In the 1991 song “The Beauty of Gray” the alternative rock band Live offers an important precept for living in and developing an understanding of the world around us (however simple and sometimes unheeded) in the chorus:
This is not a black and white world
To be alive
I say the colours must swirl
And I believe
That maybe today
We will all get to appreciate
The beauty of gray . . .
The lyrics, as with any song, are subject to interpretation, but my own take led me down a path about an important principle in managing people and serving the public — generous listening, or the idea of listening to understand, rather than listening to respond. In the art and science of management (particularly court management), the swirling of colors must (or should) be thoughtfully considered when rendering day-to-day decisions. Of course, there can be some contention in the appropriate application of “The Beauty of Gray” reasoning; that being, if what the songwriter says is true, are there no universal truths? Any ninth-grade algebra teacher would surely disagree. However, if management were simpler than that, I dare say, it would be math.
A court manager understandably must be stingy with her time, given the demands of the position and what must be accomplished within a given workday, week, month, etc. In the context of that limited time, however, it can be all too easy to compartmentalize individuals and their respective problems — good and bad, right and wrong. Ordinarily, whether the manager is cognizant of it or not, her judgment along these ends is based on her own experiences (one side of a multifaceted prism). Good court management, however, requires the ability to see people and the problems they present through many different sides of that prism. So how can the concept of seeing the different shades of gray be applied by the court manager so that it benefits her and those relying on her leadership while not compromising rules and procedures that serve as the basis of the work?
High in the mountains of the Basilicata region, there sits an ancient, yet picturesque village that served as a center of learning for Greek Basilian monks more than 2,000 years ago. The population has diminished considerably during the past few decades, but the town has survived in part through the agricultural tourism that remains a popular attraction. Driving through the valley where the river and flume surround the village, there are hundreds of homes with red terra-cotta roofs that are stacked and built in and around the jagged peaks and rocks of the hilltop. At its highest point, a tenth-century chapel sits in the center of a palazzo, the edges of which rise from a soaring concrete wall that has a dramatic slant on all sides — a fortifying and protective base that the townspeople built in the Middle Ages to fend off potential invaders by rolling boulders down on them.
Toni and I were traveling separately, her for business and me for pleasure, but we would be serendipitously in proximity to one another on an overlapping week, and so we managed to meet at Fucci Café and Gelateria, a place where all the locals gather nightly to chat and watch those strolling through the cool Mediterranean air. The café sits on the one and only road in the town, Via Grande, which swirls around the base of the town up toward its peak like a serpent. Via Grande was either a very sarcastic name coined by the townspeople or one bestowed during a time when the only means of transportation were horses, because the road is narrow. Most vehicles are compact in this part of the world, but despite their small size, drivers on opposite ends of Via Grande must yield to one another as they pass. Driving through the town can make you feel like you’re on one long, continuous drive-through, sometimes getting only a couple of feet from the windows of the local boutiques, shops, and restaurants. Fucci’s reputation thrived by word of mouth, and so for anyone with any time to spare while passing through on their way to a different place with a more beaten path, stopping in for a dessert and coffee was an absolute must.
However popular the venue, there were very few people in the café during that late afternoon hour. Some of them recognized Toni from her last visit a couple of years ago, but the stares fixed on me give me the feeling that they know I’m a visitor who’s essentially being chaperoned. Toni and I are commenting on how good the gelato selection looks through the display case that doubles as a counter. We order an espresso tea, a single shot of espresso that is diluted with black tea and garnished with a lemon rind, and their signature vanilla gelato. The gelato can be topped any number of ways, but I follow Toni’s lead and get mine with caramelized apples and two madeleine cookies that are placed into the frosted glass in a v-formation.
The gentleman behind the counter hands us our gelato and promises to bring us the tea when it’s ready. We decide to sit outside so that the staring would infringe less on our personal space. We grab a couple of aluminum chairs and sit at one of the two cocktail tables that abut the café’s front. It’s warm out, but not humid, and there’s a kind of quietness to the afternoon sun that makes you want to close your eyes and drift away. I can feel the heat beneath my flip-flops coming up from the porcelain tile that’s been cemented on top of the sidewalk. As much as I fight it, the siesta that almost all the locals take is making me rethink the value of this cultural norm.
I take a spoonful of the gelato with a bit of the caramelized apple. The barista walks out with a small round tray carrying our espresso teas and two small cups of water. “You know, Toni, if you’re ever on the lam, you ought to come here,” I bantered.
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Because no one would ever find you.”
Toni chuckled, “It’s the simplicity of this place that I like to retreat to from time to time, but the solitude is also very inviting. It’s actually crowded now.”
“It is,” I said incredulously.
“Yes, the summer months, particularly in August tend to be the busiest. So there’s a lot more people here than you would ordinarily find.”
“If you want to truly enjoy the seclusion of this place, you’ll need to visit during the wintertime.”
“Then for sure they’d never track you down.”
“Ha! I guess if you were looking to get away from the world, this would be one place you could come.”
As I sat back in the chair, I directed Toni’s attention to what appeared to be a framed poster listing a cartoon depiction of the preferred payments when ordering gelato: euro . . . dollar . . . pound . . . mopping floor . . . cleaning dishes. “Take a look, Toni. They’re very flexible in case you’re short on cash,” I joked.
“Yes, I noticed that. It’s new, but I’m happy to see that the owner has developed a sense of humor in his old age.”
