An Impossible Job, Angry Authority Figures, And The Power of Focused Listening

A friend has a high stress job.  His works in a large government agency.  External requests come in constantly.  Most are associated with high visibility political issues.  It is critical that each request is processed correctly.  To process the requests, he has to establish coordination across many internal boundaries.  This means that various authority figures are often upset.  He regularly receives wrath from across the agency.  His response is noteworthy.  Here is a recent account.

On Friday around 5:00 PM, one of the highest ranking people in my bureau called me.  He was upset.  He didn’t like an email I sent, and he took issue with my cc’ing other people on the message.  Hearing his anger, I pumped the brakes, giving him my full attention, taking notes, and reflecting back to him what I heard as his concerns.  I also apologized for my part in the process.  I had not taken the time to consider how my email might affect him. I had been focused on speed and transparency.  He also had substantive concerns about a proposal my team was making, and I did my best to listen and respond to those concerns.  By the end of the call, he was making jokes and laughing.

This morning, my immediate supervisor was upset with a colleague I supervise.  My boss expressed her frustration and said she wanted to have a discussion in my team meeting about this issue, a discussion I did not think would be productive.  I went into hyper-listening mode again, reflecting back to her what I was hearing and taking notes on what she said.  The outcome was similar.  In both instances, the conversation started in a negative place, but I left each conversation feeling peaceful.  I am grateful for the power of focused listening.



  • What is focused listening?
  • Why did focused listening lead to positive outcomes in these seemingly impossible situations?
  • How could you acquire the power of focused listening?
  • How could we use the above passage to create a more positive organization?


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