meetings and you're looking at your phone though, so clear your mind completely. I had the chance-
Zoë Routh: Oh yeah, I do that.
Oscar Trimboli: I had the chance to do a silent meditation for 12 days, and that's the other extreme, where you can practice that. And every moment during that time, that same description you went about describing earlier on is how quickly can you come back to space and place that's in front of you. The same thing's true with dialogue discussion and listening. The quicker you can notice you're off track, the quicker you can get in.
I play a game where I bring a basket, a visual basket, an imaginary visual basket, where I put a whole bunch of dialogue into while I'm in the dialogue. So right now, Zoë, you might be thinking about something completely different. If that was me, I would be putting that in my basket right now and then go back and look at that after the conversation and go and take out of the basket what's useful and notice the patterns that come out of that.
So the second level of listening is listening to content. Content is both audio and visual and energetic. So there's three levels of listening for content there, and we'll spend a bit of time talking about those three elements. That's where most of the literature is focused. That's where people talk about paraphrasing, giving short, verbal cues, such as "mm-hmm (affirmative)," "mmm," "yeah," "I can see why that's important to you," as an example. But if all you're doing is paraphrasing back the words, you aren't really in the dialogue.
The next level of listening comes to pattern recognition. This is about context. So level one, listen to yourself. Level two: content. Level three is listen to the context. Context is about pattern matching. Some people are consistently talking in visual orientation. Some people might be talking in detail orientation. Some people might consistently talk about the future or the past. Some people might talk about themselves as an individual in the context of the system, and some people might talk about the team, or the stakeholders, or the voters, or the customers as an example.
Some people might have consistently negative language. Some people might have consistently positive language. So the trick in understanding the level of patterns is are you listening to the language that's being presented to you at another level. So probably right now as we're going through your mind is you might have some clients, you might have some colleagues where you go, "Oh my goodness, yes, they always talk in pictures," or, "They always talk in stories," or, "They always talk in detail." So it's good to notice they speak at that level. Great listeners will start to match that pattern orientation merely by saying, "I'm noticing a pattern in this conversation. Do you?" I'm trying-
Zoë Routh: And they go, "Ahhh." Or do they know that they have patterns?
Oscar Trimboli: Some people do immediately go and talk about a pattern, and in half the cases, that'll be a pattern you've noticed, and in half the cases it won't be a pattern that you've noticed. The most important thing is bringing them conscious to the pattern that's either serving them or holding them back. So an example might be if they don't notice the pattern, I'll say, "Hey, you know, Mary, you've spoken about all this activity consistently through the lens of our team. There's very little talking about you. Is that a space you want to explore?"
She'll go, "Well, I've never even thought about it that way." I go, "I'm curious what that could mean for you." Typically they'll go, "This so makes sense. It was only the other day where I was in conflict with my manager because all they wanted to do was talk about me, and all I wanted to talk about was my team." Now I see where the conflict is coming from. Now I see where their tension is coming from. But unless you expose that and make it explicit for them, because they haven't heard that in themselves, you can help them listen at that level.
The last two levels of listening is listening to what's unsaid and listening for meaning. But I think we'll pause now and come back to your original question about systemic listener. But I sense you've got few questions already, Zoë, by the look on your face.
Zoë Routh: Yeah, that's right. So you can see me because we've got the video cam on. I can't see you. This is just a little technical aside for you listening. Actually, it was more of a thought because I was listening to how you framed your questions, and as a coach myself, questioning is one of key skills as well as listening. In coaching, I just was thinking how beautifully you asked those questions and how if you were coaching people, how they just feel like you were wrapping them in a warm blanket the way that you asked those questions. They are so inviting and supportive.
So that was what was going on in my basket as you were speaking. So the pattern recognition I think is an interesting concept, and I love that you gave so many examples of that. Thank you. So we come back to the other aspect of this, then. So after the five levels is coming to the four perspective. So how did the perspectives link with the five levels of listening? Can you tease that out a little bit?
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah. An intentional listener, a systemic listener, a curious listener, a progressive listener all listen with a slightly different orientation. So the intentional listener will be extraordinary at listening to themself before the dialogue. These people show up with no judgment, and these people are really good at setting the intension for the room around what are we going to explore today, and how do we leave what's baggage or unproductive out of the room, and how can we come to this space really intentionally?
