The Business Improvement Network

Improvement is a result of Listening

By PJ Stevens

BIN - The Business Improvement Network

Bell and Mejer, identify poor listening as a ‘silent killer of productivity and profit,’ and state that change becomes extremely difficult to implement in a work environment when people are not listening.

Good listening allows us to actively show we are paying attention. In the classroom or boardroom, listening helps us connect to thoughts, ideas, information, feelings and behaviours. It is crucial to maintaining productive relationships and is key to establishing quality communication, both of which impact directly on most – if not all – aspects of business improvement.

The Chinese character for listening shows we need to listen with our whole being. Specifically, it identifies the need to listen with your eyes, heart and ears, to treat the other person as royalty and give them your undivided attention. Listening is not a spectator sport – as I am famed for saying - therefore we have got to get involved! 

In a recent (online) workshop I delivered, we discussed the value of listening and here’s what people said happened when they felt listening was present in conversations:

• I feel valued

• What I have to say matters 

• You care about me 

• Listening helps me learn new things

• You get an emotional connection

• Being listened to helps me think things through

• Listen leads to clarity and understanding 

• Develops trust

• We opened up more

• I saw things in a differently light

We know listening skills are essential to many business roles and functions such as managing, coaching, mentoring, facilitation, negotiation and interviewing to name but a handful. Good listening is also a vital part of decision making, reaching agreements, feedback, change, improvement, influencing and overcoming conflict and disagreements.

Without listening, no organisation can hope to operate, or survive, though many pay scant regard to the ability of the organisation to listen, perhaps in future this will be corrected. Effective listening is essential for the organisation to gather information required to enable it to adapt to meet the changing needs of staff, customers and the marketplace. Adapting to changing needs now, requires even better listening, if businesses are to . Ferrari (2012) identifies listening as the most critical business skill of all. He notes, “listening can well be the difference between profit and loss, between success and failure’, and goes on to say listening can be the difference between a successful career and a short one!

Listening benefits us professionally in many ways from improved leadership, learning and trust. Hoppe (2006) lists many professional advantages of (active) listening, indicating that it helps us to better understand and make connections between ideas and information; change perspectives and challenge assumptions; empathise and show respect or appreciation, which can enhance our relationships; and build self-esteem. Conversely, it is widely recognised that when people aren’t listening, it becomes much more difficult to get things done effectively and trust diminishes leading to potential conflict and disengagement. 

Listening is key in personal relationships. Steven Covey (Seven Habits) tells how a CEO of a 35,000 employee-business came to acknowledge the importance of listening after his wife told him that he didn’t listen to their daughter. Having listened to that wonderful feedback, he honed his listening skills. He grew closer to his daughter and having learned the value of listening he applied it to his business.

Studies by Bommelje, Houston and Smither, show a strong link between effective listening and academic success, supporting previous research in this field linking listening skills to exam results. This finding is unsurprising as the better you listen at school, the better prepared you will be for your assignments and exams. It is quite simple really because when we listen, we pick up instructions, feedback, useful facts and insights that improve our learning journey and the quality of course work. 

But how does all this help us in lockdown down? Humans are social creatures, we are herd animals, and yet we are being asked to live in isolation.

Being on lockdown will put pressure on the few face to face relationships and the many virtual relationships we will be managing in these unprecedented times. And with relationships under pressure it will be hard to find ways to improve. We must take extra care and attention, as our listening and patience will be stretched to breaking point at times. Imagine living alone and being uncertain, even scared; now think how important these virtual calls are for many people living and trying to work in isolation. Remember the Chinese character and treat these people like royalty and listen with all your being. 

What are the barriers to us giving each other a good listening to? This list is by no means exhaustive, but here’s what I hear often from people:

• Leaders think they know best

• I’m busy and don’t have time to listen

• There is insufficient trust or respect in the relationship

• I don’t value what you say

• My kids don’t listen to me they think I just ‘blah’

• Past experiences with the other person get in the way

• I don’t feel confident if I don’t know the answers

Which one(s) caught your attention? Better still, which one do you need to change or improve?

In lockdown we need to park our ego and some of the excuses that we use to not listen, and take advantage of this opportunity to learn and upskill ourselves, listen better, connect with others and, where possible improve levels of communication, understanding and performance. However good we think we are at listening, now’s the time for all of us to improve, and for some, to start listening.

I strongly sense we need to listen and therefore learn our way into our future, together, for the greater sense of improvement.

About the author

PJ Stevens is an expert in organisational change, performance and improvement, with 20 years experience. He is chair of the business improvement network.

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"Continuous Improvement is better than delayed perfection"

Mark Twain