I recently wrote a blog about the importance of communication within organisational change management and the need for a comprehensive communication plan.
I talked about the importance of raising awareness and soliciting opinions by asking. What is even more important is listening. Listening is an art in itself.
In my book “Balanced Diversity – A Portfolio Approach to Organisational Change’ I wrote:
“The practices of ‘ask’ and ‘listen’ are key during times of ITSM change. When making an ITSM change, we can expect, anticipate and plan for resistance. We can determine where the resistance may come from, what it may look like and how it can be addressed before it has a detrimental impact on the success of the change.
Once the change is underway, we have to be prepared to react to resistance that we didn’t anticipate. This involves determining where the resistance is now coming from, what it now looks like and how it can be addressed.
We will only be able to identify this new resistance by actively using ask and listen practices on a regular basis throughout the change journey. Early identification of unexpected resistance and timely remedial action can minimise the impact on the change.”
Undetected and unmanaged resistance can derail the best-planned change so asking and listening are key. Listening to employees and colleagues is one of your strongest weapons. Given the opportunity, people will tell you everything you need to know
So what are some of the key behaviours that make a good listener?
The old adage ‘silence is golden’ is so true. The other person should do most of the talking. Use the 80/20 rule. You should talk 20% of the time and the other person should talk 80% of the time. For many of us, silence feels like not participating. However silence is giving the other person permission to speak. It is acknowledging and appreciating their input. Silence indicates that you are paying attention.
Use the 20% of your time to ask questions and not pass opinion. It is tempting to weigh in and want to correct the person who is speaking because you want to ‘put them right’. However this conversation is not about solving the problem – this is about finding out what the problem is.
There may be times during the conversation that you have to ask questions in order to move the conversation along or keep it on track. However do this carefully and respectfully so that you don’t inhibit the other person sharing information that will ultimately allow you to make informed decisions.
There is always the temptation to fill silence with your own thoughts and opinions but resist it. The silence is probably not as long as you feel it is. Give the other person time to think and continue the conversation. If you interrupt, you will move the conversation on and may miss vital information.
When you do have to ask questions, wherever possible ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow for longer, more in-depth responses. Closed questions such as ‘Are you happy?’ allow for yes or no answers whereas open questions such as ‘How do you feel?’ will provide you with more information.
Use your time to clarify what the person is telling you. Listen to what they have to say and then clarify your understanding. Repeat back what they have said such as “Let me check that I understand what you are saying……” This will avoid any misunderstanding but also tells the other person that you are really listening
Learn how to read body language. It has been said that 75% of all communication is non-verbal. Watch for signs communicating how the other person is feeling. This includes gestures, posture, facial expressions and eye movement. Lack of eye contact can indicate boredom or unwillingness to share. Frequent eye contact can indicate interest in the conversation.
Also watch your own body language. Sitting up straight with your arms folded indicates a formal conversation and perhaps a judgemental one. This will not encourage the other person to feel relaxed and share their thoughts. Nod your head and make eye contact to show interest in what they are saying.
Leave the Judgement at the Door
The conversation is not about judging the other person or trying to change their opinions by expressing yours. You are there to ‘listen’. You may not agree with what the other person is saying or what they believe the situation is, but their perception is their reality. Your role is to uncover all of that ‘reality’ so that any resistance to change can be managed outside of the conversation.
You need to be impartial. Don’t be annoyed by the other persons mannerisms or conversational skills. Some people may want to pace the room whilst talking while other may want to sit. Some may make strong body gestures whilst others may sit very still. Some may talk loudly whilst others will be quietly spoken. Don’t let the means of delivery frustrate or annoy you. You need to focus on what is being said, not how it is being said.
Listen with empathy. Understand and acknowledge the other persons point of view.
Empathy is a respectful understanding of what the other person is experiencing.
Try and look at things from the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes. Again, get rid of preconceived ideas about the other person or their situation. Have a totally open-mind so that you can empathise
William Bridges in his article ‘The Three Questions’ (2009) talks about the best way to get people through transition (i.e. change) is to affirm their experience and help them to deal with it. It is not a question of agreeing with people or being nice to them. It’s simply a question of understanding how the world looks to them and using that as the starting point in your dealings with them.
Bridges says “When you do that, you bring issues out on the table, build trust and understanding, and give people the tools they need to move forward through a difficult time. When you speak to where people actually are in the transition process rather than telling them that they ought to be somewhere else, you are bringing people along with you”.
Providing empathy is a very strong tool to establish a sense of trust and understanding and consequently obtain more information to enable you to manage resistance to change.
Make sure the environment in which you have having the conversation is conducive to listening. Remove distractions such as a busy office and surrounding noise. Get out from behind the desk and create a relaxed ‘fire-side’ environment.
If possible, schedule the conversation at a time when the other person is not responding to a deadline or under some other sort of pressure. You want them to be fully in the conversation and not somewhere else. The same applies to you!
You cannot actively listen if you are thinking about the next meeting, project deadline or beating the traffic home!
Remove other distractions such as interruptions. Have the conversation in a room other than your office so there is no phone ringing or knocks on the door. Turn off the mobile. If you are a doodler – don’t. Remove the temptation. Doodling or shuffling papers also indicates that you are not really listening or interested.
Listening requires preparation and focus. It involves removing prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. It is about listening not just hearing. It is about empathy and giving yourself fully to the conversation in hand. Without active listening the chances are you will miss the clues that indicate there is resistance to change. You cannot manage what you don’t know.
“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention….”
Rachel Naomi Remen