A year of listening – please help us by completing our survey

We’ve called this year (2018/19) a year of listening. This has been in response to concerns that listening, a critical tool for the communicator, is in danger of being shuffled to the bottom of the pile as we struggle under the pressures of delivering more content, often with less resource.

If it is a year of listening, then it is fair to ask what are we doing about it?

Well, one thing we want to do is listen – to you, our members and colleagues, to hear whether this assertion carries any weight or not. And we are interested in finding out about how communications professionals and organisations are listening to their stakeholders externally and internally.

To help with this, I’d like to invite you to spend no more than five minutes completing a short survey which you can find here

Your feedback will provide valuable input into the state of listening in organisations today. It will also help Mike Pounsford, Kevin Ruck and I to shape a workshop we are running at the IABC EMENA Region conference in February, a workshop we will also look to run in the UK in the spring.

Thank you in advance for completing the survey. If you would like a copy of the report please contact me and I’ll happily send it to you.

Listening – a strategic communication capability

 

“Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.” John P. Kotter

 

I have just been listening to Thomas Bjørn the captain of the victorious European Ryder Cup team.  He said a similar thing to John Kotter when talking about the secret of his team’s success.  He emphasised that success lay in really understanding the motivations and desires of members of the team.  I’m paraphrasing, but he said of his team that: “They are all professionals at the top of their game so winning is not about telling them what to do but listening to understand what matters to them.”

It strikes me that these examples from John Kotter (a change leadership guru) and Thomas Bjørn (a contemporary leader in a highly competitive field) are relevant in this age of rapid digital transformation.

We need leadership communication that inspires, provides clarity of mission and purpose, and that enables people to operate with autonomy.  This is a style of leadership communication that is less about transmission and broadcasting and more about listening, and which places a premium on understanding the perspectives of others and building empathy.

 

The listening leader

Right at the heart of this discussion about change, Kotter’s quote above conveys the essential need to communicate at a personal, emotive level in order to stand a chance of getting people to buy-into new directions and ways of working.  It also captures the insight that inspiring people begins not with broadcasting but with listening.  To “address anxieties” and to “accept anger” requires an ability to be sensitive to, empathise with and tune into the concerns and emotions of the group leaders aim to influence.

 

This implies that the inspirational leader is not the stereotype of the extreme personality or the ego-centric CEO leading the charge.  Rather, the inspirational leader begins not with talking but with listening to what people think and feel.

 

Reflecting on personal experience

Bringing this down to the personal level, consider when you last felt completely engaged and committed to the goals of an organisation that you worked for, or with.  Take a minute to reflect on what drove that engagement.

Based on numerous conversations over the years I have found that a number of themes recur which emphasise how important “local” conversations and empathetic listening are compared to “inspirational” communications from a remote leader.

 

The role of listening and empathy in communicating strategy

In reflecting therefore on the need to develop more conversational approaches to change, and the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations, it strikes me that listening and empathy run through all the things that leaders need to do to communicate their strategy.   But how do you make this happen?

 

  1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision
    This is focused on making meaning for people. Leaders need to give people clarity about what the organisation stands for, who it aims to serve and what things should look like in the future when it is successful. The purpose piece requires a deep commitment to understand what connects customers, stakeholders and employees to an organisation, listening to the difference that it makes to others and what value that difference delivers to them.
  2. Develop shared goals at top
    Ironically often the piece that is missing and that is obvious if it is absent to others. The CEO or leader needs to get the top team to listen to each other and sets the example by ensuing he or she can advocate others points of view as well as his or her own on the way to defining shared goals
  3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what you do well
    Great leaders are sensitive to the things that matter to their employees and will recognise the talismanic quality of old brands or legacy organisations. Rather than dismiss these as outdated they will honour heritage and recognise the skills that went into building these. This is a true test of empathy as one of the common problems is that new CEOs, merged organisations or leadership teams building new brands often discount history and miss the emotional impact old symbols, brands and companies have for people.
  4. Build conversational skills and curiosity
    Genuine conversations involve being present and paying attention to the views of others. If we are waiting to talk we are not really listening and others will spot that lack of authenticity quickly. Effective strategic communication today needs to be cantered around high-quality conversations that allow people to explore the implications of strategy for them. Leaders at all levels need to pay close attention and be curious about the needs of others to earn their right to explain their vision and strategy
  5. Focus on the future
    Strategic conversations focus on how teams can influence events and take more control of their environment. Given the pace of change teams need to be responsive and fast which can only be achieved with leaders who are willing to listen to their teams and empower colleagues to take decisions
  6. Adopt an external perspective
    Strategy and its implementation do not occur in a vacuum. Listening to the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders and paying attention to the actions of competitors and new market entrants ensures relevance and responsiveness
  7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience
    We live in uncertain times, yet we all crave more certainty and knowledge of what may happen in future. Great leaders can invite their people to discuss the implications of future uncertain events and lead conversations on what we can control and what we cannot control. Their ability to listen, empathise and focus on what we can influence helps build capacity for change.
  8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility
    Effective communication and implementation of strategy involves distributing intelligence around a business so that at each point there is a degree of clarity about our role in supporting the bigger picture. By understanding the essentials, we know what to do when we make local decisions, allocate resources or serve customers. This degree of flexibility and responsiveness is achieved not by telling people what to do but by listening, planning and working together to share responsibility
  9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking
    The leader in the modern day is not an expert orator but an expert facilitator. He or she is good at asking questions and exploring options to help people figure new ways of delivering – letting go but in the context of a clear framework
  10. Build relationships
    People want to connect with colleagues. Leaders and managers need to help people feel part of their “in-group” and help their teams build great relationships by listening and empathising with each other.