So these people practice really good breathing. They have really good breaks between meetings. They're not back to back. But their intention is focused not on the speaker but the dialogue. And this is an important distinction. The speaker will speak. The listener will listen. But both parties are speaking simultaneously. So there's a simultaneous equation going. As you mentioned earlier on, not really good at simultaneous equations when it came to always math stuff. But if you can imagine three perspectives happening, there's the speaker, there's the listener, and the dialogue.
"The dialogue" might sound like a really abstract term, but it's a third person in the conversation, and the dialogue can either progress or shrink or wilt or move to an unproductive place if both parties are not conscious of progressing the dialogue. So the intentional listener comes to that conversation with no judgment and a very clear perspective of what would be a productive dialogue for both people, or the team, or the system because they have an intention of no judgment.
So one of the things that anchor people back is they walk into dialogue with judgment, and they already have a predefined position they need to take, or at least they think they do. By not coming to the dialogue without the absence of judgment or the absence of "My perspective is the only perspective," they get stuck in a downward spiral of A versus B, or red versus blue, or one versus two, and whenever you're stuck in this binarial alternative, it's a good time to notice it's time to stop. I'll talk about the system's implications of that shortly.
The curious listener by definition ask really elegant questions that are appropriate both to the speaker, the team, and the system. The curious listener needs to be careful that their questions don't sound like interrogations or they're too abstract. A curious listener is the one that unlocks that perspective that we mentioned earlier, A versus B, one versus two, red versus blue. The curious listener will explore. They spend a lot of time talking about Option A and Option B: "I'm just curious if there's another perspective we haven't considered." That's one of my go-to questions in team coaching, Zoë.
People look at me like I'm an absolute nut job. And they look at me and go, "We've been talking about this for an hour and a half. Of course these are the only alternatives." Then I simply say, "There's at least two other approaches I'm hearing from the room and at least one approach that hasn't been spoken about." They all look at each other, and then someone will have the courage to say something, and it's usually what's unsaid, the elephant in the room, the undiscussable.
But the curious listener can explore this. Nine times out of ten, Zoë, I have no idea what the A versus B, C, D, E, F should be. All I know is there's stuff that they're not exploring. So what happens then, we create a beautiful new recipe with Option C. They all get excited and go, "Yeah, let's go Option C." But, again, the curious listener will take it to another level. There's probably two more options we haven't considered, and they'll go D, and they go E. But the curious listener ultimately will go, "If we combine the best of A, the best of B, the best of C, and the best of D, what would that look like?" "It's obvious it's this," but only giving the space and place for their team to listen to what they're trying to say rather than saying the obvious. Does the curious listener help move the dialogue forward?
Zoë Routh: Just one question before you move on to progressive and systemic listeners or perspectives. Is the listening to the unsaid piece, and you mentioned that was one of the levels also in levels of listening, you were sitting in a group like that, which seems like to be bulldozing ahead to Options A and B. And you know intuitively there's something else. How do you pay attention to that as a curious listener? How do you actually notice that there's an elephant sitting there in the room?
Oscar Trimboli: I'll talk about it from my perspective, as I work with a team like that, but I'll also talk about it from a very real perspective when I was a marketing director and how that came about. The noisiest people aren't necessarily the ones that are going to help us progress in all cases. What the noisy people are is courageous, and they're stating their case first.
So if you think about the extrovert/introvert spectrum, one of the things that extroverts do really well for the group is declare a position. And what the introverts don't do is declare a position. They're there thinking about their position. So what I'm doing is I'm noticing who's taking notes. I'm noticing who's watching the conversation and the interplay of participants. I'm noticing who's actually taking a breath and breathing to the extent that they're actually want to speak, but they get cut off because they're too slow.
I'm noticing something that I call the gravity of the dialogue. In a system of three to five people or 10 to 20 people, it's typically 25% of the participants will have the majority of the dialogue. There will just be this universal gravity moving towards these people. Unfortunately it's usually based on title, and that's not the most productive place to be in.
Then what I'm doing is I'm noticing the language patterns that we mentioned earlier in the dialogue, and understanding are these language patterns consistently used by all the parties in the dialogue, or are they effectively one speaking about the future and somebody pulling them back and saying, "You haven't acknowledged the story from the past." So that the dialogue gives it away. The physical presence of the person in the room gives it away, and I often will pause in a session that I'm running and say something as simple as, "It's great to hear from the voices who I've heard so far. I think there's an exploration we need to go on to hear from those voices we haven't heard from so far."
Sometimes that pause is the most excruciating couple of minutes in the dialogue because the more introverted listeners feel like they've been now put on the spot. So what I ask them to do is show the same courage that the extroverts are doing and declare a position, knowing that it's not the position, that we will work as a group to get there together.
