When a Canned Approach Just Won't Do



  • The challenge facing Results-driven Ron (0:45)

  • What can happen when one size does not fit all (4:30)

  • A customized approach to active listening (5:30)

  • Set clear expectations (5:55)

  • Jotting down while you’re listening can be a bridge to action (7:20)

  • How to listen with your heart instead of your thinking mind (8:30)

  • Watch it like it a play, and stay out of the way (11:45)


Today I want to talk about when the canned approach to leadership isn’t going to get you where you want to go. Specifically, it’s a story of when active listening training actually had the opposite effect.


Ron is a seasoned executive in estate agency, and he received feedback that others often felt he was too impatient in meetings and didn’t hear everyone out. Ron’s supervisor recommended that he attend a seminar on active listening.

Ron attended the seminar, and he was diligently trying to implement the step-by-step approach he learned in class, but his frustration level was increasing instead of decreasing. The active listening seminar promised that by using their recommended steps, Ron would feel more connected and the team would feel more heard, but Ron was feeling less connected and more frustrated, and it showed.

He presented this challenge to me in our coaching session, and from previous work style assessments we had done together, I know he has a results-driven work style. He’s quick to take action, and he gets quite frustrated when others dig into the detail level. A key to Ron’s success is that he prefers to solve problems at a high level, create a few action steps, and then delegate the details to others who are good at them. Given his talents and strengths, it makes sense that while others are discussing details, Ron is chomping at the bit to move forward.

I also know that the team Ron works with most often is comprised of people whose work style is more on the analytical side. They are detail-oriented people, and their style involves discussing all the possible strategies at great length. They are very skilled in methodically coming up with detailed, sequential approaches. Conflict arises because, at the end of the day, regardless of work style or communication style, everybody wants to feel seen and heard.

Ron is doing what many great leaders do – attempting to create and hold space for everyone to be heard – but it’s frustrating him.

You see, the strategies he learned for active listening clash with who he authentically is. When Ron tries to use those strategies for the entirety of a meeting, his body language and words are not aligned with his energy. When his energy is incongruent with his actions, it feels like he’s faking it, and others sense that he is not being real. Instead of improving the team’s feelings of being fully heard, they feel confusion, frustration, and more disconnection.

The sense that Ron is being inauthentic outweighs any of the value he is hoping to achieve by using the active listening skills he learned at the seminar – so what is he to do?


First, let’s deal with the myth…

The myth is that a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership competencies and behaviors can make great leaders. That’s just not true.

The truth is that great leadership starts with self-awareness – the understanding of how you naturally show up in the world and how your emotions, your reactions, your work style, your values, and your talent impact you and all of those around you.

In fact, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ and a thought leader on social-emotional intelligence, states that the most effective and successful leaders are not the ones who have the most expertise in their field but those who have the highest level of social and emotional self-awareness.

For Ron, performing this canned set of steps that aren’t aligned with who he is creates chaos and confusion for both him and his team.

So, here are four things I recommended Ron do instead...


Instead of trying to be in listening mode for the entire meeting, move in and out of it.

As an example, Ron could ask his team members to come prepared to share their perspective on a specific topic for a designated period of time, maybe 5 to 10 minutes per team member, and for those minutes, Ron can practice his active listening skills. At the end of each person’s time, Ron can then facilitate the group to transition to action planning.

By being clear about this process in advance, Ron is helping his team shape their expectations around when their perspective can be shared and they’ll be fully heard, and they can also be prepared for the transition to the action-taking piece.

Consistently implementing a framework like this will help both Ron and the team know that they’re going to get what they need and what that’s going to look like.


During each team member’s talk time, Ron can be listening in and sifting the speaker’s words for the facts while listing them on paper to paraphrase back to the speaker afterward. This key step is a great fit for Ron’s work style, and it also aligns with best practices for active listening.

In my Navigating Challenging Dialogue® workshops, I let people know that the act of jotting notes while someone speaks helps them to feel heard, and while you’re doing the jotting down, your job is also to clear the emotions, the assumptions, the fears, and the story out of what the person is sharing. That way, when you paraphrase it back to them, it’s firmly grounded in the facts.

To someone like Ron, jotting it down can feel like a bridge to the action step portion of the meeting.


What I mean by that is your heart waves extend seven times further outside your body than your brainwaves. Also, your heart has 45,000 neurotransmitters much like the ones in your brain.

The brain, or the thinking mind, is where we begin adding to whatever is presented as the facts. This is where we include our stories, our assumptions, our emotions, and our fears. When your goal is to help another person feel truly heard, it’s better to listen with your heart instead of your brain.

To practice this, take a minute right now and imagine that you can take in and receive information through your heart. Envision it. Feel it. Now, here are steps for a heart-y listening practice—

Getting Started:

  • Plant your feet on the ground, and feel the chair or couch supporting your body.

  • Breathe in through your nose, and notice that oxygen reaching all the way down into your lungs and your heart. Notice your heart expanding and opening with each inhale.

  • Feel the breath leaving your mouth and, with it, release any tension, stress, anxiety, or thinking that isn’t required as part of the listening and, at the same time, notice the beat of your heart.

A Heart-y Listening Practice:

  • Allow the words of the other person to come towards you and wash over you,

  • Allow your heart to take in the words just as they are, with no need to manipulate, validate, or defend against them, or to prepare what you’re going to say next,

  • Maintain soft eye contact and soft body language, and

  • If you feel yourself beginning to get impatient or eager to interject, simply focus your attention back to your breath and your heartbeat.

With repetition, this heart-based listening practice can become second nature, and it will be very easy for you to slip into this mode for listening, and then slip out of this mode when it’s time for action steps.


We all attend meetings we have no control over, and sometimes the person in charge of the meeting allows long periods of dialogue and discussion that result in no action whatsoever.

This is when Ron is most frustrated. Sometimes it’s a rehash of what’s been said time and time again, sometimes it’s long, tedious report-outs that have no impact on his goals or objectives. When Ron becomes impatient, his body language (and/or his spoken language) ask people to hurry up, or he starts multitasking because the topic isn’t of value to him, and he gets labeled as “not a team player.”

At times like that, you must have a good listening strategy in spite of your work style. So, I encourage results-driven people like Ron to try this instead—

Imagine yourself as an audience member and:

  • Observe what’s happening as if you’re watching a play,

  • Listen for the plot and the story line,

  • Have empathy for the characters, and

  • Listen for cues of where the “play” is going.

And it’s important to behave just as you would if you were in the audience at the theater – don’t jump in, don’t get in their business, and don’t exclaim, “Can we please move on here?!”

Everyone gets to the place they need to be in their own time, and sometimes, your job is to stay out of the way until they get there, just like when you’re watching a play.


We all have times when, like Ron, we try to use a canned approach to camouflage our authentic work style, but the most effective leaders have a deep understanding of their individual work style, their preferences, and their talents, and they know how to manage themselves successfully.

If you’d like to learn more about how to become an authentic leader who has a deep sense of self-awareness and self-leadership, then come to a Navigating Challenging Dialogue Leader Certification training! The workshop will improve communication for both you and your team.

The next Navigating Challenging Dialogue Leadership Certification workshop is happening in Sacramento, California, from June 19–22. For more information about this and other opportunities, go to NavigatingChallengingDialogue.com.

Until next time,