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Amy Kan of The Workplace Initiative On How To Listen Effectively To Succeed Personally And Professionally

An Interview With Doug Noll

It’s hard to be a good listener. We are programmed to want to talk, and to share. It takes effort to stop and to listen. But anyone who has achieved great success will tell you that listening is such an important quality to have. What are some ways that influential people have learned to listen, to succeed both personally and professionally? As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Kan.

Amy Kan is an executive coach, leadership development trainer and advocate for women’s leadership. She is the founder and lead coach at The Workplace Initiative, helping executives, emerging leaders, and teams increase self-awareness, shift mindsets, and build capabilities that make work better. With a foundation in emotional intelligence and using an evidence-based approach, Amy works with her clients to improve relationships, increase productivity, and be better leaders of themselves and others.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was raised by feminist parents who always reinforced an expectation that I be able to support myself, independent of a spouse. They were ahead of their time in some respects, born to The Silent Generation (1928–1945), and both well educated. Both of my parents worked throughout my childhood. My mother, was a teacher most of the time, transitioning into business later on, and my father worked for the same large corporation from the time I was born until his retirement — over thirty years.

My father greatly influenced my ideas about a career, encouraging me to attend business school, and offering advice as I worked my way up the corporate ladder. I didn’t realize how much of an influence on me my father was, until I made the difficult decision to leave my corporate career and become a coach. At the time it felt like I was blowing up my past, while the reality is, I chose this career because of everything that came before it. While my father was no longer alive when I made this great shift, and though it is a different path from what he might have expected, I am sure he would be proud of what I do today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” — Anais Nin. I love this quote because it reminds us that we all have unique perspectives and see things through our own filters. There is no one truth for everyone. How one person views a situation or interaction may be vastly different from someone else. This is central to a lot of the work I do with clients around communication and interpersonal relationships. Once you understand and accept this concept, you can change your position from one of judgement to one of curiosity.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I read “Code of the Extraordinary Mind” by Vishen Lakhiani after I was laid off from my job as a VP of marketing. I was struggling to figure out my next role and this book enabled me to think differently about what was possible and to realize that I didn’t have to keep climbing a corporate ladder, or stay in a marketing career.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly does being a good listener mean?

Being a good listener means listening with the intention to understand. You listen consciously, with focus on the speaker, not on what you will say next (or worse, what you will have for lunch!)

Why is effective listening such an important quality? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

Have you ever been in a situation, a meeting or a social interaction, where you were distracted by thoughts of what you wanted to add to the conversation? Perhaps you were composing the perfect response in your mind. How much were you able to focus on what the speaker was saying?

Effective listening is the other half of effective communication. When you do it well, you go beyond listening solely on the words being said, but how it they are said, the intonation, volume, the body language and even what isn’t being said. If, as in the example I just gave, your mind is elsewhere, how can you possibly take in all of that information?

From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common barriers that hold someone back from being a good listener?

Distractions are a big one. Whether it is being distracted by your own thoughts or your phone, it prevents you from listening fully.

Ego is another big barrier. When someone believes they know the answer, or have the solution, they close themself off to other possibilities. They don’t seek to understand other people’s points-of-view, to build on others’ ideas. They listen to provide a retort.

Judgement is another factor that gets in the way. When you sit in judgement of the other person, their experience, or where they come from, you create a filter for the information you receive. You don’t get the whole thing. For example, perhaps you are in a meeting with someone who is new to your company. You think that she can’t possibly understand the complexity of the work since she hasn’t been there long enough. This information clouds your ability to listen to what she says because you have already made a determination about it — and her — and whatever she says is couched in that judgement.

What are some practical techniques that have helped you become a more effective listener?

This first one is simple, easy and all too often ignored: eliminate unnecessary distractions. In other words, put down your phone. When you are in a conversation with someone, your eyes should be on them, not anywhere else.

Once you’ve got that down, think about being intentional about listening and making the conscious decision to do it. I’ve learned that listening is a skill that takes practice. Shift your mindset to one of curiosity, and your perspective to that of a learner. Whether it is in a team meeting, a one-on-one with someone you manage, or a conversation with your partner or spouse, come into it thinking about what you might learn, instead of what you can teach. When you shift to that perspective, you are more likely to ask questions than provide answers, and that will deepen your understanding and open up possibilities.

Here is the central question of our discussion. What are five ways that listening effectively can help someone succeed personally and professionally? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1 . You will improve your relationships — Everyone wants to feel they are heard. When you are able to demonstrate that you have heard someone, you show you care and are able to build trust. Not only will it make your relationships better, it will expand them.

2 . You will be more creative. Actively listening, and entering conversations with curiosity, opens up the dialogue. When you ask questions to better understand and go deeper into the conversation, the other person responds with more information and soon, ideas emerge that wouldn’t have been possible before.

3 . You will be better at problem solving. Effective listening leads to greater understanding. The more you understand about a problem, the greater your chances are of solving it.

4 . You will be more productive. Improved relationships and fewer misunderstanding create a more productive, frictionless environment. Less friction enables more to get done.

5 . You will be more collaborative. Collaboration relies on good communication. When you listen to what others are saying, you are more likely to build on their ideas, rather than quash them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

What if everyone loved what they did? I’m on a mission to make work better. Better leaders, better managers, creating better, more human centric, work cultures. It’s a ripple effect. I would love to see more companies embrace conscious leadership and make it a central tenet to how they operate. This means having leadership that is aware, authentic, thoughtful, and present. Of course, being an effective listener is part of that. Conscious leaders make work better.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

As someone who loves to connect, this is a big question! But to narrow it down to one, I’d have to say Simon Sinek. There are many reasons, but one big one is that he is a fellow optimist — and he is proud of it! He is interesting, he interviews interesting people, and I find what he has to say inspiring! Also, I am married to a cynic (not to be confused,) so the idea of lunch with a self-declared, card carrying optimist would be great — which of course I would think, because I am an optimist too!

How can our readers continue to follow your work online?

I publish articles regularly on my company website, that readers can sign up to receive. I am also pretty active on LinkedIn and welcome readers to connect with me there.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on effective listening. It’s such an important skill!

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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