John Engels

Founder and President, Leadership Coaching

Listening: Four Strategies for “Tuning In”

I know a few people who are natural listeners.

These individuals seem to possess an inner stillness and natural curiosity that enables them to intuitively grasp another’s content, meaning and feelings. They listen not only with their ears, but with their eyes, heads and hearts.

When in the presence of an exquisite listener, a speaker is likely to feel tremendous freedom, greater clarity and emotional relief. In a relatively short period of time, tightness, confusion and isolation can be moderated, simply by being listened to.

Despite these benefits, listening is becoming not only rare, but devalued. Most leaders I know function as if they believe their words are more important than what others have to say.

Increasingly, we leave no time to listen. In a fast-paced and often frantic society, who’s interested in stopping the busyness long enough to really tune in to someone else?

I want to confess that I do not belong to the Natural Listeners Club. I have to work at it. Every day. And even when I concentrate, I catch myself making the usual listening mistakes:

  • Wandering away from the speaker by getting lost in my own thoughts.
  • Rehearsing to myself what I am about to say, while the other is talking.
  • Interrupting so I won’t forget my thought, and because I think it’s brilliant.
  • Listening for a point of disagreement that I can pounce on.
  • Cutting someone off because I’m in a hurry, sometimes finishing their sentences due to impatience.

To counter these automatic, selfish tendencies, I decided a while back to re-invent my listening practice. Here are four ideas and strategies that have become useful to me:

1. Listen to My Self

If I cannot pay attention to myself, how in the world will I ever be able to listen to another? As fast as I move from meeting to meeting, I’ve discovered that I move even faster inside my brain. Is there a way for me to calm down?How can I drop the preoccupations and be present, right here, right now? What’s going on with me at this moment?

I have spoken with numerous colleagues and friends who meditate, reflect, pray, journal, use neurofeedback or walk outside. The common denominator in these practices is “quieting the mind.” The rule of “one size fits one” operates here: each must discover for themselves how to “quiet the mind.” The desired outcome is improving my ability to stay calm and focused.

No matter what method I use to slow down and prepare to receive another, it sets me up to be a better listener.

2. Develop an Intention

What’s a bigger challenge: knowing HOW to listen, or WANTING to listen?

I try to begin my interactions with a simple, internal intention to listen. Developing that intention changes my mindset. It’s simply the case that I listen better when I INTEND to listen.

Here are some specific intentions I whisper to myself as I prepare for a discussion:

  • “I want to learn as much as I can about this person.”
  • “I want to observe and hear what is going on with her.”
  • “I want to take in what he’s communicating to me.”
  • “I want to get as much detail as I can and not jump to conclusions.”

3. Pause Before Responding

After the speaker finishes a thought, an intentional, few-seconds delay “holds” what has just been said, as if in a sacred vessel. By slowing the pace of the exchange, pausing:

  • Regulates reactivity impulses while expanding the emotional space for connecting
  • Enables deeper understanding of the message
  • Supplies the space for formulating a thoughtful response

4. Communicate, “I’m hearing you”

It’s important for me to let the other know that I am paying attention to them and hearing their message (which might be a thought, a feeling, a complaint or a question).

The “I’m hearing you” message can be sent verbally, vocally or visually, for example:

  • Making eye contact
  • Taking notes
  • Deleting distractions
  • Reflecting back to the speaker what you are hearing
  • Verbally articulating, “I hear you,” “I’m following you,” etc.
  • Inserting vocalizations that express attentiveness, e.g.. “hmmm…

Listening attentively establishes an important foundation for coaching. I’ve found that when I listen well, whatever I say after that seems to be considered more carefully by the person I listened to.

In that way, robust listening helps credibility as well as understanding.

Can any coaching strategy be more important than that?

Michael Trabold

Director, Compliance Risk, Paychex

Affordable Care Act Regulatory Reminders

Earlier this year, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) was introduced with mixed reviews. As Congress took the bill through its first steps in the legislative journey, many business owners and individuals wondered what the legislation would mean for them, until the impending vote in the U.S. House of Representatives was abruptly halted and the bill was pulled due to a lack of the necessary votes to pass.

While the GOP may begin to work on an alternate proposal to repeal and replace the ACA and all legislators are being encouraged to work together to improve the potential replacement legislation, House Speaker Paul Ryan has stated the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will remain the law of the land for the foreseeable future.

That said, it is important that Applicable Large Employers (ALEs) understand their regulatory obligations under the ACA. Here are a few ACA requirements to keep in mind moving forward:

  • ALEs (generally defined as companies with 50 or more full-time employees, including full-time equivalent employees) must offer adequate and affordable health insurance coverage to full-time employees and their dependents. If even one full-time employee receives a premium tax credit to purchase coverage through a marketplace, the company risks being charged a penalty.
  • ALEs must continue to file and furnish timely and accurate annual information returns relating to the health insurance that the employer offers to its full-time employees.
  • Employers filing 250 or more Forms W-2 must report the cost of certain employer-sponsored health benefits on the forms.
  • Employers are required to provide written notice to all employees about health coverage options, including information about the existence of a health insurance marketplace and a description of services provided by the marketplace.

