I recently heard a simple workplace experience that I think really underlines why listening is among the most practically useful of business skills. That it also stands out, despite its simplicity, perhaps also suggests that listening is something that many of us could do well to work on some more.
Here, then, is the story. An employee came to their manager with a difficult and still-developing client problem, one that could only be resolved by calling the client in question in a desperate effort to directly resolve the issue. The problem the employee had was that the situation had degenerated to such a low ebb that they no longer felt they could make this call without diminishing the relationship still further and upsetting the client to a terminal degree. Let us (for the sake of drama at least) assume that this client’s business was also pretty crucial to the whole organisation’s success. That’s when they approached their manager for help.
This manager, at once, asked for the number and called the client, despite having no previous contact with this person, nor any understanding of the issue beyond the most basic of panicked pleas. They weren’t previously briefed on the situation and they had no concept of what the client might say.
What followed was a perhaps surprisingly good-natured 10-minute talk, during which the manager said very little, except to ask necessarily open questions about the client’s problem. There was no shouting, no angry confrontation, just an actual conversation where the manager was able to successfully resolve a festering issue in the time it takes to buy a latte.
Why did this work? Because the manager went into the conversation without any one-sided knowledge or any preconceptions about the situation. He didn’t have a script prepared, and he hadn’t thought about any arguments, excuses or justifications. All he could do was listen to the client and respond, on the hoof, to whatever they had to say.
This didn’t mean the client wasn’t angry, nor did it mean the manager would simply roll over and agree to any demand. But it did mean that the client felt that their point of view was really being listened to and properly engaged with. The manager heard their particular complaint, responded to it fully and, in doing so, ultimately demonstrated the value that he placed on this customer and their situation. He empathised, listened with an open mind and was then equipped to make an evident effort to solve the problem.
Listening, of course, has an air of passivity about it that maybe doesn’t sit well as a top-level skill to be learnt and practised. After all, you listen to conversations all the time; sometimes – unavoidably – ones you aren’t even involved in. Practising listening, the logic might run, requires you do nothing at all.
However, the truth is that many of us conduct conversations more as monologues broken up by occasional white noise, rather than as truly responsive give-and-takes of opinion and experience. We bring our own biases and understanding to the table, and we don’t necessarily hear everything (even anything) that is being said as a result.
In the workplace particularly, this can be a problem in many situations. Providing feedback without hearing an employee’s frustrations and concerns; contacting a supplier without heeding their clearly stated terms; advising a client without understanding their actual needs. All are likely to lead to greater friction and issues down the line, in spite of all the information needed being readily offered up.
Naturally, I’m not saying that every conversation should be leapt into with two feet and no preparation – such an approach certainly has the potential to end as badly as it might end well. But it definitely doesn’t hurt to approach potentially difficult work conversations with a resolve to make the conscious effort to shut your mouth and to listen more instead.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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