Zoë Routh: Cool. That's great. There's a lot going on when your facilitating, Oscar.
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah, and if you're really in service of the group, you'll walk out of there completely exhausted even though you've probably only done very little physical effort. To be conscious on these multiple levels is something that takes practice and focus. And if you want to serve the group, you need to be thinking about these things in parallel.
Zoë Routh: Absolutely. So you're listening in multiple ways, at multiple levels.
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah.
Zoë Routh: So it just comes to this systemic perspective, right?
Oscar Trimboli: Yes. And before we get there, Zoë, I think a question for the leaders on the podcast that you serve, when they go into team meetings, how much are they speaking versus listening, and how conscious are they of bringing the voices that are often unheard to the table? Because quite often these perspectives are powerful, even if they're just to create a contrast between the current perspective and the perspective that's unsaid.
So I think as leaders if we're more deliberate in bringing the voices that are unsaid to the table, our implementation becomes faster. Our silos break down quicker. We have clearer communication strategies than what we might have normally because they are perspectives that the extroverts don't necessarily consider, that the introverts will. So that makes the output of the meeting so much more productive.
Zoë Routh: I, like you, well, I'm not sure if you had this experience, where I think people just wing their meetings. They don't actually pause, slow down to do what you're suggesting in terms of teasing out, allowing the space, and servicing those perspectives and voices really well. It's kind of, "Let's go in. Let's bulldoze this thing. Let's get it done." Then everybody kind of leaves with a bit of whiplash. So I think it's very sound advice or sound questioning for all of our listeners about that: How are we actually showing up and crafting the process to allow all voices to be heard so it's faster in the end?
Oscar Trimboli: Yeah. It's absolutely faster. The impact is much more significant. The other question I'd pose to the audience is something that was put to me by one of my supervising coaches, which is are you allowing 10% of the meeting for process improvement for that system? So if you can imagine there's 10% of 10 people in the room, and the meeting for 60 minutes, you should be allocating between 6 and 10 minutes at about the 45-minute mark to simply say, "Let's take a pause. Let's step out of the content, and let's look at the process. What can we improve in the next 10 minutes to make this more productive? What do we need to do from a process prospective to improve this meeting?"
If I'm facilitating a half day or a full day workshop, I will do that just about 15 minutes to half an hour before every break to get the leaders in the room to understand that they need to be role modelling process leadership, not just content leadership in what they do. So what that does is it allows people again to speak from a different perspective. They speak from the perspective that goes, "When we have this meeting next time, can we slightly alter the agenda so we have more white space in there so we can explore some more creative concepts? When we have this agenda next time, rather than having 10-minute intervals where we keep changing the agenda items, can we dedicate half an hour to go deep on something?
"When we sequence these meetings over a month and we have weekly team meetings, maybe we don't have the same agenda every week. Maybe once a month we have a slightly different agenda with a longer-term perspective." But if you're not listening for that in process improvement, you'll never get there because as a leader, as much as you can listen to yourself, you can't critique yourself. So agendas are the cellular building blocks of your leadership. If I was someone coming back into history and really trying to understand and listen to your leadership, as an archaeologist, the thing I would look at is your agendas and your schedules. They tell me more about your leadership than anything you say, what's in your agenda and how frequently you have those meetings.
But if you don't take the time in your team meetings to ask simple questions, how can we improve this meeting, the team basically feel a slave to a process that's not evolving. So that is an example of how you can be systemic in your listening as a leader. There's three perspectives for the systemic leader. There's the one-on-one dialogue, there's the team dialogue, and there's the organisational dialogue.
A systemic listener is a brilliant connector. They connect people. They connect concepts, and they connect ultimately systems. Systems are organic, whether they're human systems, whether they're environmental systems. But they all have rules. An example of a system in an organisation is the rule is time cannot be created, but time can be leveraged. A lot of us don't take the time to think about what are the natural rules of our system that we can't break? And how do we connect those up?
Systemic listeners do a fantastic job in saying questions like, "What does this mean to the residents, the voters, the constituents, the customers, the competitors, the regulators? What does this mean to our environment? What does this mean to the next generation and the generation after that?" They're extraordinarily powerful because what they do is they help you swim with the tide rather than swim against the tide with your idea. So if you're stuck and you feel like you've had this conversation and the project's going nowhere, it's likely that the systemic listener hasn't had a voice because you're swimming against the tide with your idea.
