On more than one occasion, I have talked with individuals who were asked to be part of “listening sessions” that turned out to be something else entirely. As stakeholders in an organization, they were invited to give their opinions about how effective the organization was in achieving its goals and to make suggestions for the future. Instead, they found their comments discounted and the facilitator of the “listening session” seeking to justify the prior actions and present practices of the organization.
The definition of “listen” is “to pay close attention to; to give heed to.” There are two aspects to this definition. First, one is attentive to the words that the speaker is saying. Second, the words of the speaker lead the listener to take action. (And I assume that action should be other than to defend oneself.)
Let me suggest some guidelines for those conducting “listening” sessions.
First, listen. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand . . . then to be understood.” Listening involves suspending one’s own judgment and predetermined ideas enough to really hear what the other person is saying. This takes not only patience but perception.
Second, be respectful. You have asked the participants to give up some of their time to help you understand better the situation you find yourself in. Be cognizant of the fact that they are investing their time in order to help you. Of course, your learning may help you to serve them more effectively in the long term, but you are the one asking for help in the short term.
Third, be humble. Admit that you don’t have all the answers. In reality, you may not even know how to effectively frame the questions! Realize that you are a learner and that the members of your audience are your teachers.
Fourth, take notes. If possible, have someone else take copious notes of what is said without attribution of who made particular comments. This is better than doing a video or audio recording which might discourage some folks from being completely candid. The notes provide reminders and possible items for action. If someone specifically asks for a response to a statement, ask them to either give you their contact information or provide a way that they can get in touch with you by e-mail or letter.
Fifth, leave the door open for further discussion. In these types of sessions, people often think of things later that they wish they had said or they will respond more honestly when they are not part of a group. Let them know how to get in touch with you.
Sixth, use what you discover. When you initiate feedback opportunities, you are making a covenant with participants that you are going to use what they have provided. If not, why bother?
We need more the opportunity for stake holders to speak but it must be more than a mere public relations ploy or meaningless exercise if it is to be an effective tool for change.