Listening until it hurts

Recently I tried a workout at Orangetheory. This is a relatively new exercise franchise offering intense one-hour workouts with running, rowing, lifting, and uncountable numbers of crunches. Everyone wears a heart monitor, and throughout the workout you can check out the monitor to see just how hard you and your heart are working—as well as everybody else in the class.

I was nervous to try a new workout, but every time I glanced up there, my score was green. Green is good, right? It’s aerobic, and aerobic is good, right?

Actually no.

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To score points in the Orangetheory workout, you have to go beyond green. You have to get into the “orange zone” (thus the franchise name, I suppose) or even the red zone. That means not walking, not jogging, not running at a steady clip. That means sprinting, and panting, and gasping for breath.

You get lots of points for orange and red. Not so much for green.

At the end of the workout, the guy next to me had scored 24 points and I got 6. He crushed me even though he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time. He crushed me because he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time.

As I pondered this failure, I wondered whether the lesson might to listening as well.

It seems likely that many of us are sailing comfortably along with our listening and other communication skills. Of course we’re putting out effort. We make eye contact. We use active-listening techniques to paraphrase back important nuggets of the conversation and move it forward. We take notes unobtrusively and follow up with e-mail confirmations.

We’re in the green zone of listening.

What would it look like to move into the orange or even red zone?

Listening is a receptive communication channel (like reading, and in contrast to writing and speaking). To design an Orangetheory program for listening, we would need to raise the intensity level quite a bit. It’s not about trying a little harder on one or two points all the time. It’s taking a short amount of time to listen, radically.

But how would we know that someone was working in the high-intensity range of this receptive skill?

Maybe by measuring the proportion of time spent talking to listening. There is a natural give and take in conversations, but if you’re talking and listening comfortably—for you, subjectively—you may be malingering in the green zone. (See Mark Goulston on “How to Know If You Talk Too Much.”)

Some have suggested an 80-20 rule of focusing on the other person. Steve Yastrow, who writes about improvisation techniques for marketing, says to keep the focus 95 percent about the other person. That is red zone material. That’s hard.

Maybe the mindfulness of the listener to what the speaker is saying. There’s no “brain monitor” for focus—at least no affordable one—but theoretically if the listener’s mind is filled with what to say next and what to eat for dinner, that may not even be in the green zone of listening. It could be the dreaded blue zone, which is literally the zone of pointlessness in Orangetheory because you score no points.

Red-zone listening takes in information in a powerful and efficient way. At the front end of the listening process, focus and memory are as crucial as body strength and VO² max are to powerful workouts.

Maybe one key metric would be whether—and to what extent—the listener feels he or she is actually being listened to.

One reality of exercise and mental processes is that they work only to exhaustion. Attention is a muscle that can be depleted. The body and mind together can be depleted. (Read anything by Daniel Kahneman’s work, or anything about his work. In a study of parole decisions, judges made harsher decisions when they were hungry and tired after hearing several cases.)

But the concept behind any program like Orangetheory is to build capacity by stressing the body. The stress has to be appropriate, but what is appropriate has changed. (See this article from the New York Times on a 12- minute workout that helped veteran runners shave time off their 5Ks simply by a few 10-second spurts of going all out.)

Georgia attorney and magistrate judge Phill Bettis told me about a church mission to West Virginia where he met and talked with a retired coal miner. Phil and I were discussing emotional intelligence and empathy, and how they relate to listening. This was a vivid memory for Phil because he wasn’t sure at first how to find common ground with someone whose life experience had been so very different from his. Phil’s experience might be viewed as one type of “red-zone listening.”

So is listening to someone in grief, or a life crisis. An attorney recently wrote on the Texas Bar Blog about his experience with depression, and how other attorneys may serve as a “patient friend.” No one seeks a conversation like this out in order to hone their own skills, of course. (Actually some people run from them, although those will admit doing so are rare in their honesty.)

Being in such a conversation creates a moment to leave the green zone (the comfort zone) behind. Really listening at such a moment—which regardless of your legal training and expertise may actually be the only way to help—makes all the other efforts pay off, and far beyond what can be quantified in zones a scoreboard.

Here is a related post imagining “Tabata” training for listening.

Photo credit: Courtesy E’Lisa Campbell/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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