In swimming with the tide, the systemic listener points to the places where you can use systems to improve that. Systems may be processes. Systems may be tools and technologies, but ultimately systems are the intersections of systems with other systems. So one of the ways I've seen one of my clients do this really well is they operate in an industry that's highly regulated. And as a leader in the past, they would ask very detailed questions about compliance. What they've done now is simply ask the question to the room, "What would the regulator think right now? What would our customers think right now? because it's the safety of our customers that's paramount."
Now, in the past, they've tried many things about operational, procedural excellence. They created teams to reduce the amount of wastage on operational procedures manuals. And they never really made any progress. But by asking the systemic question that this leader skilfully trained her leadership team to ask and their leaders to ask, all of a sudden the teams and people in the organisation started to focus on what does this mean for the customer? What does this mean for the regulator? In doing so, wastage in the system evaporated really quickly over 12 months because they were using this question really consistently and appropriately, as opposed to in the past the global quality team would come, audit the organisation, and say, "You haven't followed these procedures precisely. You need to change the procedures. You need to change the way people are trained, and we need to do some mandatory training."
For a lot of your listeners, you can hear groans as I say this because they experience these mandatory training approaches, and something as simple as asking, "What does this mean for our customers?" will rapidly reduce wastage in the system because you're thinking about this beyond your function, beyond your division, beyond your organisation and ultimately on those you serve. So the systemic listener is a great connector of ideas, people, and markets.
Zoë Routh: That requires great leadership maturity. And the systemic listener, I'm not sure if you found this, Oscar, is not very common, or do you find that they are common; they just haven't been given enough space?
Oscar Trimboli: The systemic listener's in all of us. Few of us have been taught how to use the systemic listener. In my work it's rare to notice this being overly or explicitly used in an organisation. When you simply show them how to use three circles of the individual, the groups, the organisation, and the ecosystem in which you operate in and simply ask a question orientated around purpose, leaders feel it's the most comfortable. Leaders feel like it's a key that unlocks the door for them to move from manager to leader because it creates space in their calendar. It creates time for them to think about what's a little bit longer-term. But unless they've had somebody to just simply point it out through observation, they rarely are even conscious that that's a perspective they should be using because if they're a global organisation, they might have a playbook that's being defined by a global head office that says, "This is the way you need to do things." That's true, and that's useful, but it's not always productive.
In my work with government agencies, we find that anchoring this helps bridge the gap between the elected official and the department secretary general, as an example, to go, "What is that unifying vision that we can consistently talk about beyond the cycle of the elections? What is it that we're trying to achieve together as a department as well as an elected member of Parliament or an elected member of local Council?" But you're right, Zoë. It is rare. That's why I'm out there trying to promote the idea.
Zoë Routh: It's really helpful because I think just listening to what you've shared so far, it really elevates what we can do in terms of how we engage with each other and how we really surface what's most important, and having some frameworks and some skills is the first step in actually doing it better. We haven't talked about the progressive perspective. Can you tell us about that?
Oscar Trimboli: The progressive perspective is really skilful at noticing when we get bogged down, when we're not making forward progress in the dialogue. What the progressive listener does better than anybody else is they're very fixated on the dialogue as opposed to the participants. They will notice back to the room where the dialogue is at. They'll use terms like, "We've been chatting about this for 20 minutes. How do you think we're going? We've been speaking about this project and it's progress for eight months now. How do you think it's going? If we were to do the project charter again, how would we do it differently? We're trying to launch these projects now for four months. We've run into some roadblocks. We get very fixated on the roadblocks. How could we focus on progressing them?"
The progressive listener is very, very conscious of time. They have a great ability to dance across the past, the present, and the future and unify those people with a context or a pattern that's always anchored in the future or always anchored in the past. And they're great unifiers to bring that together. Ironically, the best progressive listeners I've noticed are admins, personal assistants, and executive assistants. These are often voices not considered in the meeting. They're voices that are considered the people who need to take minutes of the meetings. But they hear what's going on, but more importantly, they hear what's not going on.
Again, the question I pose to the leaders both in the meeting and in their organisation, how conscious and deliberate are they in listening to the voices from the executive assistants, the admin community because they cut across the organisation because they have to through their work. They get the pulse of the organisation and can quickly tell you where progress is and isn't being made.
Zoë Routh: That's beautiful to hear, and I think you're absolutely right because the EA and the admin assistants, they need to manage process. So they're hyper aware of what needs to happen and to sort of take that meta view or one of the meta views in the meeting is essential. Oscar, I've got some ... We're running short of time, and there's a couple things I want to ask you around the visceral nature of energy in conversation and how you experience that. I think it's related to your concept of Ting that you talk about in your book. So, first of all, can you talk a little bit about what is Ting in a listening practice? And then I'll throw in my last question about energy in the conversation.
