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
EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS 1 53
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?