Is anybody really listening?

...does anybody really care? Does this sound a little too close to lyrics from a 70's song? But I digress.

Last month we focused on the risk factors that contribute to project success or failure; Vision & Goals, Planning & Preparation, Capacity & Personnel and Buy-In. This month we'll look at the glue that keeps projects from falling apart. In the spirit of non-consultant speak, I'll simply call this "really good communication".

Communication is a funny thing. Looking back on most projects, you've either communicated too much, too little, but rarely just the right amount.

When you communicate something, three elements are present:

  1. What you intended to communicate
  2. What people heard as a result of what's said
  3. The unintended consequence of what's heard

A perfect example of "When good communication goes bad" is the following attempt to set a context for an organizational initiative:

"As a result of this financial implementation, checks will go out quicker, better reports will be available to staff and most importantly, we'll be able to simplify people's work and minimize the use of other systems to keep track of departmental budgets."

The communication appears to convey great benefit to the institution, and ties it to genuine value for those working there. But what do the people who are affected by this change hear?

"As a result of this financial implementation, we'll be working twice as hard, will no longer have control over the information we've taken years to understand and some of us will be looking for work."


Managing your listeners

What's communicated is often misunderstood because the speaker perceives that what's said is more important than what's heard. This is the heart of communication breakdown. What people say is rarely what's heard, even when you have the best communicator delivering the message.

Think of it this way. Everyone has a unique filter that allows certain ideas in and keeps others out.

If I say "you need to better manage your people.", some hear this through a filter of "thanks for the feedback," while others hear "my job's in danger," while others might think "you don't know what you're talking about." One message, unlimited listening responses.

Consider expanding these listeners' interpretations to 10, 100 or 500 people. The challenge then becomes compounded with the message going from listener to listener, versus from the speaker directly. These watered down communications have direct impact on the collaborative nature of project work, leading to the next problem.

The Blame Game

Projects fail, or are "discouraging successes," because an unproductive cycle begins with the deliverer of the message blaming the listeners for "not getting it," while listeners blame the speaker for being a "poor communicator". This ping-pong match creates a "virus of discontent" across the organization.

For example, if I were to ask you: "Have your piece of the project ready to go in two weeks.", you can blame me for not being clear what "ready to go" means and I can blame you for not following through on a simple request.

Taking Responsibility

What's needed is a paradigm shift away from "who's to blame" to each side taking responsibility for how one is heard and how one listens.

Management need to take greater responsibility for the unintended consequences of what people hear them say. For example, they may use the phrase "efficiency" while everyone hears "job loss".

At the staff level, taking responsibility means validating assumptions about what was heard. The underlying dilemma for staff however is an absence of trust between them and management; that it's REALLY about cleaning house disguised as "productivity improvement".

If trust is a problem across your groups, consider addressing these issues first. Opening this can of worms may benefit from professional facilitation, a service that Teibel Education Consulting can help you address.

Listening and Speaking Strategies

Assuming a basic level of trust and a simple need for better communication skills, consider this point of view:

The majority of the time, what you heard was not what was said or what you spoke was not heard by others accurately. If you come from this point of view, you'll be way ahead of others who are more interested in playing the blame game.

Strategy for someone making requests:

Ask your listener(s):

  1. "What did you hear me say? OR
  2. "What are you going to do?"

Most importantly, don't assume listeners got the message.

Strategy for the listener:

Tell the speaker one of the following three things, even if unprompted:

  1. "What I'm going to do is..."
  2. "What I heard was..."
  3. "What I didn't hear or what I am not going to do is..."

For the second strategy, the goal is to help close the feedback loop so the speaker can evaluate in real-time whether what they intended to communicate was heard accurately.

The Bottom Line

Good communicators are primarily great listeners. Great listening takes the extra step of validating what was heard by others, or makes sure that what was spoken by someone else was heard the way it was intended.

Communication is not the message being spoken; it's the act of two or more parties actively listening to the other for a mutually agreed upon outcome.

On Listening

"June Rokoff, Senior VP at Lotus credits her success in turning around the company's position to building a team that listens: she made listening the culture of her team."

— Glen Rifkin, New York Times