AB Thinks  →  23rd July 2020

If you want to persuade, learn how to listen

When I’m asked to give talks on internal communication, I like to leave the last line to Calvin Coolidge, America’s 30thpresident: “No one ever listened himself out of a job.”

In researching my book, From Cascade to Conversation, I became convinced our ability to listen is one of humankind’s most underrated superpowers. By listening, I do not mean the ability to remain silent while someone else is speaking. That’s just waiting your turn. I mean listening with the expectation you have something to learn. This requires you to be truly present in the conversation, focused on identifying the meaning behind every word you’re hearing.

My research led me to hostage negotiator Richard Mullender. He explained how listening can mean the difference between life and death. Hostage negotiators do not listen to empathise or sympathise. They listen to identify their subject’s values and beliefs. “Once you know someone’s values, you can use these to your advantage – to influence their behaviour,” he told me.

Richard demonstrated this with a story: “Imagine I have a gun and want you to take it from me. You refuse. You’re a pacifist with an intense dislike of guns. How do I convince you to pick up the gun? By telling you exactly how dangerous this weapon is and  the safest place for it is in the hands of someone who fully appreciates its deadliness.”

His lesson is clear – you cannot change someone mind until you have understood it.

The values in the room
My conversation with Richard made me question the countless projects I had undertaken over the years to embed values inside organisations, in order to drive change and transformation. Rather than impose the latest iteration of a company’s values on a workforce, perhaps we should have been listening to the values in the room. What did these employees already believe? What already mattered most to them? Perhaps we might have influenced their behaviour more profoundly by focusing on these values instead.

Later in my career I was given the opportunity to test this theory. The leadership team of a client organisation (which shall remain nameless) said they had a problem. Their long-serving workforce was intransigent and seemed incapable of embracing change. They needed to adopt a more agile, flexible attitude to their work. After facilitating numerous focus groups across the UK, it was clear these employees had a common set of beliefs. They believed in fair play, camaraderie and teamwork. They demanded respect and wanted to feel pride in their work. So, these values formed the foundation of our work. We showed how pride, respect and solidarity would all be enhanced by changing the organisation to compete more effectively. Listening gave us the insight we needed to leverage the mindset, language and values of our audience.

Qual versus quant
The ability to ask pertinent questions and fully comprehend someone’s response is a basic but essential skill for all comms professionals. The knowledge we seek is often in the minds of our audience. Their motivations and opinions are the pointers we need to craft a more appropriate and compelling message.

At the start of any important project, a smart first step is qualitative research – the technique of asking open questions in interviews or focus groups to identify perceptions and opinions. Qualitative research is exploratory. It seeks to uncover the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a particular attitude or behaviour.

Some say this approach lacks the scientific rigour of quantitative research, which relies on collecting and analysing mathematical data from closed questions. But while quantitative research will tell you 33% of your employees do not trust senior leaders, it won’t tell you why they feel this way, how this impacts their work, or what could be done to rebuild faith in leadership.

“Quantitative research is so often puzzling. There are contradictions you can’t resolve – findings that leave you scratching your head,” said world renowned communication expert, Roger D’Aprix in a recent episode of The Internal Comms Podcast. He added: “I want to hear face-to-face, with passion, what people are feeling.”

Taking the acid test
Listening lies at the heart of AB’s unique communications audit, Acid Test, which uses qualitative research to identify ‘communication gaps’ inside organisations. In confidential interviews, employees are asked carefully constructed, open questions to assess how well they understand – and believe in – their organisation’s strategy. Interviews are conducted with a diverse cross-section of the workforce from executives, middle and line managers to those on the frontline. When answers are compared, it becomes clear where and why communication is faltering.

Crucially, Acid Test researchers ask what would solve the problems they identify. In this way, they offer more than a diagnosis of what’s wrong, but a concrete plan for the future, helping clients better target their time, attention and resources.

Make the method a message
“There’s a pay-off to qualitative research not everyone understands – it’s cathartic for employees,” says Roger. We have both seen employees break down and cry in confidential qualitative interviews. As everyone knows, the experience of being truly listened to is therapeutic.

During Acid Test interviews, we always check we are understanding each employee correctly. This technique usually involves the researcher using a phrase such as: “What I think I’m hearing is…”, which puts the blame for any misunderstanding squarely on our shoulders, but prompts the interviewee to reveal more.

With Acid Test – like all good qualitative research – the method is a message. It makes employees feel valued and understood. At the end of almost every Acid Test interview, before we have time to thank people for their time, they thank us.

Not another survey
In internal comms I often hear clients talk about ‘surveyitis’ – a condition in which employees have been asked too many questions and simply cannot be invited to participate in yet another poll. Chuck Gose, a leading voice in internal comms, takes the opposite view – “There is no such thing as ‘surveyitis’, just badly designed surveys,” he told me on The Internal Comms Podcast.

Online polls and surveys, with a multitude of closed questions, are easy and inexpensive. But how valuable are they for the pollster or participant? “Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination,” said Scottish writer Andrew Lang.

Whereas qualitative research – intelligent, intentional listening – is a rare win-win. Those taking part feel valued and understood; and those seeking to communicate uncover new, meaningful ways forge a deeper connection with their audience.