Being told something is generally the consequence of someone else’s desire to bring it to your attention – that there’s a deadline looming that you need to meet, that you need to be aware that a particular activity is forbidden wherever you are, or that your choice of outfit might not be showing you in your best light. Sometimes the information is useful, sometimes it’s inadvertently amusing (I always enjoyed a friend’s office door that had a stern ‘No Tapdancing’ sign on it, in case anyone was about to break into the best Fred and Ginger routine); sometimes, however, it can have effects that we can only assume weren’t intended.

Mark Gould, writing at his Enlightened Tradition blog, provides a personal example to illustrate this point – and an explanation as to why a reminder might not have the intended effect:

I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.”

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As one of the things that this blog explores is the nature and impact of our relationships, both with each other and with more abstract entities (‘the organisation’, ‘the strategy’ and so on), I was surprised when I searched for one particular word, and found only five references. The word was empathy – the ability to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. (And empathy is about understanding, not pity or admiration: empathy is about comprehension, not comparison.)

Being inquisitive, I googled the usual quotation sources, and came up similarly short-handed. (If you have a great quote about empathy, please share them with us.) As the web isn’t the only source of wisdom, I tried a few books – and found that the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations doesn’t list it in the index at all. Reminding myself that understanding is something that sometimes needs to unearthed, I kept digging. And was subsequently relieved – if only as a human being – to find that some of the most respected minds (and mouths) in business and management theory had actually something to say on the subject:

  • The number one practical competency for success in life and work is empathy
    (Peter Drucker)
  • When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life
    (Steven Covey) (more…)

I never understood the whole ‘talk to the hand’ thing. I’ve learnt a lot of things by using my hands, but never by using them as a way of avoiding doing something more educational: listening. Even if you suspect you’re going to disagree with someone, your counter-argument is going to be stronger if you listen to theirs before you attempt to demolish it. Getting the response “Face? Bovvered?” is actually less annoying when the face belongs to someone whose ears were actually functioning in the preceding seconds. And let’s be honest here: if you want someone’s attention in the future, you’re more likely to get it if you give them yours in the meantime. As the Earl of Chesterfield once observed: “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” Neither are the perfect response, but a cold shoulder is warmer than a deaf ear.

Yet how often do we offer a deaf ear even when what we claim to be doing is wanting to hear something? Consider this example from Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor:

Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. He had read one of my early papers about disruptive technology, and he asked if I could talk to his direct reports and explain my research and what it implied for Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”

As the piece goes on to explain, Christensen persists and his audience is able not only to learn but also to do so by drawing their own conclusion – taking the learning on board and processing it rather than merely accepting a line to follow. But, at least in this telling, Andy Grove thought he would still have been doing all the listening he needed to do rather earlier in the process. Let’s hope the story does him an injustice, as it would be more inspiring to learn that a CEO didn’t simply want to be told what to think.

While we tend to realise that speech can be inspirational – perhaps because of our tendency to look for leadership behaviours to aspire to and be inspired by – it’s important to remember that listening can be equally invigorating. In its 2010 Report, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership (read our coverage), The Work Foundation highlighted listening as one of the defining skills of the outstanding (as opposed to merely good) leader. Here’s one of the anonymised quotes cited in the report:

So I [have] got this guy…. No-one listened to him, you know? He’s a very clever lad and he’s all over the place getting himself educated, but they thought he was lazy. But they didn’t listen you know. And all he wanted, he was bored and they weren’t stimulating him, giving him enough to do and so the worse he did, the less they gave him and it was a downhill slope all the time. I just keep giving him more and more and he’s never let me down.”

The sensation of ‘having a voice’ – ie one that is heard and that helps you feel that you are making a contribution – is one of the most critical factors in engagement and motivation. (The flipside is that ‘banging my head on the wall’ sensation that nearly all of us would have felt less often if the other party had actually been listening.) Give or take the backing music and the dress sense, a dialogue is like a tango: it takes two. For the employee to experience the sense of engagement and motivation, the manager has to listen.

As our anonymised contributor above had realised, the first step in tackling the situation really is listening. There’s a Stephen Covey quote that might be considered the managerial equivalent of ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The rush to judgement might be tempting, but listening is the skill required to gather the evidence that enables the conclusion to be leapt to. Nor is listening simply a ‘once only’ activity. As Robin Wright pointed out in an episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line series in late 2009, giving feedback is also about listening. When we wrote about that episode at the time, we made the point that feedback is a looping process – ‘Communicating, not broadcasting’ as we titled the piece.

Given the role of listening in sales – where, at least among the better practitioners, it is seen as common sense that the best way to find out what someone might be interested in buying is to ask them what they want or need and then listen to them – its importance in more metaphorical aspects of selling (managing, supervising, persuading, initiating, leading change) should be equally obvious, though that is not always the case. Listening is not just hearing: it involves paying closer attention, processing what is heard into understanding – and into questions that can be asked to deepen and clarify that understanding.

