• Patrick Norris

16. Emotional Listening



So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; JAMES 1:19 NKJV

How do you listen? What does it mean to you to “listen?” As a leader, when staff comes to you with conflict issues, what do you hear? As a husband/wife, when your spouse comes to you with frustration energy, what do you hear? When a child is in distress, what data are you absorbing?


Your relationships, and therefore your leadership,

will only be as successful as your capacity to listen.


Your relationships, and therefore your leadership, will only be as successful as your capacity to listen. And many people listen only for specific things, collect only the specific data of another person’s frustrations. However, by only listening cognitively, to the logic, or lack of logic, will give a very small percentage of what is really being presented. This preoccupation with cognitive communication is always going to net out growing separation, irritation, and frustration… ultimately on all parties involved.


How many times have we heard a team member frustrated because they can’t seem to be heard? How many times have we heard a spouse say, “I speak up and speak up, but no one listens”? The leader will turn to the logical and think, “I heard everything you said. I just either don’t know what to do with what you said, or I don’t agree with what you said.” However, when we do this as leaders, we are dismissing the emotional drivers that are underneath the logical data.


The Economist (LINK here!) surveyed over 4,000 professionals and found a “sharp divergence emerged between skills that the C-Suite executives think they need and those that their employees want them to prioritize.” C-level executives felt that technology and finance were the two areas where they needed to increase their skills. However, the lower ranking staff reported that their bosses need to increase their emotional intelligence and leadership chops.


I find it interesting that team members equate leadership strength, or being a great leader, is about how the leader makes them feel as a contributing part of the team.


I find it interesting that team members equate leadership strength, or being a great leader, is about how the leader makes them feel as a contributing part of the team. What is clearly ironic is that these C-Level leaders would not be in the flow charts as leaders if they hadn’t proven tremendous skills to lead. So, what is the confusion between the two about?


What team members, spouses and our children want from us is “emotional intelligence.” Or to be more specific, what they want is to be seen, known and searched within their own transference of communication data. The words we use often are incapable of carrying the deeper emotional happenings that the communicator is dealing with. There can be a powder keg of energy behind simple words.


Let’s take a step back and think about our childhood. When traumatic, distressing events took place within our family of origin – when we are injured in our attachment to Mom or Dad – our brains moved to fragmentation. In the intensity of the moment, due partly to the lack of the development of segments of our brains, our brains processed the moment for survival first, and then how to strategize for even an illusion of belonging. Fragmentation means our brains were incapable of assessing the motives and intentions of our offenders. Our memories can be accessed with various details of the hurt. However, it is rare that someone is able to appropriately see “why” the offender did what they did.


When we dissociate data from the deeper emotional drivers, we lose most of our connection with them.


What I am describing is the dissociation of facts from the deeper reality. We are trained to repress emotions and shut down the mind-mapping of the other person’s intentions. This in turn trains our brains to only listen to data. We tend to only “see” the other person’s ideas as concepts. We tend to only focus on the other person’s competence to articulate a position, a reasoning, or to sell and idea. When we dissociate data from the deeper emotional drivers, we lose most of our connection with them. And of course, people feel like they spewed words but were not “listened to.”


Emotional listening is when we are equally, if not more, concerned about a person’s emotions than the cognitive data they present.


An example is:


Bob is an accomplished and highly gifted musician and worship team member. He feels he doesn’t have the liberty to worship, sing, and explore musically with the innovations he desires. He feels he gets bored while playing the same old songs… songs he could play in his sleep. His frustration is partly accredited in his mind to the Worship Leader’s structure, required practice, and hitting a timeline. Follow the typical cognitive-based listening between Bob and Pastor Jack.


Bob: Pastor, I don’t feel I have the liberty to play and sing and explore innovatively. I’m really, really frustrated.


Pastor Jack: Tell me more. Can you tell me what you mean when you say you don’t have liberty?


Bob: There is no room for me to do fun things instrumentally. I think there are so many cool and effective musical things we could be doing. The structure of playing the piano exactly like the sample-recordings lacks creativity and is mind-numbing to me.


Pastor Jack: I know Joe (the Worship Leader) likes the baseline to be faithfulness to preparation. When you prepare like the other team members you set a tone within our culture that honors the rest of the team. Are you preparing each week?


Bob: No. I know I need to do better. However, I can do those songs without any preparation.


Pastor Jack: Do you see value in the team culture for you to prepare for worship sets like everyone else? Do you see yourself as an influencer and leader yourself? Do you think there is currency is modeling preparation practices?


Bob: Well, sure. But I just want to do some things innovatively. I want to do creative things.


Pastor Jack: Again, can you see that Joe (Worship Leader) is wanting to set a baseline of cultural excellence first, then give permission and empowerment to create from that baseline


Bob: Yes.


In this scenario Pastor Jack takes on the role of “fixer.” He is interested in mitigating the problem with truth and clarity. However, Bob walks away frustrated.


Bob feels he used his best language to share his desires. To Bob, his request seems simple, and feels it is stupid that he must ask for it. He feels it should be obvious that everyone would experience a greater worship set if musicians were able to do what they are gifted for.


