By Gary Turner, Turner Consulting
No One Was Listening
Listening is an integral part of the success (or failure) of communication in the workplace. This became apparent to one large company of about 34,000 employees that needed to address a number of complaints about its compensation-benefits department. The common thread of many complaints was that employees were not listening when handling internal needs and requests. The vice president of human resources asked me to work with this department to see how the situation could be improved. I turned to HRDQ's Learning to Listen, a comprehensive communication assessment that could help identify how this department was struggling and provide a road map to improvement.
Investigating with the Listening Model
The foundation of Learning to Listen can be found in the "Listening Model," which focuses on both the visible and invisible aspects of listening behavior.
The Listening Model
Visible aspects include eye contact, body language, and posture, while invisible aspects focus on what’s going on in the listener's mind. The 30-item assessment determines participants' listening effectiveness overall and across three key dimensions of listening:
- Staying Focused: Clearing the mind, recognizing when concentration sways, and viewing listening as an opportunity even when the subject or delivery is dry.
- Capturing the Message: Letting go of personal biases, taking notes, clarifying the main points, and probing for more information.
- Helping the Speaker: Avoiding distracting interruptions, letting the speaker be in the limelight, and offering non-verbal encouragement.
The breakdown of those three dimensions was instrumental in the improvement of the department. After determining the scores of 66 participants, I discovered that most scored above the national average in "Staying Focused and Capturing the Message," but below the national average in "Helping the Speaker."
Closer examination of particular complaints reaffirmed that most problems were due to a lack of positive behaviors that helped the speaker and bolstered effective listening. This problem was intensified by the fact that most interactions between the department and internal customers were over the phone. Establishing behaviors that help the speaker is more challenging when the speaker does not see the visual aspects of the listener, such as facial expressions, eye-contact, and body movement.
The decline in this dimension of listening could also be explained by a directional shift in leadership. After meeting with the management team, we realized that leadership emphasis during the previous two years had been put on "Capturing the Message."
Employees were asked to take notes on standardized forms and check off items to ensure that they were capturing the information they needed to add to the human resource information system. That emphasis on taking notes helped explain why most of them scored above average on the "Capturing the Message" factor, but focus on the "Helping the Speaker" dimension had been cast aside.
Additionally, the importance of "Helping the Speaker" was lost in the shuffle of other problems. The department was overburdened with a heavy workload and suffered low morale due to a lack of pay increases. Work was also inadequately covered during vacation and sick-time absences. This may explain why they might not have been motivated to help the speaker.
Better Communication by Learning to Listen
Learning to Listen provided essential strategies for improvement that guided our training to help our participants redevelop their listening skills. We taught our participants how they could help the speaker by showing patience, controlling one's tone of voice, and providing confirmation to the speaker. Positive reinforcements helped the training stick, like posting funny smiling faces around the office to remind employees to smile when talking on the phone to internal customers.
If it wasn't for HRDQ's Learning to Listen, the cause of the complaints would not have been accurately identified and addressed. We were able to establish a renewed listening approach for employees and realign the management’s emphasis to fit all dimensions of listening skills. After completing the training, communication rapidly improved and complaints against the department decreased immensely. When we came back a couple months later, not one complaint could be labeled as a "listening deficiency."
Gary Turner has more than 30 years of professional experience with major corporations such as M&M Mars, Aramark, and AT&T. His diverse area of expertise includes consulting on leadership, team development, organizational improvement, communication, conflict management, and collaboration. He has been a requested speaker at conventions of ASTD, American Society for Quality, College and University Personnel Association and more.