Clarity and Mystery

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While viewing a TedTalk recently, the presenter, a graphic design artist, described the contrasts of clarity and mystery as it pertained to his work in creating layouts for book covers. This got me thinking about how in our daily interactions with people there is often quite a propensity for clarity and mystery relative to the conversation and general interactions we engage in.

flowerIn truth clarity is the antidote to mystery. If you meet somebody for the first time, there is some mystery but time can provide clarity relative to better understanding the individual. When messages are conveyed, there can be mystery relative to the tone, the timing, even the messenger, and in the absence of some clarity, the message can be largely misconstrued. Within our everyday lives whether it’s the news media, politicians or business leaders, there is an element of mystery as we try to better understand biased agendas and uncover the real truth.

When we are in a place of clarity, the mystery is absent and we feel confident. We become informed which ultimately leads to making better decisions. Yes mystery has a place in books and movies but in everyday living, clarity is the epitome of where we want to reside.

So when looking for clarity, what are some key skills that you can employ:

  • Questioning is by far the most obvious, however it must be done correctly so as to solicit the truth. An incorrect answer still leaves a mystery even though you may not realize it. Ask so that it engages the other person.
  • Listening consequently becomes equally critical so that you can analyze what is being said, thus leading to additional questions to get to the core
  • Acknowledgement builds rapport (they are being heard) and consequently will make somebody more inclined to trust and tell the truth

This spiral interaction from Questioning to Listening to Acknowledging and then back into Questioning again is where a mystery can become unraveled and true clarity emerges. Years ago when trying to resolve production problems, the Japanese came up with the concept of asking Why 5 times to ultimately get to the root cause (aka clarity). So as a leader, parent, teacher or coach, when somebody presents you with what seems a mystery, work through the 3 step process above and eventually the clarity will emerge.

Listening – Why is it so difficult?

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In a recent HBS article, Jim Heskett asked the question, has listening become a lost art?  Perhaps the bigger question is why do people find it so difficult to listen in the first place?  We have two ears and one mouth for a reason but some how that seems to have been misplaced along the way.  Perhaps much has to do with the influences of our parents and teachers who were, for the most part, our adult role models.  They definitely spoke more than they listened and consequently we (the kids) had to listen more than we spoke.  Then, on becoming adults, a right of passage emerges and it stealthily bestows permission to speak more and listen less.  In the business world something similar happens when one gets elevated into a leadership positions and the ability to listen mysteriously decreases.

To address this, one needs to reverse the mindset that suggests that the art of speaking is a more valuable skill than the art of listening.  This has also been perpetuated by the fact that the art of public speaking is so prominent; however what we are talking about is conversational, whether one on one or within a group, and is totally different.  Let’s consider why listening is in fact at the core of effective communication and leadership and much more important than speaking.


Most people forget it that by asking the right questions you actually, in a covert manner, control the conversation.  In doing so effectively, you set the tone and agenda!


By allowing others to share their perspective and ideas, they will more readily assume the responsibility and ownership for any action that might subsequently arise.


If you are perceived as somebody that will listen, people will seek you out.  Very often people with challenges do not seek counsel for answers but to have somebody listen.


Surprisingly, listening is far easier than having to come up with all the answers – so why not take the path of least resistance?


By being a good listener you make it about the other person and less about yourself.  Though contrary to what our ego might be telling, this builds great rapport and respect.

These are all admirable qualities in order to exert influence whether through personal or professional interactions.  They are not ego driven but rather effectively leverage the talents of those around you and make you look good.  Is that not what a good parent, teacher, coach and leader should aspire to do in the first place??

Coaching – Simple Concepts / Challenging Execution

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Generally, when one learns what constitutes key coaching skills there is no major surprise as the concepts seem simple – questioning, listening, clarifying, acknowledging, validating etc. Even as one goes deeper such as empowering questions and intuitive listening, people will still offer a nod of understanding as to what these mean. However execution of these skills does not come as natural and why is that?

The main reason is that effective execution of these simple concepts is counter intuitive to how we are brought up. Although well intentioned, the guidance provided by parents, teachers and bosses, tended to be more directing while coaching is much more facilitative. The secret and essence of “doing” good coaching is to be patient with the process and desired outcome.

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