It seems such a passive thing, listening. And yet, it can be so much more powerful than speaking — particularly when supporting people through a period of change.
If we’re not careful, it’s easy to think of change as something that just needs explaining to people: “This is what I need you to do.” In other words, regardless of how things used to be, regardless of what that means to you, please forget it all and do it the new way! That approach would be very efficient with machines, which can straightforwardly be reprogrammed, but when we are dealing with people, change becomes more complex.
Active listening is the key to taking individuals with us through periods of change. Only by listening can we learn what we need to do to:
Change people’s behaviour
Make change attractive to help people achieve the results they want
Demonstrate the benefits of change in a meaningful way
Systems analysis offers an understanding of how change needs to be managed in the external world, but listening is the window to understanding the transitions individuals need to make in their thinking and their behaviour.
Active listening is demanding for the listener. It requires real concentration on the speaker, their tone of voice, body language and involves searching for an understanding of how the speaker is feeling, as well as picking up the words they are saying. It’s called Active listening because the listener is offering continuous evidence that they are listening, and of what they have understood so far. If people really believe they are being listened to, they will volunteer even more information. If they think your thoughts are drifting elsewhere, they are unlikely to share what really matters to them.
Here are some straightforward active listening tips:
- Reflect back on what you’ve heard – prove you really have been listening, and confirm how much of it you fully understand. This offers the opportunity for the speaker to correct any misconceptions and leaves you confident that you have an accurate understanding of how things are
- React and encourage – don’t allow long silences, which may imply your interest is waning. Your listening can be interspersed with “Yes, I see”, or “Go on” just to show you are still focused on what is being said
- Clarify – people are likely to feel that you consider their point of view valuable if you ask to hear more about it. “Tell me more about” can be a great way to confirm details, and also make the speaker feel they really are contributing something useful
- Open questions – use What, Where, How and When freely, but be more careful about Why. If you think about this “Why?” often implies that something perhaps shouldn’t have happened and may appear critical
- Summarise – this doesn’t only have to be at the end of a conversation, but is very powerful in giving the speaker a chance to hear what you’ve understood. This has another benefit too. By speaking the words out loud, you’ll be more likely to remember what you’ve been told
Where leaders and change managers take an active listening approach, they can begin to understand the varying perspectives of the people and teams affected by change initiatives. Communications and change activities can then be created with these perspectives in mind, making people feel that they matter, that they are being listened to rather than talked at, and that they are a valid part of the change process.