Are you listening?
I spent three days this week on the road delivering a course on advanced communication and presentation skills with a client that I’ve been working with for almost a year. In total, I’ve delivered this content, naturally evolving it as I do so, twelve times to different groups across the business and one of the things I love about that sort of repeat work is the differences between the groups and the way that the dynamic of the group impacts upon my experience of the day. When we started the project, the groups which the business would enrol on the sessions would be typically confined to staff working in a single business area, or maybe a couple if there weren’t sufficient numbers to fill a course, however as things have evolved, the courses have been opened more generally and we’ve got to a place where the cohorts are now a real mix of people from across the business.
It puts HR, finance, sales, customer success, software engineers legal staff and others, in the same room together. There are lots of breakouts and interactive elements and on every occasion I encourage the delegates to find a different partner or group to the one they were in on the previous exercise, meaning that they typically start the day working with people they know, but spend the rest of the day working with different colleagues, many of whom they haven’t met or wouldn’t encounter in a normal working day. It's a great way to build new relationships, develop and understanding of the things that their colleagues do and the challenges they face and to really bring to life the concepts and ideas within the content by encouraging them to do things like listen effectively, ask questions and help one another prepare for challenging conversations.
In many organisations, problems emerge on the lines where teams, departments and divisions meet; where there are competing priorities, things get lost in translation or those groups see one another as competing factions, rather than recognising that the true competition exists outside the walls of the organisation. The more that can be done to break down those silos, to humanise those from across the organisation who are thought of as little more than email addresses on a list and to develop understanding and empathy, the better. Suddenly now you realise why someone does some of the things they do or the way in which their performance is measured locally and it allows you to develop a relationship where you help one another to be successful instead of seeing them as a barrier to your own success.
In each session, there tends to be a theme or a topic which bubbles to the top naturally due to its importance to the delegates you’re working with that day. It’s a very organic thing and that topic almost takes on a life of its own and drives deeper conversation and reflection than its previously done with others groups. It’s always fascinating to see what that topic will be and to create the time and space for it to be explored more fully. This week, on both the first and second days, that topic was the power and importance of listening.
Around years ago, when I was in my first role as a leadership coach and consultant in the Retail Banking division of RBS, we had a team away day with an evening event featuring guest speaker Scott Johnson, the interim Scotland Rugby Coach who became director of rugby for Scotland and then his homeland of Australia. There was a free bar but for reasons I can’t quite remember, I wasn’t drinking at the time and neither was Scott, so after the formalities had concluded and everyone else was tucking into a few sparkling beverages, Scott and I ended up sharing a pot of tea and chatting about coaching. During his presentation, Scott had shared a story from his home life, explaining that he had lost his wife to leukaemia when his children were both under the age of three and he’d suddenly been thrown into life as a single parent. When we spoke over a cuppa, Scott spoke of how his coaching has influenced his parenting and vice versa and explained that he and his kids have a phrase that they use all the time; Are you listening or are you just waiting to talk?
This question, which has its roots in Steven Covey’s question ‘Are you listening with the intent to understand or with the intent to reply?’ from his bestselling book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is a powerful one and it speaks to something that I even now, having been an executive coach for over a decade, I have to be very mindful of. When someone is sharing a challenge with us, it’s easy to jump in with suggestions and ideas and solutions that we think will solve the problem and more often than not, we do this through a genuine desire to help. But what we’re doing, without realising it, is telling the other party that they’re not capable of solving the problem and they need us to solve it for them. In leadership, this can not only stunt the growth and creativity of those we lead, it also runs the risk of creating a dependency on us, where our teams need to come to us every time they face a problem. This generates a strain on our time and doesn’t get the best from our team.
In the course, delegates spend time in pairs sharing a challenge they’re facing and the other party are encouraged to listen and then to help their partner explore the challenge, looking only at the reality of where they are right now and the outcome that they’re trying to achieve (effectively focussing on Goal and Reality from the GROW model of coaching). They are expressly told not to offer ideas or solutions or jump to solving the problem. Every session, without fail, they come back into the breakdown and talk about how difficult it was not to cross this line, or how they failed and threw in their suggestions!
I’ve learned this lesson not only in work, but in my life outside of work. Many years ago, before we were married, Cathryn was explaining a challenge we were facing and I responded by throwing suggestions and ideas at her like some sort of demented Ideas Santa. She stopped me in my tracks with a phrase that echoes through the halls of a million marriages; ‘I don’t need you to solve my problems, I just need you to listen!’ It was a lightbulb moment for me and I make the effort as often as possible now, when she’s sharing her challenges with me, to ask what it is she needs from me; is it ideas and suggestions or does she just need a sounding board and someone to listen?
The next time you’re faced with a colleague, a friend or a family members who talk to you about the problem they’re wrestling with, give a thought to this blog. Put your distractions to one side, give them your full attention and clarify what they need from you. And if what they need is someone to listen, make sure you are listening, and not just waiting to talk!