Obama: "Start by Listening"

President Barack Obama sent his new Middle-East envoy former-Sen. George Mitchell off to the region last night with one clear directive: "Start by listening." It's good advice not only for Mitchell, but all of us. But what does it mean? Obama made his comments in his first formal interview after being sworn in as president. The interview was with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network, where he said,"What I told (Sen. Mitchell) is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating."

We all dictate to others, and too much. Too often our impulse is to get out in front of problems, opportunities, and daily hiccups, by attempting to demonstrate our "strong leadership," our vigorous approach, and our expertise. We may think we're listening, but are we?

Sometimes when we're pushed up against the wall, we'll declare, "We need to listen more." But what do we do then? Here are phrases you hear, and what they seem to mean in practice:

� "Listen up"  --  an admonition for others to listen to us;
� "We�re listening" --  usually code words for a group or individual to position themselves in your eyes (think: a television station saying "We're listening" or a related phrase, "We're on your side!"); � "Listening tour" -- a series of conversations that often end up being "tell and sell" sessions by the sponsoring group, with very little listening ever occurring; � "Listen to me" -- translated as, I really want you to listen to what I have to say, then maybe I'll listen to you; � "I'm all ears" -- sure, until you get your first sentence out and then, "Well, let me tell you what I think."

What's needed is that we actually listen. But sometimes we fail to listen at all, as Obama suggested. Then, there are times when we think we're listening, but are we? For instance, do we know:

� What people are really trying to tell us, even if they cannot find a way to clearly articulate it? � What is most valuable to people in their lives, on a particular issue, or about their community? � How people are defining their concerns -- what web of concerns is at work, and how do the different strands connect to each other? � What emotions are really at work, and what do they tell us?

The Obama directive should be our directive. To create conditions for hope and change in communities will take each of us being open to see and hear others; to be willing to know their pain; to understanding reality in a way that is different from our own take.

Of course, listening alone won�t lead us to the solutions that we must create and implement. But the truth is that without stepping forward to listen, we are likely to remain stuck and stymied and enjoy only fleeting success. The key to unlock here is our own intention and purpose: do we genuinely want to hear others, and are we willing to meet them where they are?

I'll be listening to hear your own thoughts.