Stop talking while I’m interrupting!
Whenever I’m asked to work with a ‘problem’ team or organisation, the very first thing everyone talks about is communication. We all know that communication is the single most important aspect of management, teamwork and all business activities and relationships. Yet it is the hardest skill to get right, and needs constant work on everyone’s behalf.
This article is about what I see as the most important part of communication, and is also ironically the single aspect that people most often get wrong – listening.
In a recent leadership course I asked some senior managers why they communicate with their colleagues. Some instant responses were: to get things done, to explain, inform or reinforce a message. They then added reasons that involved listening rather than talking, such as: to discuss options, solve a problem or find out something.
The interesting thing here is that while they were clearly keen to engage and work with their colleagues, their first instinct was to talk about their own aims and preoccupations. This is understandable when you’re working under pressure but is less effective than taking the time to, as Stephen Covey famously suggests, seek first to understand, then to be understood.
This is not simply a ‘nicer’ way to deal with people, but it’s more efficient too. We all want to, as my leadership group rightly said, get things done, but as leaders we are typically not getting those things done by ourselves, we are getting them done through and with others – teams, partners, customers, networks. They have their own concerns and their own ideas, they know what is important to them, they have questions that need answering and their own perspective on things. They will also be asking the time-honoured question: ‘What’s in it for me?’
People are not influenced by what’s important to you; they are influenced by what’s important to them. Only when they feel acknowledged, listened to and understood will they be in a position to genuinely listen to you, so why not try really listening to others before talking yourself and see what difference that makes?
I’ll leave you with a little true story to illustrate some of the benefits of setting aside our own ego in order to listen to a team member. And remember what my old Science teacher said to me once: “You have two ears and one mouth, boy. Use them in that proportion.” I never did, and I failed Science…
The Chairman of Millwall Football Club spent a match day with a member of staff employed to sell refreshments in a catering kiosk. At the end of the match, the catering assistant showed him a pile of 30 burgers. “What do you think I’m going to do with these, Mr Chairman?” he asked. The chairman said he didn’t know. “I’ll tell you,” he replied. “I’m going to throw them in the bin!” “Why?” “Because you’re too tight to buy me a fridge…” He paused for effect, then asked, “How much is each burger? I’ll tell you, it’s £5.00. That’s 5 x 30, that’s £150. How many kiosks are there in the ground Mr Chairman? I’ll tell you, there’s 10. That’s 10 x £150 – £1,500 per match. 24 matches a season, that’s 36 grand a year. All because you didn’t think to buy me a fifty quid fridge.”
What do you think the Chairman did? It pays to listen to your staff; they might know what they’re talking about!