“It reminds me of a poster I once saw in the breakroom of one of our civil case management teams.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“They had a print of the ‘top ten’ excuses for failing to respond to a complaint. Sometimes I’d overhear them say, ‘I had two number threes this morning . . . yesterday I had five people who came in with number one.’ In a way, I guess it created camaraderie in the small unit.”
“Well, I’m not sure if there’s a top ten list of the worst ways to develop fellowship in the workplace, but if there is, that would easily make the cut,” Toni said.
“You think so? Why’s that?”
“Because compartmentalizing folks that way shows me that they don’t see the world as being comprised of stories, not facts,” Toni stated.
“That’s a profound and interesting, if I may add, view of the world.”
“I wish it was me who had come up with it, but I modified it a bit from the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who said, ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.’ And it applies to not just the public, but also to the folks you manage. Putting people into yes/no, good/bad compartments saves time, but it also puts up barriers.”
“You’re talking about listening to their circumstances—their stories.”
“Yes, and it doesn’t mean you won’t adhere to the established policy or ultimately arrive at the same decision as if you didn’t engage with them at all. Instead, my point is about the importance of being generous with your time in not only being receptive to their story, but also in having an appreciation for what’s true for this person in front of you.”
“Well, if there’s one thing the court is not in short supply of, it’s stories.”
“Indeed, there’s probably no single workplace where there is greater exposure to the world’s stories. For that reason, being a manager in this particular environment is beneficial because of the breadth that it adds to your overall experience.”
“Agreed, but I think as the years wear on, managers, myself included, can feel that the stories begin to repeat. Kind of like I’ve already seen the plot to this movie.”
“I understand, but that’s the pitfall you must train your mind to avoid. A story may sound familiar to you, but everyone’s story is unique to them. You must distance yourself from your own experiences, but not lose the wisdom that comes from having lived. It’s a management skill that should be honed so that you can remain receptive and appreciative of those stories however similar they may sound.”
The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker talks about the import of stories to a free society stating, “The Greek polis was formed by warriors who came back from the Trojan Wars. They needed a place to tell their stories, because it was only in the stories that they achieved immortality. Democracy was created in order to make the world safe for stories.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, stated, “The limits of my language, means the limits to my world.” These passages reveal an extraordinary truth that public-sector managers must remember to never gloss over; that is, restricting or otherwise not being receptive to the stories individuals seek to tell, results in limiting their world, but just as importantly it limits our own world as well. Indeed, the court being the venue for telling stories, a forum for dispute resolution, the art of listening should always remain a priority skill for managers to continually develop.
In their article “Mindful Listening in Leadership,” Kerry Douglass and John Keyser, speak of how conscientious listening is characteristic of effective leaders. Moreover, they show that a genuine effort to listen to others does not necessarily come at the expense of being an efficient manager. In fact, time spent in the present with an individual’s concern can save future resources involving more time and effort when the same issue may become exacerbated because it was not initially addressed with a level of care and attention. Consider that even a “two-minute” discussion can be well received if the leader is fully engaged and her attention is conveyed in a way that the storyteller feels that they are being understood. In the same vein as the difference between talking and communicating, active listening is distinct from simply hearing what the other person is saying. Comprehension, thus, requires genuine listening and not just the ability to hear.
In his book Just Listen, Mark Goulston discusses nine principles that individuals should attempt to master in helping others feel understood, valued, and interesting. Each of the principles are important, but the four most relevant to the manager’s work in the courts are the following:
- Rewire Yourself to Listen. Consider that even those of us who believe ourselves to be good listeners must recognize that our preconceived notions of others can influence our interpretations of them. To that end, the author suggests focusing on our reactions that are generated by our initial impressions and to temper them by refocusing on which thoughts are based on what is occurring and not on a misperception.
- Make the Other Person Feel Understood. Managers should empathize with others so that they feel understood by focusing their attention on the individual’s feelings as opposed to what he or she is seeking to get from the individual.
- Make People Feel Valuable. Managers should communicate their appreciation on a consistent basis with staff so that everyone is reminded of the value that their work brings to the court. The challenge, as the author notes, is to express an appreciation for even those who are frustrating to deal with, rationalizing that these individuals are more likely to respond positively in the future if they too are extended this kind of appreciation.
- Check Your Dissonance at the Door. Managers can sometimes view themselves through rose-colored glasses, particularly when it comes to how others perceive them. Instead of relying on their instincts, they should enlist persons with whom they trust to give them honest feedback on their communication manner and if a perceived “dissonance” is hampering their ability to reach others as intended.
As with all key management skills, investing the time to develop the ability to genuinely listen with the intention to fully comprehend requires discipline and practice. It takes focus and attention to quiet our mind and make a deliberate choice to step away from our preconceived notions that can crowd out what another person is attempting to communicate. In our brave new world where communication via technology is often more common than face-to-face interactions, the ability to understand an individual’s story is perhaps more important now for management than at any other point in the profession. This nascent skill to understand and appreciate the shades of gray will not solidify misperceptions, but quite the contrary, it ensures a greater level of impartiality that is not colored by prior experiences. It is an integral part of the decision-making process that will be more acceptable to constituents regardless of the outcome because they will feel that the manager respects the experiences that brought them to this place and time. However unquantifiable it may be, an effective court manager must swirl the colors in her daily work and, in this regard, even the high-school algebra teacher would agree.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
About the Author
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.