I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.
– Ernest Hemingway
Ernesto Sirolli, in his TED talk in 2012, describes his experience as a young aid worker in Africa in the 1970s. Fired with enthusiasm to make the continent a better place, he and his colleagues initiated a project to bring agriculture to a fertile valley close to the Zambesi river. They planted crops which were widely grown in Italy, such as tomatoes and zucchini. In the warm, moist climate the crops flourished, growing to sizes never seen back at home. The aid workers gave themselves a pat on the back for ‘saving’ the local people from starvation.
One night, without warning, two hundred hippos came out of the river and ate every single tomato, zucchini and all the other crops.
‘Why didn’t you tell us about the hippos?’ asked the despairing aid workers.
‘You never asked!’ said the local people. ‘That’s why we don’t have agriculture.’
Since then, Sirolli has built a career as a sustainable business entrepreneur, helping thousands of micro-businesses in developing countries to grow and develop. He summarises his approach in four words: ‘Shut up and listen!
Why listening is important
Listening is one of the central tasks of relationship, whether at work or in our personal lives. By really hearing what another person has to say, and directing our attention towards that person, we show our respect for their world view, even though it may differ from our own. When we listen with full attention, and without judgement, to the detail of someone else’s story, they feel validated as a whole person, not as someone who needs to edit themselves to be acceptable. Far from inflaming the situation, listening to someone who may be agitated or critical calms them, allowing them to consider other interpretations and possibilities. The person who can never be fully heard knocks even louder on the door, always hoping for that experience of actually having someone listen.
In organisations, at any one time, there will be a plethora of differing views in circulation, all seeking to be heard. While we all know that open and uncensored discussion is a condition of healthy organisations, one of the most frequent complaints of employees at all levels is feeling unheard. Recent statistics in the UK indicate that almost half of UK employees will be seeking a new job in 2016, citing ‘poor management’ as the main reason:
The same article quotes Paul Devoy, Head of ‘Investors In People’, who suggests that workplace happiness would be much improved by:
‘involving employees in decisions and giving them responsibility over their work.’
That is certainly the aim in every workplace, but it seems that the UK workforce, at least, doesn’t feel that it is happening.
What is difficult about listening?
So, why don’t we listen better in our daily work and home lives? Time is certainly a key factor. It takes more minutes to listen to a range of viewpoints than to issue a set of guidelines about the implementation of a new initiative. And yet, Barack Obama has the reputation of being a great listener, in spite of being entrusted with what must be one of the most demanding job roles in the world. Listening doesn’t need to take hours. In fact, little and often is much more effective. Also, as every therapist knows, both listeners and speakers are more comfortable when there are time boundaries. Listeners can make it clear what time they have available for the conversation, with a promise to pick it up again at a later date if needed.
Lack of time is only one part of the story, though. Perhaps the central reason for not making space to listen is that it can creates discomfort in us to hear an opposing viewpoint. People naturally shy away from perceived negativity, believing it to be counterproductive. As a leader, how do you listen to the senior manager who tells you that he deserves a pay rise, when you believe that he needs to apply himself more? If you allow him to have his say, won’t this suggest to him that you are going along with what you feel is an unreasonable request? Isn’t it better to jump in at an early stage so that his hopes aren’t raised, only to be dashed when you tell him how you see things?
If you don’t fully listen to your manager’s reasons for his request, he may go away feeling demoralised and embittered. This is unlikely to inspire him to reinvest in his work and attend to the areas which need improvement. He will be back in six months or a year with the same request, but with increased disappointment. On the other hand, if you can relax sufficiently to listen without intervention on the first occasion, you may prevent this pattern from developing. Ultimately, people are more interested in happiness at work than they are in money. To feel that you are understood and appreciated, even if you can’t yet receive the longed-for increase, is a powerful reason to stay with the organisation.
All relationships are enriched by straight talking and honesty, and that is particularly the case for leadership teams. As Patrick Lencioni argues in ‘The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business’:
‘Contrary to popular wisdom and behaviour, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems.’
Where open discussion is encouraged, it leads to a more dynamic meeting process, with robust conversations producing resilient outcomes. This means that everyone needs to be able to speak and to be heard, and there is a strong case for managing meetings in such a way that no one is permitted to remain silent, or to dominate the proceedings. Lencioni believes that the responsibility for the behavior of leadership teams in this regard lies with the overall leader. If the CEO is open and honest in his or her messages to the group, they will also feel empowered to speak freely.
Leaders are therefore best placed to influence the workplace culture. By modelling and rewarding good listening, leaders are instrumental in implementing a new culture.
How we can become better listeners at work
1) In two-way conversations, or small groups
- Practise active listening by letting each colleague speak without interrupting for a defined period of up to five minutes. Ensure that everyone has the same amount of listening time.
- While you listen, try to let go of any responses you are formulating in your mind. Relax and focus on really understanding what the other person is saying.
- When you speak, ask clarifying questions or summarise what you think you have heard. Don’t judge or try to correct perceived misperceptions.
- Avoid the use of ‘but…’ It’s demoralising to the person who is speaking if your response begins with the words, ‘I see what you’re saying, but…..’
- Only state your point of view when you have demonstrated that you have really understood your colleague’s perspective.
2) In larger meetings
- Establish some ground rules for the group. Make it clear that listening is the new focus, and that everyone will be expected to contribute, both as a speaker and a listener.
- Keep time accurately – clear boundaries create a safe space for the group.
- Welcome dissent as source of creativity. As Jung said, ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’
- Discourage personal attacks. It is intolerable for most people to listen to a long diatribe about their shortcomings.
- As Chair, use the skills of summarising, paraphrasing and asking facilitative questions to keep the meeting contained, and to convey understanding to speakers. Encourage others to use the same techniques.
- Allow sufficient time to wrap up the meeting, identify actions and responsibilities and allow people to ‘come down’ from the discussion so that they can reassume their other duties.
The ‘stress-reducing conversation’
Finally, you cannot be good listener unless you also have someone who listens to you. Identify a trusted colleague, friend or family member who will listen to you in the ways outlined above. Try what John Gottman, the renowned marital therapist, describes as the ‘stress-reducing conversation.’ This means setting aside twenty or thirty minutes at the end of the day – or after the children are in bed – to talk through the events of the day. Each person takes a turn at both speaking and listening. Any topics can be covered except issues about the partner relationship, which would require a different approach. The listener’s role is to pay close attention, demonstrate understanding and empathy, and to be on the speaker’s side. If this exercise is practised regularly, it is a powerful tool for strengthening relationships and reducing stress.
Find out more about John Gottman’s approach to communication in relationships in his best-selling book, ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.’
Jenny Lanyon is an executive coach and organisational consultant, and a consulting partner in ‘Vivos Consulting’. She is also a counsellor with twenty years of experience.
Contact Jenny on +44 7824 811899 if you would like to find out more about her work with leaders and organisations.