I took my older son (he’s 4) on a trip to Phoenix to visit family. Our main outing was to the Phoenix Zoo to see this “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” style exhibit called Big Bugs.
I’m not into bugs, but we scored a great deal on Groupon, so off we went.
The zoo set up these larger-than-life animatronic bugs, complete with information plaques, sound, and movement. My son loved it. When we got back to the house, it came time to remove the paper bracelets that got us into the exhibit.
He didn’t want to take his off.
You know the type of bracelet. It’s the kind that proves you paid to drink at a beer festival—a waxy piece of paper with a sticky part to fasten it, and in this case, a QR code with the words “Groupon Big Bugs” next to it. Very classy.
I immediately assumed he wanted it on for sentimental reasons and gave in. “Okay you can leave it on to show Daddy when we get home.” He nodded. On it stayed.
We went home two days later. I asked him to take it off. He said, “I want to keep it on.”
Again, I filled in the blanks.
“Oh you want to show your friends at preschool?”
I let this go on for a full week, until we had preschool graduation photos the following Monday.
I was desperate. I decided to try a negotiating tactic called “active listening.”
How to Use Active Listening
It sounds crazy that I don’t do this all the time, or that it’s a skill at all.
But “active listening” is another term I learned from the book Never Split the Difference. Active listening means you KEEP listening. You don’t stop when you hear something that confirms your existing bias, which is what most people do. In my case, the bias was that my son wanted to wear his paper bracelet and be constantly reminded of his very special trip with me for the rest of his life, and that he’d eventually graduate high school with a tattered paper Groupon bracelet still clinging to his arm hairs.
With active listening, instead of stopping there, you uncover someone’s true intention.
Chris Voss, the author of Never Split the Difference, calls the true intention the “black swan.”
Another hero of mine, Brene Brown, calls it the “stealth intention.”
How to Uncover “Stealth Intention”
Here is how Brene Brown defines stealth intention: A self-protective motivation that lurks beneath the surface and can drive us to behave outside our values.
She recommends uncovering the stealth intention by simply saying “tell me more,” and then not talking.
So back to my house, the night before preschool graduation photos. Paper beer festival-style bracelet still in tact.
I had already tried full-on bribery: offering a chocolate chip muffin in exchange for the bracelet.
“What if I get you a different bracelet to wear? Like a friendship bracelet”
“What if I let you watch an extra show tonight? We’ll just go cut it off real quick. We can do it while the show is on.”
He paused. I kept my mouth shut this time. I thought about what Chris Voss and Brene Brown would do.
“No thanks. I want to keep it on,” he said.
“Why is that?” I asked. “Tell me more.”
I didn’t make another suggestion in the silence. I let “Tell me more,” linger.
“I don’t want you to put scissors near my arm,” he finally responded.
BINGO! THE BLACK SWAN/ STEALTH INTENTION
You see, I’m pretty clumsy. Known fact in my family. It makes total sense that my son doesn’t want sharp scissors near his arm, especially with me at the helm. But the bracelet was put on too tightly for me to be able to rip it off. I couldn’t get a good grip on it.
“How about Daddy cuts it, instead of Mommy, and he uses your craft scissors? They aren’t pointy.”
“Daddy?” he asked in a tiny voice.
We had a deal.
It was never about the bracelet or the trip or anything I thought. He just didn’t want me coming at him with sharp scissors. His “stealth intention” was to keep his arm attached to his body. But for a full week I never really listened to him. I heard what I wanted, and got no resolution.
“Stealth Intentions” at Work
Now think about how often this type of situation comes up at work, where, unlike a doting/delusional mother to her 4-year-old, our bias is usually to assume the worst about someone; that they are out to get us, or at least to annoy us to death.
Without saying “Tell me more,” and listening actively, we end up with a lot of unnecessary stress.
For instance, when your boss asks you to rework a Power Point for the tenth time, you assume she doesn’t trust your work.
Perhaps her “stealth intention” is to make your meeting with the VP next week go smoothly. If that’s the case, she knows what usually works for that particular VP and is trying to teach you. If you never uncover her true intention, you’ll just go on being annoyed.
Try it. Remember to ask your boss, coworkers, and kids to, “Tell me more,” and listen. Then keep listening, even after the part that confirms your bias. Good luck.