“Listen if you want to be heard”

My headline is a quotation from Kevin Murray’s excellent new book “The Language of Leaders”. As the book was only released from embargo yesterday at a spectacular launch party in Uniever House, I guess I am probably the first to quote from it. I certainly won’t be the last. Kevin interviewed more than 60 CEOs and Chairs, and has distilled a rich blend of wisdom and advice.

The entreaty to listen is as important as it is sometimes (for many of us at least) difficult to do. I am reminded of my own weakness in this area as I read through the transcripts of the interviews I am doing for my own book on Decision Making. Several times I read “DW interrupting”, or “DW overtalking”!

How embarrassing it is to have one’s faults so graphically displayed. But that’s not important. What matters is that in our need to communicate, we often put our desire to get our point across ahead of the need to understand where everyone else is coming from.

Let’s return to that familiar aunt sally, the unproductive meeting. Think back to the last time you emerged from an hour’s or hour and a half’s worth of meeting frustrated that nothing was achieved, no decision taken. All that effort in juggling diaries to assemble the key stakeholders, and you and your colleagues are no further forward. I’ll bet there was at least a trace of all of the following:

• Somebody important either failing to make it, or having to leave early
• The more dominant personalities doing the lion’s share of the talking
• 40 or 50% of people in the meeting making very little contribution (not talking – maybe not really listening either)
• The agenda not completed
• Main problem still not solved
• No decisions
• Time on the project running out

All this is crucial in today’s corporate environment where, as Kevin points out, leaders need to demonstrate speed and agility as well as consummate communication skills.

Is there an answer over and above persuading even the most loquacious and articulate to try and listen? That is certainly a big part of it. In his book Kevin quotes David Nussbaum, CEO of the WWF in the UK, as advocating listening with our eyes as well as our ears, to ensure we can read the body language of others.

This is very reminiscent to me of Professor Charles Spence’s emphasis on synaesthesia (using two or more of the senses at the same time), in his analysis of consumer decision making.

But behavioural change in adults (particularly corporate heavy hitters) is not easy to bring about. Equally important in redressing the balance between listening and being heard is ensuring that all decisions (including those determining how companies communicate in public) are made on the basis of the best data.

Best data has to include consideration of the views and recommendations of the quiet ones as well as the dominant ‘overtalkers’. These views can just as easily written down and read, as spoken and heard. Even metaphoric listening is far better than not listening at all.