Oscar Trimboli: Exploring listening through a very ancient perspective, there's both Ting, which is Mandarin for listening, so it comes from a Chinese perspective or an Asian perspective. And there's also the concept of doddery, which is an Aboriginal word from Australia for international listeners, which is about deeply listening to yourself, the lands, and those that you are in community with.
Ting is a six-dimensional script, and I strongly encourage you, Zoë, to post it on your show notes up there so everybody can see what it looks like. It's one character made up of six component parts. One talks about hearing. One talks about seeing, and the rest are all about mindset and energy. So in the West we're very fixated on hearing and occasionally seeing. So seeing is those visual cues that you get from somebody.
The Ting was a practice taught to the young princes and princesses as they were being trained to be emperors and empresses. They were taught to be respectful when they listen. They were taught to be completely present when they were listening, and they were taught to be completely focused when they were listening. Now, think about any conversation where you're in conflict, and think about how respectful you were being. Think about how present you were being, and think about how focused you were being. The likelihood is very low that you're going to be there.
But it's the final character of Ting that brings its most power, and that is feeling. That is something that is very unconscious. I was coaching a client once, general manager of a very large division. She was in conflict with the CFO, and we'd spent a long time talking about the particular conflict. I asked her, "If we were to come back in 10 years and discuss this, what advice would you give the CFO?" At that point in time, there was a total drop in her body. The energy changed dramatically. She went from a very intense state, a very much a state of breathing very rapidly, and as her shoulders dropped, there was this huge exhale as she looked back and 10 years down the track. She simply said, "Nobody will give a shit."
Zoë Routh: Was that depressing or a bit of relief for her?
Oscar Trimboli: For her in noticing that was a powerful shift for her. But as she said, nobody gave, nobody will give a shit in 10 years' time. What I asked her to reflect on is her state, her energy immediately prior to that exhale. She went, "Oh my God, I never noticed that." I said, "What other dialogue are you in that state?" We started to explore where conflict was showing up, not because she didn't get on with people. She was actually a conflict avoider, and this tension was building up in her body if you can visualize somebody with a very erect spine, shoulders very tight, in, up, under their neck, their face very clinched, and presenting an energy that is in conflict with what they're saying. That's what was happening with my client. As we explored these two other situations, she realized that the dialogue had nothing to do with the CFO, and it had everything to do with her exploring how to be in productive conflict rather than assuming all conflict is negative and unproductive.
But it wasn't in asking her the question, "What does it mean in 10 years' time?" that was the power for her in that situation. What was powerful for her was noticing that energy immediately before it was released. Now, most of us don't listen at that level because we're too busy in the content, and the power of what's unsaid comes through people's energy and how they present themselves because they're holding stuff back that's across multiple dialogues and in some cases multiple decades of their life.
Zoë Routh: And likely also multiple generations. Some of these mindsets and patterns are taught and bestowed upon us, and they come through. I notice this in my heritage in history as well. One question I have for you around this noticing energy patterns is whether you have this experience as well; Sometimes in conversations with people, I will start to feel a disturbance in my own emotional energy. Like, I'll feel my stomach being as if it has butterflies or something like that. There's something different happening, and it's not because I'm having an emotional response to the conversation; it's my sense is that I'm experiencing it from what they're projecting. So I actually feel it physically in my body. Do you have that experience, Oscar?
Oscar Trimboli: And for those of you who can't be watching, the way Zoë's eyes enlarge dramatically while she was saying this brought this totally different energy to the conversation as well. It's a taught skill, Zoë. I think that when I started off as a manager or a leader, it's something I was totally unconscious of, and my coaching supervisor pointed it out to me and started taking me through this journey.
It's very tuned now, and I can remember something that happened last Thursday. Last Thursday I wasn't even in the physical presence of this person. I had somebody reference them in an email. Then I just connected with that person. I knew something was going wrong for them. Now, they actually work in North America. I wasn't even in my room, my country, and I decided at that point to give them a call.
They basically said to me, "I've been crying for the last three weeks nonstop. When I get to work I have to lock myself in my office, and I don't know who to talk to about it." They've got a huge role, global role, very huge responsibility. I don't know why. I can't explain it, Zoë, what that connection was that made me pick up the call and speak to them or, more importantly, why they took the call, because they weren't in a great space and place.
