How good are your listening skills? Really good? Enough to bet your life on? Because that's what British woman, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, did last week when she calmly confronted two men who had just slashed another man to death in a busy London street.
Many would have seen the footage of one of the suspects excitedly facing the camera, covered in blood and still holding a knife in his hands. He'd just killed off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby.
When seeing someone injured, Loyau-Kennett jumped off the bus she was on and went to offer first aid. On seeing that the man was already dead, she turned her attention to the two attackers.
As one press report described the scene, "She is slight, dressed in jeans and a navy body warmer, with her hands tucked into her pockets. A daffodil is pinned to her top buttonhole. The attacker, his eyes dark with anger, towers over her. Blood is spattered on the sleeves of his black coat, drops sliding off the knife he clutches in his left hand."
Speaking later about the incident, Loyau-Kennett said, "And then when I went up there was this guy with a revolver and a kitchen knife, he had what looked like butcher's tools and he had a little axe, to cut the bones, and two large knives and he said 'move off the body".
"So I thought 'OK, I don't know what is going on here' and he was covered with blood. I thought I had better start talking to him before he starts attacking somebody else. Okay, I thought obviously he was a bit excited, so I thought the thing was just to talk to him. I thought these people usually have a message so I said 'what do you want?'"
"We want to start a war," one of the men told her. "I will shoot the police when they come. I want to kill them." Looking both men straight in the eye, she replied calmly: "That's not going to happen. I am here and I am going to listen to you."
"Would you like to give me what you have in your hands?" she continued.
As she waited for the police to arrive, Mrs. Loyau-Kennett continued to converse with both suspects without any harm coming to herself.
Some have labelled Loyau-Kennett a hero. Others, including some of her family who obviously although very proud of her actions, have said that it was very "foolhardy".
Her heroism is the point of many discussions, the real question, is how and why did she survive in such a crucial situation?
Now, I've no idea whether Mrs Loyau-Kennett has studied listening or undertaken any critical communication training (perhaps she has as she is a Cub Scout Mistress). However, I do know that the communication principles she used were exactly right for handling difficult situations. And despite some of the difficult situations we managers face, you can't get any more difficult than one that could threaten your life.
So what are the skills Loyau-Kennett used? Can you pick them?
Firstly, she took a non-threatening stance. Although she looked the principal protagonist in the eyes, she stood slightly angled to him with her hands in her pockets. Whilst not subservient, neither was she a threat to him.
Then she engaged him in the conversation. "What do you want?" Instead of threatening him, or saying something silly like "Why did you do that?" she got to the heart of what he wanted – attention to his cause.
Notice too that she was not agreeing with him nor highlighting his cause, she was merely asking "What do you want?"
Then when he answered, "We want to start a war," one of the men told her. "I will shoot the police when they come, I want to kill them" her communication skills really shone through.
She both listened attentively and stood her ground. Looking both men straight in the eye, she replied calmly: "That's not going to happen. I am here and I am going to listen to you."
Throughout the short but intense conversation, Loyau-Kennett's body language spoke of calmness. There were no hand gestures (either in an attempt to calm or otherwise) and her words were carefully chosen, e.g. "weapons" were never mentioned as she said "Would you like to give me what you have in your hands?"
As managers, I trust that the heroic action of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett will live long in your memory, particularly when faced with that difficult or stressful conversation you find yourself in.