I know excellent leadership depends on great listening—I was a natural with that. Each moment of listening is a step forward in building commitment.
But, early in my career, my way of telling too often led to pushback or withdrawal into silence—it was like three steps backwards with commitment.
A recipe for people not really listening
At that time, I was driven by a need for success which led to a need to convince people of my ideas. So, I worked hard to present ideas in a powerful and inspirational way, minimizing weaknesses and flaws. I was well-prepared and could quickly counter any perceived limitations or risks.
The trouble was that people almost always had concerns—few organizational actions are risk-free. Too often, my quick retorts made them feel not listened to. This would provoke debate we could not resolve well or silent discontent which slowed or blocked the actions I wanted.
A paradox of skillful telling
As I sought research and advice about telling, I discovered that even the most inspirational speech is lucky if it gets even 20% of people on board! (1) The large majority of people have to talk their way toward commitment over multiple conversations.
Paradoxically, people are more likely to pull together around an idea if they are able to freely express and explore concerns. Also, people need to be able to talk things over to figure out how an idea connects to what is important to them.
I even had to face the humbling reality that my best ideas had holes and flaws. In complex systems, no one person has the full picture and everyone has a perspective to learn from. It was very hard, but I gradually learned to link success with actually seeking out negative reactions.
A method for skillful telling
To tell effectively I first prepare myself by remembering “My best ideas are just theories to be tested and improved upon.” Then I proceed with a cycle of Ask-Tell-Ask (2):
- Ask: In a way appropriate to the situation, I ask permission to give my point of view. This is surprisingly powerful in facilitating openness and I have never had anyone refuse.
- Tell: I am careful to use "I" statements (i.e. "This is the way I am seeing things." as opposed to "This is the way things are.")--another very simple but powerful method to convey there is not One Truth and that I will be interested in any reactions.
- Ask: I ask people what they heard me say through some form of summarizing or repeating back. Because this can feel awkward, I may explain how easy it is for us all to misinterpret each other. Also, I ask for reactions and summarize what I heard.
Several cycles of Ask-Tell-Ask get a lot out on the table. People are more likely to feel taken seriously. Concerns can get then converted into issues for problem solving and action.
Risks and traps in active telling
I call this approach active telling because, like active listening, it is two-way—the goal is to assure mutual understanding and exploration of ideas even if there is disagreement.
I have experienced first-hand several risks and traps. Watch out for the inevitable lure back into convincing others. Also, I have learned to be careful that helping others feel heard does not lead to premature abandonment or revision of my ideas. The reverse can happen--dealing with negativity can easily pull us all, at times, into getting more rigid and discounting feedback.
Human affairs are never perfect. There is no guarantee these methods mean people will really listen to you. But, the chances for getting to true commitment are much higher.
- The tool In the Moment Reminder for Active Telling is available for subscribers only. To obtain the link, subscribe for free monthly resources at Subscribe.
- Once you subscribe, you will also receive a link to the expanded tool for dialogic leadership In the Moment Reminders for Dialogue.
(1) Baker, Neil The Impact of a Visionary Speech.
(2) Adapted from multiple sources including Miller, William R., Rollnick, Stephen Motivational Interviewing The Guilford Press 2012. See the tool on active telling for full list of references.