Pastor Jack walks away knowing that Bob isn’t satisfied. So, Pastor Jack goes home. Over dinner his wife asks how the meeting with Bob went. Pastor Jack gives her the dialogue of the meeting. He defends his positions, based on the logic in his mind, and replays multiple reasons for his position. In his mind, Bob is confused and being difficult, and no matter what is offered Bob, he is still going to be frustrated. Pastor Jack makes up his mind that there is nothing more I can offer.


The end of this story is that neither Bob nor Pastor Jack feel seen, known, searched, or validated. Why? I believe it is because listening was limited to the transfer of cognitive information. The Pastor was not trained to listen for emotions, or to look at distress in the face, or to read non-verbal signaling. Pastor Jack was never trained to explore these ideas in Bob over months and years of being together. Pastor Jack has never done his own Story-Work, therefore is unaware when emotions show up in staff, or what the emotions mean to Bob when he shares his needs.


When a person is skilled in knowing the emotional evolution of their own story, they become much more attuned to the greater stories of those they lead.


When a person is skilled in knowing the emotional evolution of their own story, they become much more attuned to the greater stories of those they lead. A whole plethora of insights could be explored by noting the voice tones, the intensity of energy, examining the posture, and the angst in the soul. These insights would then be associated to the broader life story of Bob, how his childhood formed in him deep seated emotional beliefs, that how he desires that his present authority - Pastor Jack – will satisfy it for him. These insights would form into themes throughout Bob’s life, to help identify patterns of relational behavior and attaching.


What if this scenario could have played out differently? What if Pastor Jack had of listened with emotional ears, scanning for all markers of emotion? What if Pastor Jack had of previously picked up on the nuances of Bob’s family of origin story, and was able to explore with Bob what he was feeling here?


Emotions tell a deep story. Once explored, a new story begins to emerge.


Emotions tell a deep story. Once explored, a new story begins to emerge. One of the symptoms the Pastor had noticed of Bob over the months and years is that Bob often presents a passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggression is when a person is aggressive indirectly, rather than directly. Common symptoms are making excuses, blaming others, playing the victim, sarcasm, and feigning compliance with requests. The Pastor has seen all of these in Bob. An opportunity to explore the patterns, rather than demonize Bob for expressing them as he does, can create intense trust moving forward.


If Pastor Jack had of been trained in Story, through searching out his own Story-Work, he would have picked up on the psychological root systems that brought us to this moment.


You see, Bob’s childhood story of attachment is one where he often felt unseen, unheard, invisible. Both his Mom and Dad, from birth were unattuned to Bob. The only thing that he was celebrated for was his music. He often felt powerless growing up. His parent’s style of parenting taught Bob to not be seen, or to show up, or to self-advocate for his needs. This has set Bob up to survive by passive-aggression. Now as an adult, when Bob feels unseen or invisible, he defaults to patterns of blaming others for his emotional distress and powerlessness.


When Bob feels that he wants something, he tends to feel powerless to get what he desires. Bob’s brain had evolved to believe he only has power when he engages tactics requiring others to give him power. These tactics are his playbook of passive-aggressive schemes. He does them to get what he wants, but often doesn’t get what he wants, so he feels the recurring pain that he is unseen, unheard, unknown, and invisible. He wants Pastor Jack to make him feel what his own family forged his brain to not feel.


What if this scenario unfolded with emotional listening? We begin with the exact same dialogue as before. But this time we expand beyond the cognitive and move to the emotional. While this dialogue below is romantic and perfect, I think you will get the jest of what emotional listening is shooting for.


Bob: Pastor, I don’t feel I have the liberty to play and sing and explore innovatively. I’m frustrated.


Pastor Jack: Tell me more. Can you tell me what you mean when you say you don’t have liberty?


Bob: There is no room for me to do fun things instrumentally. I think there are so many cool and effective musical things we could be doing. The structure of playing the piano exactly like the sample-recordings lacks creativity and is mind-numbing to me. And I don’t feel that Joe (Worship Leader) and you are listening to my desires.


Pastor Jack: Bob. Thank you for inviting me into your heart and soul, for being vulnerable to let me know what you are experiencing. I am so sorry that you feel that way. I know what it is like to be frustrated and feel unheard. I don’t like that feeling when it happens to me. Tell me more of what it feels like when you feel unheard by us.


Bob: Well. I feel like I have so much more to offer. I present ideas and they aren’t acknowledged. I become frustrated.


Pastor Jack: Describe the emotions involved and what it feels like for you to be frustrated.


Bob: I begin to experience being perturbed, then bewildered, then confused, then powerless, and finally either angry or shut down.


Pastor Jack: I can only imagine how that makes you feel. Again, thanks for letting me know your progression. I invite you to be more open to dialogue as you attune to the emotional experiencing in the moments they are happening. I’d love to co-regulate with you in those moments, even if I’m the one triggering the experience for you. Would you be willing to do that?


Bob: I think so.


Pastor Jack: Bob, can we talk a little more about this? I’m bidding for a deeper connection with you. I am very interested in you as a person.


Bob: Sure.