Health care policy will undoubtedly remain a hot topic in the months and potentially years to come, but until a replacement bill is passed, the requirements of the ACA still apply. Paychex will be there to keep you informed of regulations that impact you, your firm, and your clients along the way.

Mike Trabold is director of compliance risk for Paychex, Inc. Paychex is a leading provider of human capital management solutions for small- to medium-sized businesses.

John Engels

Founder and President, Leadership Coaching

The Comfort of Certainty

Like most humans, I have a strong bias towards certainty.

When my wife became pregnant for the first time, I rushed to a bookstore to purchase three books on how to get ready for a baby. Reading the books calmed me down. I now had confidence that I now knew how to behave in the delivery room, change a diaper, speak in a soothing voice to both baby and mom.

Of course, it turned out that I didn't know much about any of these. In the delivery room, I offered ice chips – a "sure bet," the book said – at exactly the wrong moment, and the chips went flying. My first diaper change was what you might call a smear job. It would have been more sanitary to not change the diaper at all. As for my soothing voice, I found that I could only produce that unnatural state when I thought to produce it. Almost never.

The books offered some good suggestions, but the confidence produced by my reading – "Now, I know what I'm doing" – proved to be an illusion.

Emotional Comfort Food

Certainty – "emotional comfort food" – is always available to reassure us that we are right, and that we know what we're doing.

A "certainty" mindset baits us to believe that an anticipated graduate degree will lead to exciting career opportunities, that a long-term marriage will happily last for a lifetime, that a major financial deal will anchor a year of growth and that a founder's euphoria about his adult child joining the family business will be vindicated by that child becoming a strong leader. "It's going to happen the way I've planned it," we think to ourselves.

But as the diaper and the delivery room examples proved, certainty is not a reliable assumption. While "thinking I know" initially buoys confidence, it often disappoints.

The Land of Getting Real

Assuming we are right, and "feeling sure" are automatic, entrenched tendencies not easily counter-acted. We hold on to our certainties like babes with blankies.

Combating such a powerful bias requires entering "the Land of Getting Real," pushing ourselves to think about information we don't want to think about, consider possibilities we would rather conceal, and pay attention to data that disturbs our comfort.

It's one thing to notice the over-zealous religious beliefs, faulty relationship premises and bad business decisions of others. It's another matter to observe certainty suppositions in ourselves.

The Land of Getting Real offers the possibility of frightening and refreshing honesty with ourselves, about our own phony certainty. Taking the journey into this land proves how something uncomfortable and upsetting can make us stronger.

Consider these examples:

  • The leader of a large religious congregation decided to "come down from the pulpit" and share with his congregation his doubts about God. While at first he feared such exposure, his decision proved a breakthrough in reversing the remoteness many experienced in approaching him. One senior church member said, "I guess if everyone were certain about God, we wouldn't need faith."
  • The co-head of a family business stopped pretending that he knew what was best for the business just because his dad anointed him as successor. He pulled together his siblings and cousins, soliciting their ideas and hopes for the future of the business. This effort gave him new and useful data; more importantly, it reduced the pressure he felt to produce answers he didn't have, and created valuable give-and-take dialogue with other family members working in the business.
  • The head of a medical practice recently told me: "People treat us (physicians) as if we know more than we know. In the past few years, I have found myself saying 'I don't know the answer to your question,' or 'I don't have a simple response – it depends on many factors.' The vast majority of my patients respect that candor as long as it is genuine and not avoidant."

These examples share a common trait: each one of the subjects confronted the limits of his/her awareness and knowledge. Remoteness, cockiness and claims of expertise decreased. Relationship connection increased.

Yet, not everyone wants to question their certainty. When he heard my suspicions about being sure, Roy, a long-time client, pushed back:

Roy: So what am I supposed to do, pretend I don't know anything?

John: Why pretend? I'm saying look closely at your convictions and try to examine your assumptions for any fakery.

Roy: Such as what?

John: Do you ever catch yourself sounding sure of a view or decision, when, upon closer examination, you are not actually certain at all? Or closing off ideas from others because your idea is supposedly sure-fire?

Roy: It sounds like a lot of work to think about this all the time.

John: Is that a problem?

Roy: I'm not sure I have the energy to examine everything I feel reasonably certain about.

John: "Everything" might be asking too much. What about looking at how certain you come across in one or two important relationships?

Roy: I think that could have some merit.

"Could have some merit" might be an under-statement.

Come to think of it, I am certain about one thing: Just because we happen to be parents, presidents, partners or politicians doesn't mean we know what we're talking about.

Matt West

Account Executive,

The Power of Video

Opening my inbox, I'm constantly bombarded with an overused and ineffective methodology of communication, that at one point, was innovative. Step into the time machine: I remember being in my college computer lab (in the basement of the honors dorm, on the old DOS machines) sending my first email. My how things have changed. I even remember the first time I sent an email from my phone. I was on a Boeing 737 at the gate awaiting to be pushed back.

