Lessons in Listening

How cooperative teamwork builds momentum

Posted Feb 29, 2012

Author's Note: I began working with Philadelphia Symmetry as a motivational coach in 2011. Since that time, through hard work and dedication, Symmetry has managed to take a team to the US Figure Skating National Synchronized Skating Championships every season. This season, for the first time, they are taking two teams, both Novice and Juvenile, to Colorado Springs. The press release can be found here.

About this time last year I posted a piece on tenacity and teamwork. It was inspired by a synchronized skating team, Philadelphia Symmetry, which rose from overwhelming adversity to capture a berth at the national U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships. Last year's lessons come full circle for those skaters' younger sisters, who represented Symmetry at the 2012 National Championship.

The moment a Symmetry skater steps onto the ice, there is a sense of continuity. From the tiniest beginner to the most seasoned skater are woven the threads of a fabric that define the essence of what makes a team work. Cooperation, flexibility, perseverance and presence are all a part of that fabric, but what binds it together is a willingness to listen—unconditionally.

Listening—truly listening—is an art. It demands that we take ourselves out of the equation. We are not part of the process; we become the process. That's fairly difficult for most of us because of our ingrained tendency to take a "me first!" position in even the most modest of social interactions. We often move from ego (and, quite often, hubris, or pride), intent upon imposing ourselves on whatever situation we confront.

But what if we couldn't? What if our very success or failure depended upon the exact opposite of that tendency? What if we had to exercise a level of such absolute, egalitarian cooperation we stopped being a "you" and became, by necessity, genuinely an "us?" What if we really, truly, completely listened?

Synchronized skating, and the teamwork it inspires, is an almost perfect model for this kind of social dynamic. A dozen or more skaters, moving at incredible speed, inches from one another, holding a razor sharp edge against the unforgiving surface of the ice and depending on each other to be steady, strong and exactly the same.

The thing is it doesn't happen that way. In fact, it's a mess. The skaters are making constant adjustments for the ice, each other's speed, timing, edges, footwork and a thousand other tiny details. But we don't see it.

What we see is a seamless and seemingly effortless expression of artistry and athleticism. We don't see it because they are listening to one another, constantly and unconditionally. No blame, no ego, no hubris, no "me"—just "us." And in that listening we see the elements that make a team truly work—cooperation, flexibility, perseverence and presence.

So, we return to the idea of synchronized skating as a metaphor for the way teams should work. But it is the individual willingness on the part of each skater to listen and respond that makes this and every team a success.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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