But I think every day we would walk past people without noticing that, and we can have a great impact just by listening. I didn't have a solution to the challenge that she was facing. It was multidimensional, both organisational and personal. But when she hung up, she just said, "I'm glad you didn't try and fix me."
Zoë Routh: That's a beautiful message. Wow. There's a lot at play in that story, the fact that you could tune in to somebody and experience their energy through the interwebs and from across a very vast distance, and to hold the space where she didn't need to change I think is a powerful message too. And that's sort of tuning into what's needed in the conversation, in the listening is a suggestion there. Is there a suggestion needed? Is there a strategy needed? Is there just a space to be held that's needed?
Oscar, my very last question--and then I will let you go. I promise--is I'm interested in leaders developing their edge, so testing the boundaries of who they are and where they're going. So what boundaries are you pushing for yourself?
Oscar Trimboli: I don't need to. I've got a wife who does an amazing job of that. I'll tell you one relatively recent story, and then I'll tell you ... Well, basically, a couple of years ago I wasn't able to swim as an adult. I wasn't taught as a child how to swim. School holidays were spent concreting with my dad, so I always was intrigued when these Aussie kids talked about the beach, this mythical place. I had no idea what it was.
We were supporting a group of ocean swimmers who'd swam from Palm Beach to Whale Beach, which is about 2.7 kilometres in Sydney a bit close to five years ago now. We were walking over the headland, and I was just totally in awe. My wife turned to me and said, "So, super coach, time to call you on your bullshit. It's time for you to swim in the ocean with me next year. This time next year we're going to swim from Palm Beach to Whale Beach."
It was like a lightning bolt hitting me. Fear went through every part of my body. I was lost for words. I was in total denial, and I just said, "Look, Jen, we'll talk about that when we get to Whale Beach, but until then, let's just enjoy this glorious weather." In walking the next one and a half kilometres down the headland to the beach, I was making up all these extraordinary excuses about why I was too busy, why it wasn't fair to be asked.
Jen was a fantastic swimmer. She swam in her school, and she was a great swimmer. Of course she could ask me to swim. But I realized that wasn't why she was asking me. In throwing myself in at the deep end literally and learning to swim as an adult, I learnt so many lessons about how difficult change is personally and how careful the person who leads you need to be about creating very simple micro skills.
In the first two weeks of learning to swim, I just learned how to breathe. We never actually swam across the pool more than 10 meters without my coach being very focused on my breathing. And in doing so, over the next three to four months, I was able to graduate from swimming the width of the pool to swimming the length of the 25-meter pool, to swimming the length of the 50-meter pool, and then ultimately being able by July that year to be able to swim 2 kilometres.
September I got a brand new coach who was my ocean-swimming coach, and she taught me old the craft of the ocean, but in jumping into the ocean, after one and a half months, I realized that I wasn't breathing. And my coach pointed that out because I was blue in my face because I wasn't breathing. And my coach said to me, "Can you just let me swim underneath you and notice what you're doing?" What I was doing was trying to breathe in and out while my head was above the water, which is absolutely the wrong way to do it.
But what I learn as a result is performance in one environment, a swimming pool, won't guarantee your performance in a different environment where high performance is required. I'm always conscious of that when I work with my leaders. So my leadership edge is developed by pushing myself out into these uncomfortable places, Zoë.
More recently I've learnt to podcast. People who know me know that my superhero power is my cloak of invisibility, and my job is to make other people great. So to get behind a microphone and think very intentionally about the audience and not myself has been an extraordinary, extraordinarily difficult undertaking for me, full of lots of self-doubt, full of lots of questions about why would anybody want to listen to this kind of stuff?
But what I always do, and in the words of my very wise wife, Jen, she always says, "Don't compare yourself to people who have more; compare yourself to people who have less. Don't compare yourself to what you want; compare yourself to where you've come from." In that, that's how I consistently think that I improve in my ability to lead myself before I can lead others.
Zoë Routh: Oh, Oscar, what a beautiful story. I've got tears in my eyes. You approach life and work with equal humility and courage, and there's so much gifts in the work that you bring to this world and to you just being you and sharing the energy of you. So I'm extremely grateful for your time on the podcast today. Thank you so much, Oscar, and I will post the show notes with the Ting diagram that you mentioned on zoerouth.com/podcast/oscar. I'll also put a link to Oscar's website and his very own Deep Listening Podcast. Thanks again, Oscar.
Oscar Trimboli: Thanks for listening to me.