(Putting Out The F.I.R.E.)

Bad listening skills will hurt your career. They will also hurt your relationships in general. The skill of great listening is intricately tied to our emotions. Can we actually live, let alone listen, without being lead by our emotions? It might not seem possible if you have leaned too heavily on trusting your emotions. Since practically every situation we encounter touches the emotions first, emotional reactions seem only natural. Yet with practice we can slow our emotions down. This allows us the time to choose our behavior and respond rather than react.

We all have our style of reacting. Some people are submarines and some are destroyers. The workplace is full of those who have a tendency for one style over the other. When people react with their emotions the destroyers will throw out depth charges seeking their targets. This creates waves of various sizes and shapes. Submarines are under the surface plotting and maneuvering when to fire the “surprise”. Both types, when following their emotions, create barriers to healthy communication. The tactics are just different. But the results are destructive. Destroyers tend to be extroverted and forceful, and submarines tend to be more introverted and manipulative.

Why is this important to the topic of listening? Every conversation involves four layers. According to Leadership IQ, each of the four layers feeds into the next. The four layers are Facts, Interpretations, Reactions, and Ends (F.I.R.E.). Facts are those things that can be proven empirically. They are rendered true. But it doesn’t stop there. The next layer is the Interpretation of those facts. Now it starts to get dicier. Objectivity is only a wistful illusion. From those interpretations we develop a Reaction that is usually driven by our emotions. And that reaction is directed toward our desired End.

According to all the experts in neurology and emotional intelligence, our brains are wired this way. The danger comes when we don’t know how our brains are wired and we think our reaction is totally rational. But being aware of the way we are wired has tremendous benefits. At the center of our brain is the limbic system that controls our decision making in the context of uncertainty and high stress. These high pressured situations are where we make snap judgments when there is no time to think things through. Immediate reaction is necessary and a mechanistic approach to decision making is not sufficient. The facts are instantly interpreted leading to an appropriate action and desired end.

This works great in a jungle setting. I was recently in Botswana where I experienced this phenomenon on more than one occasion. The main campsite was about 200 yards from my tent. In the dark of night I could hear distant animal noises. Then there came a rustling sound from the bushes. I immediately took flight and retreated up the stairs to my elevated tent in world record time.

The FIRE model was working to perfection and design. The Facts? Sounds of wild animals followed by rustling in the nearby bush. The Interpretation? A lion or leopard which were known to be in the area, and nocturnal as well, i.e. they hunt at night. The Reaction? Move as fast as possible. The End? Make it to the safety of my tent.

Now the problem is that most of the facts we encounter are not life threatening. Yet we tend to treat them the same way. Therefore the flight or fight scenario is really not necessary. But without knowing this and understanding it, we tend to use the FIRE approach by default—and I might add—to our detriment. It takes over the moment we hear trouble. No more facts needed. We have all we need to react.

How might this look in the office? Tim shows up late. There is a team meeting in 15 minutes, and he was supposed to get some materials to the presenter (who happens to be his boss), a half an hour ago. It seems as though people have been careless lately with their time commitments. Nobody seems to be taking the rules of protocol and punctuality seriously anymore. Add to that the seemingly lack of dependability on the part of Tim’s co-workers. So Bill, his boss, has seen all he needs to see. No more facts are necessary. Late is late, which translates into “slothful”, “inconsiderate”, and “undependable”. Bill is normally rational, but enough is enough. So having little current knowledge to go on, Bill makes an immediate interpretation (just like in the jungles of Botswana where my knowledge of lions in the area made me fear a man-eating predator instead of a guinea foul, which it very well could have been).

So Bill goes off, “Tim is late. He doesn’t take this job or its commitments seriously.” The facts have now been interpreted. The reaction follows naturally, along with the desired end. So Bill could set down the law. “You are either late or early. No one is on time. So from now on you be early, or there will be penalties.”

Did Bill have all the facts? Probably not. But once the limbic system takes over, who cares. The dominos will fall. The facts become irrelevant to your system. Not to recognize this process can lead to a faulty interpretation of facts and create a worse situation than originally existed.

Let’s gather more facts since this is NOT a life or death situation. Ask Tim why he was late. You discover he was helping Mary (who had recently had a baby), bring in all the reports that were in boxes too heavy for her to carry by herself. The reports were for the meeting and Tim was making sure they would be there. After all, this was his boss’ meeting.

Taking the time to gather more information, Bill has adjusted his first felt-reaction to an appropriate and productive response. His interpretation of the facts has gone from “a lack of dependability and commitment” to “an act of teamwork and kindness”.

The FIRE model works in the jungle as it was designed to work. But it rarely works in our homes or at the office with colleagues, or on the freeways when tensions are high. So step back, breath, allow your limbic system to relax, get more facts, then determine the appropriate action. Doing this improves your listening skills. One of the most powerful skills for leadership is the same for relationships—listening. Observational Listening is seeing what people do and say—seeing from their perspective. This eliminates the knee jerk reaction and helps you become the leader people depend upon when the stakes are high and emotions are on edge.