Asking questions is one way to practice, and one that – like feedback – encourages communication to become a dialogue. If you find yourself merely hearing, remember the words of Igor Stravinsky:

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

That open palm that many of us find ourselves talking to – metaphorically or literally – from time to time is meant to silence, but its impact is ultimately to isolate. Not just the person being silenced, but also the person doing the silencing. Listening isn’t just something we do while we’re waiting for our turn to speak – which reducing the notions of dialogue, feedback and understanding to the level of the old joke about ‘How dare you fart in front of my wife?’.

Listening is something we do so that when our turn comes to speak – if speaking is even appropriate – we do so from a better-informed standpoint. And what we say is not simply ‘our turn’, but a fully fledged response. To quote from a fine article in the December 2011 edition of Training Journal:

Quality listening involves us momentarily stepping out of our own frame of reference and into that of another. It involves us acknowledging and affirming another. It requires us to see and experience someone other than ourselves.”

Try the ‘talk to the hand’ routine to often and what you wind up hearing may be little more than the sound of footsteps as they get further and further away. Which isn’t the learning experience it might have been.

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Like so many words that start with ‘f’ (fairness or federalism, for example), faith can be a topic that leaves some of us slightly twitchy. As a word, its roots are actually secular: it derives from the Latin word for trust, and the religious sense was a 14th century acquisition. But for all the trouble humanity has wrought upon itself around faith in a theological sense, is it worth asking if we have successfully mastered the idea of faith in the broader, earthly sense?

I came across an old adage – “Fear can keep us up all night long, but faith makes one fine pillow” – that left me wondering if we don’t put too much emphasis on what we believe about the world around us, rather than on being mindful or receptive to the faith that others have in us? Most of us appreciate the merits of a fine pillow: whether we hold to a religion or live as atheists or agnostics, our lives are still touched by sorrow, frustration, setbacks or doubt, and a little pampering never goes amiss.  In terms of the comfort or sense of strength that it can bring, faith can definitely be its own reward. But I’m thinking about the idea of faith in a less … well, self-centred way: the benefits we can bring about by showing faith in others.

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Gratitude is due to Brains on Fire as a company, as they inspired us to launch this blog. (And as they’re all about listening, get Spike to write more often: a little spikiness livens up a dish.) They’ve now given us a book – one that risks being misinterpreted, and which I suspect plays less well in the UK than it does on its home turf. There’s a lot of talk within its covers – and even on them – about passion, love, powerfulness and what some will consider other qualities that qualify as ‘the usual suspects’. The book actually explicitly mentions cheerleaders more than once, and some people this side of the Atlantic may choke a little on their sherry reading it. (They would have better objections, but I’ll come back to them.)

The misinterpretation that I fear with this book is that – despite the clear statements it contains to the contrary – some will reject it, before or after reading it, as being mostly about social media. (It isn’t: it goes out of its way to – quite rightly – remind its readers that 90% of the world’s interaction still happens offline, although I’d say that percentage is dropping.) It’s headlining of the idea of ‘movements’ also left me wondering if its pitch would work as effectively in the UK as in the US: having now read the book, I felt it was mostly actually about forging closer and more loyal customer relationships and about – to use the word Ford’s Head of Social Media uses in a back cover blurb – ‘humanization’.

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In the previous episode in this series, I related the experience of completing the MBTI questionnaire and receiving facilitated feedback. But if MBTI is mostly about the individual, giving feedback on relationships with others more by inference and implication, FIRO-B is explicitly about the individual, others and the relationship(s) between the two. This is an instrument that looks at the ways we wish to behave towards others and others to behave towards us, and illuminates that these may be very different even in a single dimension: FIRO-B can illuminate many things, not least that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” may be a familiar expression but it can also be highly inaccurate in describing our behavioural patterns.

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There’s been quite a lively debate at Business Week, where two contributors – and a long list of commenters – indulged in some weighty mutual executive briefcasing (handbagging just didn’t sound right) in response to the question: “Multi-dimensional organisational design (Matrix) is the best way to restructure a business. Pro or con?”

In the Pro corner, Jay Galbraith argues for the value, inherent merit and – in today’s trading environment – the inevitability of the victory of a collaborative approach over a command and control variety. In the Con corner, Guido Quelle sees matrix organisations as painfully slow, lacking clarity and clear lines of responsibility. Verbal bruisings have been administered and received on both sides but there’s been no knock-out punch: anyone hoping to see the late, grand old man, Peter Drucker holding the limp wrist of one argument aloft and counting to ten would be disappointed.

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