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The critical importance of listening for leading and influencing.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

Last week, I attended a fascinating event promoting Citizens’ Assemblies – an exciting format of ‘deliberative democracy’ that fosters informed discussions among a wide range of people with the aim of using ‘hive wisdom’ to address the trickiest of subjects. For example, according to the Electoral Reform Society, it took only 99 ordinary citizens to help break years of political deadlock and reach a consensus on the highly polarising issue of abortion in Ireland, one of the most contentious political and religious issues you could imagine.

Citizens’ Assemblies are a clever and captivating idea but also deceptively simple.

Take people into a room, feed them information, then listen to them.

In business as in politics and the wider world, we have no lack of information. We can’t possibly consume all the information that’s produced every day, minute, second.

Yet we do suffer from a chronic lack of listening. And I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s a critical tool that we must use more effectively to benefit business and society.

Let me illustrate. Take an opinion that you or I might have about our favourite polarising topic – perhaps immigration, Covid, or net zero. Take your pick. Now imagine you’re having a conversation with someone with the opposite perspective to yours. It’s awkward and you immediately feel yourself becoming tense.

If you’re anything like me, you might load your communication cannon with information you’ve absorbed, then blast that information in the direction of your conversation partner and take cover. They might do the same back.

We have an exchange but nobody has shifted position.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but maybe you recognise this sort of conversation. Maybe it’s happening more frequently in your social circles, within your workplace or in the wider public discourse.

The problem is that no real conversation is happening. That’s because listening isn’t taking place, we’re just attacking each other and defending ourselves.

If, instead, we took our defences down, opened our ears and sought to learn from the other person, what might happen?

The worst case scenario is that we might waste a bit of time; but the best case is that we’d get a heap of benefits such as:

  • Connecting with respect and leaving behind a great feeling
  • Understanding someone else’s viewpoint, fears and questions
  • Being better able to state our case by including the counterarguments that are most relevant to other people
  • Building a better, more trusted relationship
  • Strengthening the collective wisdom within our little dynamic.

Weirdly, once we have listened to the other person. we might also find that we’re more convincing rather than less.

Listening builds influence

This is a shift that we notice in our clients when we deliver our Influencing Upwards and Influencing to Drive Change programmes. It goes something like this:

  1. Our delegates start out feeling intimidated by a senior stakeholder but knowing they need to get better at ‘influencing them’.
  2. As they find this person intimidating, our delegate might see themselves as a little bit small and their stakeholder as big, important and difficult to understand.
  3. To cope with this, they might spend a lot of time worrying about speaking to the important stakeholder and over-prepare, or fake confidence to ‘impress’ that person. Whatever they’re doing, they’re not thinking about, or listening to, their stakeholder.
  4. The big switch comes when we realise that our stakeholders are also human beings who are neither better nor worse than us. They’re just people. When we stop worrying so much about ourselves and listen to the other person (listening to their priorities, listening to their needs, listening to what’s not being said), a relationship is built and influence happens.

It’s so simple, yet so important.

Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

If we could focus on understanding each other within our workplaces, keep the powder dry in our communication cannons and truly listen rather than simply wait for our turn to speak, we could transform our organisations. And if we could extend that out to the wider society, through Citizens’ Assemblies or other formats, we might even be able to resolve other seemingly intractable problems in the world. 

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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