 

In summary, empathetic listening is critical to effective strategic communication.  It is the skill that must come first, and it is a skill that needs to permeate throughout the organisation to support engagement at all levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive to start with listening but the evidence from leadership researchers, neuroscientists, behavioural economists – and our own experience – tells us it holds the key to engagement.

 

By Mike Pounsford

Founder, Couravel

[email protected]

Mike works with leadership and with specialists in communication to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy.   He founded his own business, Couravel, in 2001 and works to help define and share common meaning.  Clients have included global and smaller UK based businesses and organisations in the private, public and third sectors.

Mike is currently the Past President of IABC UK.

10 ways to be a better listener

Communication is not a one-way street. While speaking is a crucial part of effective leadership, its counterpart – listening – is often overlooked.

As many as one in four corporate leaders find out they could be better listeners in 360-degree feedback, according to the Harvard Business Review. Listening is a skill which can have a major impact on a company’s fortunes.

One thing I’m still learning in my career is the power of silence. When I was younger, I always believed that unless my lips were moving, I wasn’t contributing.

I just hoped that whoever was at the receiving end of my verbal bombardment was able to pick out the useful bits.

I’m by no means an expert at listening or being silent, but I hope these ideas on how to be an effective listener are helpful.

  1. Choose the right place

Finding the right environment is key – a café, a sofa or a quiet corner are all better than a formal office, boardroom, or meeting room. Create a situation where they feel comfortable to open up. Likewise, sitting next to them will create a more intimate situation without being face-to-face, which can appear separated and confrontational. I find kitty-corner (two sides of a corner of a table) the most effective layout.

  1. Ask questions, but don’t interrupt

Ask lots of short questions, which are designed to give long answers. Such as, ‘Tell me more…’, ‘Why?’ and, ‘What prompted that approach?’ Then let them answer fully before you ask another question. I know lots of people who think they are good listeners because they ask questions – but then blow it by asking a follow-up question before the previous one has been answered fully.

  1. Look at them

Watch their body language. Look them in the eye. Give the other person your undivided attention: make them feel that there is nothing more important in the world to you at that moment.

  1. Show empathy

Understand their perspective without taking over the conversation. Saying, ‘Yeah, the same thing happened to me’ and then launching into your own personal story is not listening. It’s taking over the conversation and making them listen to you.

  1. Don’t problem-solve immediately

You don’t need to jump in and try to ‘solve’ the situation, nor do you need to necessarily resolve every comment. At the end of the conversation, it may be useful to wrap up with some actions, but jumping into solution mode immediately isn’t good listening.

  1. Take notes

Taking notes is a great way to shut yourself up. It’s hard to talk and write at the same time, writing things down makes the other person feel they are important, and often while you are writing – and the room is silent – they will say more than they originally intended. Let them fill the silence.

  1. Stay on-topic

Stick to the topic they want to discuss. This is about them and their topics of interest, not you and yours.

  1. Keep it secret

Remind the person that – if appropriate – your conversation is confidential and you won’t betray that trust. A good listener talks little. Loose lips sink ships.

  1. Give them time

Find the right moment and allow enough time for the conversation. You can’t give someone a good listening to in five minutes. It takes time.

  1. Ditch the tech

When your phone starts flashing, it becomes the centre of attention – not the other person. So keep your tech out of the room.

 

By Stephen Welch

Former IABC President