An Exercise to Become a More Powerful Listener

2014NOV07-4

Listening is often considered the softest of the soft skills. So the idea of being a powerful listener can seem like an oxymoron. And yet, my work with executives has taught me that when they really listen to discover what is essential, the impact can be astonishing. It’s one of the most important ways to engage employees.

We know that engagement is a challenge. A recent Gallup survey found that 63% of the global workforce is not engaged. That adds up to waste in the range of half a trillion dollars globally. Putting it more positively, Jim Harter, the Chief Scientist for Gallup, has found that “publicly traded organizations that achieve top decile in our employee engagement database outperform their competition on earnings per share by 147%.”

With both the waste and opportunity implied in these findings, it begs the question, “How can we improve engagement scores quickly and inexpensively?” Among the short list of items that really move the engagement needle is that people believe that “at work, my opinions seem to count.” Listening — really listening — matters.

Many companies fall into the trap of trying to engage their employees by doing more – which is, in essence, just creating more noise. I have seen this firsthand in Silicon Valley, where managers sometimes go to extreme measures with perks like 24/7 food; show-stopping offsite events with concerts; sports competitions; clubs on every subject from hula dancing to American Idol and many other bizarre and bombastic activities. I believe in the power of play, but at their worst, such activities can completely miss the mark. They sometimes remind me of Pleasure Island in the movie Pinocchio, where the puppet almost becomes a donkey.

Such panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”) may appease some employees, but I am not convinced that these types of “perks” engage people’s hearts and minds in a way that enables them to give their highest and best contribution — in the end, they still treat employees like wooden puppets, and they mirror the problem described by Guy Kawaski as a “bozo explosion,” a downward slide that seems inevitable after a company achieves success. Moreover, such gimmicks don’t make the cut in Gallup’s top twelve engagement measurements.

Deep engagement does not begin with getting people to listen to you; it begins when you really listen to them. Powerful listening is one of the rarest executive practices today, not because of a lack of skill – although that is often the case – but because it’s a skill that’s under attack from social media, smart phones and the ubiquitous expectation of instant reactions. Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation when the other person just started checking his phone? Of course you have. We have a listening famine going on and it’s a shame, because in a knowledge age, so much value creation lies in the ability to figure out what’s important—by listening.

The Quakers practice a particularly powerful way to listen. They conduct what’s called a “Clearness Committee,” which is founded on the belief that, as author Parker Palmer has written, “each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems.” Here is how it works:

First, a member of the Quaker community defines a key decision, personal problem or question that represents a dilemma for a member of their community, who is the “focus person.” Then, they form a committee to meet with the focus person, inviting only select people (the “members”). These members must first commit to the highest levels of confidentiality: nobody can speak of the meeting afterwards, unless the focus person specifically asks to discuss it. Members can take notes, but they must be given to the focus person at the end of the committee meeting.

The committee then meets in an offsite location, where the focus person spends 10 minutes presenting a concise statement of the problem, including any relevant background information. The committee creates a safe space for the focus person to speak, prioritizing that space over the social comfort of the members. For example, there should be no talking between committee members, no loud laughter, no side conversations, no phones or computers, and no rapid-fire questions that could overwhelm the focus person.

Then, there are two hours of interaction, during which members of the committee may only speak to the focus person by asking honest questions – which are not the same as manipulative questions. Manipulative questions have answers embedded in them, such as: “Have you ever thought that this is really happening because you did X?” Honest questions are defined as questions that members couldn’t possibly know the answer to, such as “Did you ever feel this way before?” Honest questions are, simply, all inquiry and no advocacy.

Before the meeting is over, the focus person can allow people to reflect back what they have heard. Again, there should be no opinions offered, just reflections. Five minutes before the end of the meeting, the members are allowed to affirm the focus person for showing strength and courage in sharing vulnerably deep insights. Even at this point there is no advice given and there are no suggestions made. The idea is that the focus person goes away and listens to his or her own inner voice for continued guidance.

The clearness committee is a fascinating listening innovation. If it seems too intense or involved for regular use, you can still apply many of its aspects in your interactions with your team. For example, you can have a rule that you and your team will only ask honest questions: in this way you can avoid the manipulative questions that complicate communication. When one of your team members comes to you with a particular challenge, you can ask her questions to define what the real dilemma is, instead of jumping in with premature, well-intended solutions that actually miss the mark. Finally, you can increase the ratio of listening to speaking by asking questions and spending at least 50% of any conversation actively listening to the other person speak.

The bottom line is this: if you want to engage your employees at a whole new level, if you want to become a person of greater influence, and if you want to discover a new kind of power — listen.

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