Making Sense. The art of listening.

For more than twenty years, we have worked with various companies. In this article, we share our observations on the unwritten rules in organisations. Rules that have been adopted by everyone over the years, without anyone really instilling them or writing them down. Unwritten rules ensure that everything runs smoothly and that there is order and balance. But is that really the case? What is happening underneath the surface? And how can you find out?

To understand what is really going on, one needs to listen. We all know that for listening you use your ears, but also other senses transmit signals that might be important. Listening is a fundamental element of effective communication. It is: hearing and observing with attention. What does someone tell you in a verbal or non-verbal manner? And what is being said by not saying anything at all?

Listening to the unsaid

For the unsaid, the same goes as for unwritten rules. It only surfaces during observation and when questions are asked. Answers to these questions give a peek beneath the surface.

Every individual has a different perspective. Without jointly discussing this, because it is not a daily topic of conversation, it is not always clear how another person looks at the world. Or the behaviour within an organisation, a team or the atmosphere or something completely different. Who knows?

Is the balance that is in place actually pleasant for everyone? And what exactly is it that is not being said or should not be said? In short: paying attention to what goes on below the waterline is essential. In addition, it is not always obvious for people to speak out.

Why is it so difficult to speak up?

In a safe culture, people will speak up relatively easily. But if there is a lack of openness or trust, people might ask themselves: What are the risks if I lay all the cards on the table? How will I be perceived by my colleagues, team members or manager? What is the possible impact on my career?

People who are new to a company generally have an unerring sense of the atmosphere. In team sessions with new employees, we regularly ask the question “What do you notice about the culture of this organisation?”. Managers who take part are often surprised at how clearly newcomers can put their observations into words.

What you should ask yourself as a leader?

For a leader it is key to know how people feel in an organisation. One can do this by regularly connecting with people, out of a sincere interest. Before doing that, it is important to start with yourself first. Ask yourself : What is my intention in having this conversation and do I have the time for it? If you do, you can start the conversation with a simple but heartfelt: ‘How are you?’ Then be quiet, even if it takes five minutes for the other person to answer. Give people time to think. Their answer may surprise you.

As a follow-up question you could use: Do you feel heard?, What do you need?, Do you feel supported when you speak up?. The trick is not to shoot these questions down like a cross-examination, but to really take the time for the answer, to summarise what you (think you) have heard and to keep asking. That is true listening and only then, you will hear what is really going on.

Listening is a skill

Nobody said that listening was easy. It takes energy, personal interest and a genuine desire to take the first step as a manager to — in many cases — demonstrate new behaviour.

Daphne Laan

Daphne Laan: When I help executive teams increase their impact, I listen to what is being said between the lines and look for patterns. When several people share the same thing, there is something at the core that wants to be solved. The solution may be to recognise this, stop doing something or start with something new to achieve a more effective approach. Often people say: “We started working together in a new way very naturally.” The fact that people feel heard makes a world of difference.

Creating space through silence

Unfortunately, many people avoid silence or talk a lot to counter it. By observing silence, you can create space to really hear yourself, the other person and your environment. When you ask a question, the other person needs time to think, to listen to his or her own answer, before speaking up. How often does it happen that someone asks a question, finds that the answer is too long in coming and fills the silence themselves? Daring to be silent and keeping quiet is an art. And for that reason silence is sometimes a very good answer.

Sonja Wekema

Sonja Wekema: I work with Mark on a regular basis. Mark has a habit of apologising for having an opinion. I am doing it again’, he says. I am usually quick to reassure Mark. After all, if he didn’t judge, it would be dangerous. Oh yes,’ he says, ‘when I see a lion I have to get out of the way. Mark now knows that our brains are programmed for survival.

When I ask him what his judgement is based on, he often comes up with a rational story. If I remain silent for a while or ask him more questions, the tone of the conversation soon changes. Then we are where we need to be. Mark: “I know what you’re doing…. Now you’re holding that mirror up to me again!

Share vulnerability and others will follow

Creating trust starts with showing and sharing vulnerability. What do you find difficult, what are you struggling with, are you open to feedback? As soon as the other person understands that, as a manager, you too have doubts, trust will grow. And the other person feels they are being taken seriously. This is the moment when the real stories come out. Stories that help increase mutual understanding. Stories that in many cases contain crucial information, which you can then act on. Stories that can help you improve your company and ultimately make your people happier. As an executive, by being open yourself and sharing your honest story, you can contribute to an open culture, where people feel heard and dare to speak out.

When you share your story, you invite others to do the same.

When there is nothing behind the fear

We have experienced that there is actually nothing behind the fear of trying something differently and stepping up in being honest about what you stand for When you overcome a small fear, it gives you the courage to take the next step. By experiencing this and openly discussing your discomfort, you open the door to a safe culture. You create a place where people dare to say what is on their mind, a place where they are seen and where they are heard.

True listening does not happen by itself. It requires attention and energy. And genuine interest. If you really want to understand what is going on below the waterline and take time for the real conversation, you make room for the other. Be surprised by the power of silence and listen.