Back to present: We are living in the wonderful golden age of technology where it pays to be on the forefront, while staying weary of the bleeding edge. To that end, we are still people wanting to communicate with others. Technology improves the mechanics of communication, however; sometimes what is missing is the human element. We can’t ignore, until West World becomes a reality, we are still communicating with other people.

In this golden digital age, we have Facebook, texting, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and many more emerging social media platforms. We have more opportunities to communicate than ever before…is anyone truly listening?

Let's look at some facts, people trust what they can see. Seeing is believing. When we read emails automatically generated from a server, we can see and assume, the message is lacking authenticity as it’s probably not addressing any of our needs. The message is usually bland, ubiquitous, and aiming at a small open rate of 2-3%. Normally, we will tune these messages out, much like tuning out commercials as we did 10 years ago (before satellite radio). [I get a chuckle when I get an email from my purported long lost relative who left me millions, but all I need to do is give my credit card to unlock the funds]

If only there was a way to splice technology into the human needs of communication. This technology would include visual, nonverbal, verbal ques, tonality, eye contact and many other features people rely upon when having face-to-face interactions.

Obviously, this technology has been around for quite some time and in many electronic venues, but not until recently did it impact the world of email. When was the last time you looked at tools available for more effective communication strategies via email?

Video emailing is one of those "I wish I thought of that" ideas, much like Bitcoin, Uber and all the wonderful emerging technologies. Video email instantly and effectively records a video message and inserts a video link into thumbnail within the body of your email. The video is then stored on a remote server which is secure and the content is controllable by the end user.

But wait, it doesn't just end there. A good video email system has wonderful metric tracking. You can see how many times your video has been watched and how engaged the end user was in the message. What's more, you can see if the recipient watched the entire message or at what point did they drop off.

The video email system I use, is Covideo. I started my use of video email in early 2013. At that time, it was bleeding edge technology, with slim adoption. What astounded me, was my video email open/watch rate hovered around 70%. My custom and personalized Video email message was received 70% of the time I sent it, versus 2-3% when using regular email. Four years and 3,000 video emails later, my open rate has increased to 90%. The result points to a mass adoption of video emails.

Opportunities for using video email? In my opinion, the prospects are endless. I was sitting in a CPE session last month, when a partner of a large firm said "if only I could attach a video message when I send out my engagement letter". Sir, that technology does exist.

Personally, I use Video email in three main categories: initial introductions, alternative to voicemail & sharing praise or recognition.

All the time, I get the response of “wow, what a cool technology!!” It gives such a strong message that I'm propelled to the forefront, I've mastered technology and most importantly I'm human being.

My advice is to take some time and review all the emerging digital communication tools out there and then use them.

Samantha Mansfield

Director of Professional Development & Community,

Mentor, Mentee Relationship - How does it work?

The first time I was asked to be a mentor, a wave of honor and panic washed over me. Someone wanted my input on their career path and success; I was humbled they would ask me. Then, the anxiety of, what does a good mentor do, set in.

Over the course of my career, there were a number of people I would say served as mentors to me, and all had very different styles and approaches; some more effective than others. As the mentee, I owned what I got out of it, and sadly I did not leverage those opportunities to the max because I wasn’t sure what was too much to ask of a mentor.

Recently, I was at the Digital CPA Conference and the speakers shared excellent information that helps the mentor and mentee have better expectations and have a fruitful relationship:

You are not there to answer questions; you are there to ask them.

  • Now who is that statement geared to? If you said mentee, that is true, but I’m also speaking to the mentor. A mentee should come with questions, but a quality mentor should ask the mentee challenging questions back. No one knows you better than you. No one knows the full details of a situation better than you! So no one better than you, mentee, to develop the solution. This does not take the mentor off the hook! You have to be engaged; ask the questions you know the mentee has to address. What would you have wanted someone to make you look at to make a better decision? Your inclination will be to share, “This is what I would do…” Though that is comforting to hear, is it what your mentee should do?

It will get uncomfortable

  • John Engels said, “Why do you want to keep others from discomfort? It is what helps us grow and develop, and helped us get where we are.” How true is that!? We have to learn to think through and deal with challenging situations. The mentor should coach the mentee on the questions to ask themselves, therefore, training how to analyze and think through similar situations in the future. Mentee, your mentor is NOT there to give instant gratification of an immediate answer. We are in a world of on demand, but some things just take time. Simon Sinek (spoke at 2013 DCPA) recently recorded a video discussing millennials in the workplace and called out there is no app for building skills, relationships and trust (highly recommend watching this video). Be patient, mentor and mentee, depending on the situation, it may take you both a little while to find the answer.


  • Mentors can be of all ages, social standings, and professions. Don’t create a stereotype in your mind, but look for a diverse mix of mentors. This has been something I was quite blessed to have and look back with appreciation.

As we venture into 2017, set a goal to establish mentoring relationships, be it formal and informal ones. If you need help finding a mentor or mentee, AICPA is piloting a program; check out the process – all are welcome. A good mentor is a coach, not an advisor. Be the best coach and be an attentive student.

What was the best attribute of one of your mentors?