One of the most interesting shifts in business culture that I’m seeing among my clients is the growing realisation that we need to transform how we engage with each other; put simply, we need to rediscover the art of effective communication.
To illustrate, let me share a real life story from a leadership development course I ran recently. This was for a group of chief executives and managing directors from the logistics industry - mainly male with twenty-plus years in positions of power.
Part of my work was helping them boost their business performance, improving the way they communicate by seeing customers and colleagues as human beings with unmet needs. As the theory goes, recognising and meeting those needs forges stronger, deeper relationships, and better quality outcomes for both parties. So how is that achieved?
This group was well practised with the sales patter; in fact, they were close to pitch perfect. But inexplicably to them, they still weren’t connecting with their customers.
I put the group into pairs and did a listening skills exercise with them. Person A talked for a minute with Person B ignoring them completely. They then swapped and repeated the exercise before reflecting on how it felt to be ignored. Some of the team felt dehumanised; others felt a surge of red-hot anger. We then repeated the exercise with Person A talking, and Person B listening with strong, affirming eye contact and body language – but no talking or even sounds. Everyone reported that this felt better but was still unsatisfying. Finally, we repeated the exercise where the listener listened, paused, then ‘reflected back’ what they’d heard the speaker say, using the speaker’s words as far as possible. This time, the participants reported that they felt acknowledged, appreciated and validated, with their words not only heard but respected and understood.
So far, so good. But when everyone else was clearing their chairs away, one very senior executive – let’s call him Dave – stayed stock-still in the middle of the room, as if transfixed by some giant discovery. Gently, I asked him if he was OK and with his eyes still focused in the middle distance he replied, “I’ve been leading teams for over thirty years but I think that’s the first time I’ve ever truly listened to anyone!”.
Dave’s discovery was the power of active listening – not just to what was being said but conveyed in the silences and body language, as these often divulge a very different truth.
Active listening is a whole body experience that takes humility, empathy and patience to achieve. It flips the ‘download’ culture on its head, adding value by recognising and hearing those unmet (and even unspoken) needs of customers and colleagues – and then responding to them. By ‘listening to understand, not to reply’, we can help to build strong and successful teams, heal fractured relationships, and deliver what the customer really needs, not what we think they need.
Dr Vanessa Collingridge is a leadership and impact coach, trained in conflict resolution. A former broadcaster, she has recently joined the Freer Consultancy as an Associate, specialising in media training and public engagement.