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frime When You’re Getti ng Nowhere

On the other hand, there are times when you may conclude that

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others would like to open up but still don’t feel safe. Or maybe

t hey’re s t i l l in violence, haven ‘t come down from the adrenaline,




and aren’t explaining why they’re angry. When this is the case,

you might want to try priming. Prime when you believe that the

other person still has something to share and might do so with a

little more effort on your part.

The power-listening term priming comes from the expression

“priming the pump.” If you’ve ever worked an old-fashioned

hand pump, you understand the metaphor. With a pump, you

often have to pour some water into it to get it running. Then it

works just fine. When it comes to power listening, sometimes

you have to offer your best guess at what the other person is

thinking or feeling. You have to pour some meaning into the

pool before the other person will do the same.

A few years back, one of the authors was working with an

executive team that had decided to add an afternoon shift to one

of the company’s work areas. The machinery wasn’t being fully

utilized, and the company couldn’t afford to keep the area open

without adding a three-to-midnight crew. This, of course, meant

that the people currently working days would now have to rotate

every two weeks to afternoons. It was a tortured but necessary


As the execs held a meeting to announce the unpopular

change, the existing work crew went silent. They were obviously

unhappy, but nobody would say anything. The operations man­

ager was afraid that people would misinterpret the company’s

actions as nothing more than a grab for more money. In truth,

the area was losing money, but the decision was made with the

current employees in mind. With no second shift, there would be

no jobs. He also knew that asking people to rotate shifts and to

be away from loved ones during the afternoon and evening

would cause horrible burdens.

As people sat silently fuming, the executive did his best to get

them to talk so that they wouldn’t walk away with unresolved

feelings. He mirrored, “I can see you’re upset-who wouldn’t




be? Is there anything we can do?” Nothing. Finally, he primed.

That is, he took his best guess at what they might be thinking,

said it in a way that showed it was okay to talk about it, and then

went on from there. “Are you thinking that the only reason we’re

doing this is to make money? That maybe we don’t care about

your personal lives?”

After a brief pause, someone answered: “Well, it sure looks

like that. Do you have any idea how much trouble this is going

to cause?” Then someone else chimed in and the discussion was

off and running.

Now, this is not the kind of thing you would do unless noth­

ing else has worked. You really want to hear from others, and

you have a very strong idea of what they’re probably thinking.

Priming is an act of good faith, taking risks, becoming vulnera­

ble, and building safety in hopes that others will share their


But What If They’re Wrong?

Sometimes it feels dangerous to sincerely explore the views of

someone whose path is wildly different from your own. He or

she could be completely wrong, and we’re acting calm and col­

lected. This makes us nervous.

To keep ourselves from feeling nervous while exploring others’

paths-no matter how different or wrong they seem-remember

we’re trying to understand their point of view, not necessarily

agree with it or support it. Understanding doesn’t equate with

agreement. By coming to understand another person’s Path to

Action, we are not accepting it as absolute truth. There will be

plenty of time later for us to share our path as well. For now,

wc’re merely trying to get at what others think in order to under­

stand why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling and doing what

t hey’rc doing.





Now let’s put the several skills together in a single interaction. We’ll

return to Wendy. She has just come home from a date with the guy

who has you frightened. You yank the door open, pull Wendy into

the house, and double-bolt your entrance. Then you talk, sort of.

WENDY: How could you embarrass me like that ! 1 get one

boy to like me, and now he’ll never talk to me again! 1

hate you!

You: That wasn’t a boy. That was a future inmate. You’re

worth more than that. Why are you wasting your time

with him?

WENDY: You’re ruining my life. Leave me alone!

After Wendy’s bedroom door slams shut, you drop down

into a chair in the living room. Your emotions are running

wild. You’re terrified about what could happen if Wendy con­

tinues to see this guy. You’re hurt that she said she hated you.

You feel that your relationship with her is spiraling out of


So you ask yourself, “What do 1 really want?” As you mull this

question over, your motives change. The goals of controlling

Wendy and defending your pride drop from the top to the bottom

of your list. The goal that’s now at the top looks a bit more inspir­

ing: “I want to understand what she’s feeling. 1 want a good rela­

tionship with Wendy. And I want her to make choices that will

make her happy.”

You’re not sure if tonight is the best or worst time to talk, but you

know that talking is the only path forward. So you give it a shot.

You: (Tapping on door.) Wendy? May I talk with you


WENDY: Whatever.




(You enter her room and sit on her bed. )

YOU: I’m really sorry for embarrassing you like that. That

was a bad way to handle it. [Apologize to build safety]

WENDY: It’s just that you do that a lot. It’s like you want to

control everything in my life.

YOU: Can we talk about that? [Ask]

WENDY: (Sounding angry) It’s no big deal. You’re the par­

ent, right?

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