Listening to learn to listen

You can only truly be a successful communicator if you know how to listen, Rachel Shaw delves into the art of listening…

We all think we listen. Yet, most of us now work in fast-paced work environments.

With so much noise around us, are we listening or just hearing?

Listening is actively turning your attention to what is being said, concentrating only on that and shutting off all the other noise, both your own internal chatter and everything else around you. It is not easy but it is a skill that can be honed and practised over time.

At Lansons, in our role as reputation management experts, we understand the importance of listening to our clients and their audiences. It’s why we recently hosted the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC UK) for their:

‘Listening workshop: a critical skill for communicators – so why is it dying?’

The workshop was facilitated by IABC UK president, Howard Krais, last year’s president, Mike Poundford and founder of the PR Academy, Dr Kevin Ruck. The session specifically delved into listening to employees.

As a participant, it was refreshing to see that although we all had different backgrounds and organisational challenges, we all unanimously agreed that listening is vital to a company’s success. Yet, the role of communication professionals in facilitating listening was more debatable.

Several argued that the onus lies with senior stakeholders to listen more to their employees, while for others they felt that it was more important to create a space where employees can listen effectively to their senior leaders.  

Visible leadership and employee voice are two key drivers of engagement, so it is understandable they were at the forefront of the listening discussion. Giving them equal weighting in internal communication campaigns can be a challenge. So, I want to delve a little more into three key takeaways from the IABC’s listening workshop that we can all use to improve how we listen to employees.

These are; effective tools, relevancy and cultural sensitivities.

What we know works

Creating face to face opportunities for leaders to speak to employees is one of the most effective tools you can use to listen and help give your senior leadership teams more visibility. Coaching leaders to use mirroring tactics, be more empathetic, make eye contact and use the right tone of voice will help build a better connection between employees and leaders.

An effective method for using this approach on a larger scale is to initiate non-mandatory drop-in sessions across departments and regions which can cater to all levels. Similar to how HSBC did with its HSBC Exchange employee channel. This can also be more cost effective than deploying new technology to broadcast messaging, as all it requires is a room and some refreshments.

We find that employees not only want to give feedback, but usually also want to understand how they can contribute to something greater than their day to day. However, it is essential to make sure that following these discussions, you reflect back to your employees what you have heard and that actions may follow to show they have been listened to. If you do not, your organisational integrity may suffer as your employees will not feel that your leaders do not value their voice.

Listen to be relevant

Another key finding shared in the listening workshop presentation that seems simple, yet many companies don’t do properly, is listening to be relevant. Take company blogs for instance. The majority that are successful have made sure that they know their audience first and have asked employees what content they want to consume. An effective technique to encourage feedback on content is to turn on the commenting and sharing functionality on blogs or posts, so that they can share their opinions. Although, this approach should also be mildly monitored. You can also ask them through other listening channels such as pulse surveys, focus groups or online forums. Over time, this feedback will allow you to tailor your content to your employees’ interests, providing the right balance of relevant information they want to see.

Cultural considerations

Finally, in particular if you operate across multiple regions, being sensitive to your employees’ cultural differences is paramount. Yet many companies are still implementing blanket communication approaches across their regions, where a more tailored approach may be better.

Take for example, different cultural perspectives on authority within a corporate environment.

Before rolling out a face to face drop-in session programme, make sure that the regions you are trying to listen to are open to feeding back on or to authority. Offices in Russia for instance, will not necessarily be as open to giving feedback on their leadership team as their London counterparts may be. If this is the case, then try a different listening method which is less direct, such as an anonymous survey.

When creating content for your audiences, try and make sure that you listen to their cultural needs as well as what they need to know from a business perspective. For instance, some employees in London may relate to a story about a colleague running the marathon, whereas an employee in Sri Lanka may not.

Think what may be important across shared cultures that can connect employees.

If you aren’t sure, then ask them. After all, if you are not aware of what your employees are interested in, how can you possibly engage them?

Effectively listening to employees can be complex, but it is a skill that we all can improve on and in doing so, we can harness the power of internal communications to drive engagement and business results.

There are plenty of fantastic resources out there to help guide your internal engagement strategies, but two of note are Time to Think by Nancy Kline and Exploring Internal Communication by Dr Kevin Ruck, which goes a little deeper into his research on listening.