Nov 25

Do you REALLY listen?

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Do you REALLY listen?

In a business context, I often find when you say to an organisation that they should listen to their customer more, what they most often appear to hear is “you need to give the customer what they want, unconditionally”. In some ways this is understandable, given financial targets, personal objectives and pressures to deliver you can see why this is likely to be interpreted as “roll over and play dead”. In reality, what this represents is a failure to listen.

How so?

Let me share a personal experience of one of my clients with you.

One of their Senior Executives was visiting a customer and had a chance encounter in the corridor with one of their key stakeholders. After the usual pleasantries the Senior Executive asked them “how were things going?”. He wasn’t prepared for the response which was very much less than encouraging and highlighted a number of concerns with the quality of the services that were being delivered.

The Senior Executive did what anyone would do in these situations; he immediately gathered the account team together to find out more about what was going on. They went through a number of the issues and shared their perspective, highlighting a number of areas where, in their view, issues were being caused by errors and omissions of the customer.

Feeling that their organisation had been unfairly criticised by the customer stakeholder, and given that there were customer issues that were clearly giving then serious problems, they decided to go ‘contractual’ and formally escalate these issues to the customers Board – using the commercial mechanisms that allowed them to do this.

In other words, they weren’t going to roll over…

Reality strikes

Fortunately, at this point, one of the wise heads in the Account Team stepped forward and gave a perspective. The stakeholder involved was the new CIO of the customer organisation. He’d been brought in to replace the previous CIO who was held to be responsible for a number of expensive programme failures. They had been brought into the organisation to help him turn things around. This hadn’t been popular and a lot of people were actively working to make this deal fail. Hence the CIO was operating against a degree of organisational resistance which is often common in turnaround situations. Further the customer Chairman had publicly stated that if there were any more delivery issues, more heads would roll.

Consequently they suggested that formally triggering an escalation was likely to cause significant issues for the CIO. The CIO was their only supporter in an organisation that was looking for them to fail so that they could terminate the contract. Consequently putting these issues in front of the Chairman was likely to backfire in ways that were not in their own organisations interests. In fact, when you looked at the CIO’s concerns you might conclude that they were not unreasonable.

Remember this was simply a chance meeting in the corridor where an informal conversation took place.

What has this got to do with listening?

Before answering this question it is worth highlighting that listening is one of the most fundamental components of interpersonal communication skills. When we listen:

  • It is an active process in which we make a conscious decision to listen to and understand the message of the speaker.
  • The listener remains neutral and non-judgmental.
  • The listener is not tempted to interrupt and is comfortable with silence.

So, did the Senior Executive listen to understand – NO. Was the Senior Executive neutral and non-judgmental – NO. Were they comfortable avoiding interruption – NO.

In short, they didn’t listen and were fortunate that other members of the team were brave enough to save them from themselves.

How would listening help?

What happens when we listen? We get a perspective that helps us to understand where the other person is coming from. This has nothing to do with rolling over and playing dead, it is about gathering information to make better quality and more informed decisions. You aren’t giving up choice – you can choose to take the information on board or you can choose to ignore it. The point is that this is a conscious decision. In the above situation, left to his own devices, the Senior Executive might well have put this business in serious jeopardy simply because he wasn’t really listening.

When we listen from the perspective of what’s in it for me, it’s like interacting with the world through a filter where all that gets through is that information which is relevant to me. The risk is that we filter out critical information that we really should listen to.

Otherwise, we’re in a space that is neatly summed up by a Dilbert cartoon:

“Our highest priority is satisfying our customers….except when it is hard…or unprofitable… or we’re busy”

Do you really want to be that organisation?

Westwood in collaboration with Socius Associates offers a stakeholder engagement intervention specifically aimed at helping account and management teams to develop effective engagements with key internal and external stakeholders. If you would like further information on how this could help you, email, we’d be very happy to discuss your requirements.

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