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The power-listening term priming comes from the expression

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

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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?

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