22 November 2012

Communication skill #1 - listening

It wasn't until well into my career (mea culpa, in this respect I'm a slow learner!) that I realised that 'internal communication' in organisations is far larger (and more complex) than the formal apparatus of intranets, magazines, emails, speeches, videos and events that I'd been focusing my professional attention on. And it's taken me a little bit longer still to come to a better understanding of what I think is probably the most important communication skill of all: listening.

Maybe I'm wrong about that, though - because I haven't heard much in internal communications arenas about developing the personal human skill of listening.

There are reams of references to the importance of two-way communication mechanisms, and to impersonal and programmatic manifestations of organisational listening in the form of surveys, polls, focus groups, online social media, and the like. But much of the literature of internal communication and employee engagement seems to treat listening as an institutional imperative and process, not a personal way of relating. And while many managers and executives get sent on speaking and presentation courses, I haven't yet met anyone who's been sent on a 'Listening Training' day.

(Perhaps I just haven't been listening . . . but if I've missed something, do please let me know about it).

I suppose one problem may be that we ordinarily take listening for granted: like breathing, it just happens, doesn't it?

Well, no. I think it's very difficult to listen to someone. It really does involve more than just hearing noise through those two small holes in the side of your head. Indeed, I suspect it may have very little to do with that at all. I think listening well is an act of will - demanding of us a commitment to sustained attention to ourselves as well as to another; a temporary suspension of our own judgments and agendas while we try to view the world through someone else's eyes; and an effort to hold in our minds many possible meanings, feelings, intentions and contexts in 'real time'. I know I find it hugely difficult, and that's after training and practice as a psychotherapist (more slow learning, I'm afraid).

So what's this got to do with internal communications?

Well, for just one example - last week I heard Paul Barron, the former CEO of the UK's National Air Traffic Service (NATS), speak at a VMA masterclass. When he took on that job, he faced the difficult challenge of trying to transform a loss-making bureaucratic business, while trying to avoid a politically catastrophic strike by the professional union.

What interested me most about his success in turning NATS around was the personal time he committed to listening to the employees in the organisation. There seemed to be a wearying number of town halls, dinners and location visits at which he listened to employees across the organisation around the country. He started out in the role with a personal listening and learning phase, and it took him his first 11 weeks to visit all the company's sites to hear what employees had to say.

Of course he spoke too, and set out his personal 'brand' and goals. And yes, the transformation entailed far more than engaging employees. But it seemed clear from his description that his willingness and ability to listen to his colleagues - however strident, repetitive, mistaken or suspicious they might be - was an essential element of evoking the trust he needed in order to bring about the transformation without massive disruption. (Not to mention that he also learned more about the organisation than other senior team members had learned in a decade cloistered in their offices.)

I could be wrong. Perhaps it was his self-professed plain speaking, his choice to not wear a tie, or how he spent Sunday mornings that really mattered to his employees (one did ask him about the latter!). But I don't think so. Not from what I heard, anyway. . .

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