The Seven Habits for Attraction Leaders – Part Five: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood


Early in my career, I learned what it means to "seek first to understand, then to be understood." More specifically, I learned a valuable lesson about the power of active listening. Although I might have believed in my young mind that I had the answers to everything, I did not. Actively listening means that we are not only open to the ideas of others but that we listen to them first. We absorb. We ask questions. Then, we demonstrate our understanding by summarizing what the other person said.


While born and raised in Southern California, I always tell people that I grew up professionally in Las Vegas. More specifically, I tell them that I developed my professional philosophy while working in the Attractions department at the Luxor Hotel. Over my first seven years at Luxor, I grew as a leader, learning skills, and growing my experience. In late 2000, my boss offered me an exciting opportunity—to lead the ticketing team. I accepted a position as the Manager of Ticketing.

Seek First to Understand.

I was excited. New challenges. New problems to solve. But there was a problem. Some who reported to me saw me as a threat. They believed that I was going to come in without knowing anything about ticketing and immediately start to change things. They were half right.

It was true that I had been tapped for the role because ticketing needed fixing. What they did not know was that my boss had also given me a great piece of advice. Don’t do anything at first. Just listen and observe. Remember, I didn’t know much about ticketing operations and so this was great advice. Over the next few months, I began to understand each of the challenges that my ticketing operation faced. Finally, it was time to begin finding solutions.

The Path to Solutions.

Initially, it was slow-going. My Leads were territorial and resistant to change. I wanted to fix ticketing but I needed buy-in from my Leads. That’s when I started holding brainstorming meetings.

Each week, I would meet with my Leads in my office. We would sit in a large circle and go around the circle, identifying problems, and trying to find solutions. For the first few meetings, there was a lot of noise and very little problem-solving going on. I left the meeting with my head pounding and blood rushing--why wouldn’t they just understand where I was coming from? How could we ever begin to tackle the real challenges within ticketing with everyone on my team so at odds?


Then, one day it dawned on me. I was asking my Leads to focus on the problem--which they were--instead of finding solutions. The next day, I called them all into my office and explained my revelation. “Going forward, I need each of you to bring three potential solutions to the table for every related problem. That way, each of you is thinking through the challenge and coming up with some great alternatives all week long. When we get together each week, I think we’ll be more productive.”

The Indian Talking Stick.

Problem solving begins with active listening. Problem solving should never be an ultimatum. It should never include the phrase "it's my way or the highway.” Active listening means understanding where the other party is coming from and then demonstrating that understanding with empathy and respect. Proving to the other person, without a doubt, that you actually listened to them. To demonstrate the idea of active listening, the late, great Stephen Covey often told the story of the Indian Talking Stick.

The idea is that only the person holding the stick gets to make their point and they continue to speak on this point until they feel they have been understood. The other person(s) are only permitted to speak in so far as they need to clarify or reflect to demonstrate that they have understood the speaker. Once the speaker feels that everyone understands his/her point, they pass the stick to the next person who has the same opportunity to make their point. This continues within the group until everyone has made their point.

Powerful Results.

During my time in ticketing, I learned a lot about interpersonal skills, problem solving, and active listening. More importantly, I learned that the best way to solve problems was to work together as a team. I found that collaborating helped us to unlock solutions that none of us would have thought of alone. Finally, I saw how developing solutions together brought my team closer together. They became closer, more supportive of each other, and more effective as leaders.

By working together with my Leads to both understand each of the challenges that we faced within our ticketing operation and to critically think about potential solutions, we moved mountains. We reduced the Call Center’s abandonment rate from 35% to 5%, we improved occupancy of the Blue Man Group show from 90% to 98%, and we elevated the guest experience with a series of process improvements and efficiencies that still makes my head spin. We did amazing things…and we did it together as a team of active listeners.

"When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."

Stephen Covey