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The Advice Process – Flaws and Fixes

“The advice process is a tool that helps decision-making via collective intelligence. Much depends on the spirit in which people approach it. When the advice process is introduced, it might be worthwhile to train colleagues not only in the mechanics but also on the mindset underlying effective use.”

We’ve been using the Advice Process for several months now. Whilst we’re still very much committed to its use, and wish to see the changes it promotes, all has not been going smoothly with its uptake.

Promises

We chose the Advice process as a means to devolving and distributing decision-making. We like its promise of quicker – and better! – decisions, raised levels of trust, improved communication, and higher levels of involvement and engagement. This list describes the promises, as described by its early promoter, Dennis Bakke of AES, in more detail:

  • Community: it draws people, whose advice is sought into the question at hand. They learn about the issue. The sharing of information reinforces the feeling of community. The person whose advice is sought feels honored and needed
  • Humility: asking for advice is an act of humility, which is one of the most important characteristics of a fun workplace. The act alone says, “I need you“. The decision maker and the adviser are pushed into a closer relationship. This makes it nearly impossible for the decision-maker to ignore the advice.
  • Learning: making decisions is on-the-job education. Advice comes from people who have an understanding of the situation and care about the outcome. No other form of education or training can match this real-time experience.
  • Better decisions: chances of reaching the best decision are greater than under conventional top-down approaches. The decision maker has the advantage of being closer to the issue and has to live with responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Advice provides diverse input, uncovering important issues and new perspectives.
  • Fun: the process is just plain fun for the decision-maker, because it mirrors the joy found in playing team sports. The advice process stimulates initiative and creativity, which are enhanced by the wisdom from knowledgeable people elsewhere in the organization.

Practice

In practice, we have not yet seen full realisation of the promises. Overall, we attribute this to poor implementation of the Advice Process, which we’re now intent (sic) on fixing – whilst not undermining its original promises (see above).

Flaws

Some of the implementation flaws we have experienced include:

  • Permission-seeking. Some folks have not yet overcome their established reflex of seeking permission. The Advice Process as conceived rejects permission-seeking, placing implicit responsibility for outcomes on the individual or team with the intent, not on the permission-giver. This shift (i.e. from authoritarianism to co-creation) requires a degree of courage from all parties.
  • Trust. Some advisors have found it challenging to trust the intentions or competence of those seeking advice.
  • Belief. Some with intentions have found it challenging to believe that they now have the power/authority to make key decisions.
  • Misunderstanding/clashing frames of reference. Sometimes, advice sought and then given has been received/interpreted as denial of permission.
  • Impatience. The delay between announcing intent and receiving advice has proved a source of friction, leading on occasions to proceeding without waiting to receive considered advice from advisors who may hold key pieces of the puzzle (often, these are the busiest of people).
  • Criticality. Some people have voiced concerns that key business decisions with serious negative commercial or reputational risks could proceed to action, even when some key risks go unappreciated or unaddressed (due to advice being sought from the wrong quarters, ignored, or not understood).

Fixes

We’re intending to experiment with addressing the above concerns through a couple of refinements:

  • Shared responsibility. The onus of communication will rest equally with those communicating intent and those from whom for advice is sought. Those announcing an intent are requested to actively pursue advisors to confirm their intent has been heard and understood by all the necessary parties; those from whom advice is sought are requested to respond promptly and with due consideration of the significance of their role and advice.
  • Time-outs. In those cases where someone believes there is a problem – maybe they feel the Advice Process has not been followed correctly or not used when it should have been – that someone may call a Time-out. The intention or action in question – which may already be in train – will then be suspended, pending a go-around (i.e. another taking of soundings, general proposal of intent, seeking of advice, confirmation that the intent has been understood, and consideration of advice received). Note: This does not imply that the intention itself has been denied or overruled. Rather, some party to a particular instance of the Advice Process believes the Advice Process has not been followed or used appropriately, and that the risks implicit in the intention or action are likely not being duly considered or attended-to.
  • Arbitration. We’ll see if we need to introduce some arbitration or conflict-resolution mechanism to handle repeated time-outs being called against a given intention or action, or to handle occasions where parties disagree on whether the Advice Process has indeed been followed correctly or not.

I’ll keep you posted on how our experiment is going.

– Bob

Further Reading

Decision Making ~ ReinventingOrganisations Wiki

The Advice Process – Definition and Usage Tips ~ Daniel Tenner

Advice Process for Effective Organizational Decision-Making ~ Agilitrix

What If #4 – No Answers

What if we refrained from inviting answers, at least until we had sought our own? What if we refrained from providing answers, at least until someone had unequivocally asked?

“I don’t understand this” is a pretty common admission. Although not perhaps as commonly admitted as it is thought or experienced. And what do we do when our friends, peers, colleagues, loved ones make this admission to us? We jump to fill the void. To provide some answers. To help them in their understanding. Helping people to understand is a natural human reaction. But how helpful is it, really?

How often do we tell ourselves that we’re helping someone to understand, when we’re actually just helping them adopt our interpretation?

And what if we helped them to understand something and they came to their own understanding of it? An understanding at odds with our own? How would we feel then?

Personally, the joy I find in helping people understand something is as nothing compared to the joy I take in folks finding their own understanding. Even, and perhaps especially, when it differs from mine.

There are occasions when someone asks me directly. “Just tell me the damn answer!”. On these occasions I mourn for the loss of opportunity. For the lost chance to explore together. For the missed joy we might both have taken from finding answers together. And yet most times I’ll accede to the demand. Albeit with a heavy heart.

What if we refrained from inviting answers, at least until we had sought our own? What if we refrained from providing answers, at least until someone had unequivocally asked us? What if we just tried to listen, to hold the space, to empathise, and to do what we could to relate to people as fellow human beings, walking together for a while, as we each pursue our journeys?

NB. I’m not looking for answers here – at least, until you’ve found some of your own.

– Bob

Further Reading

What Is Clean Language? ~ Marian Way

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

Attending To The Needs Of Others

Picture of a giraffe's head

Following on from my previous post, some folks may be wondering just how to go about “attending to folks’ needs”. As the brevity of my previous post seemed to find favour, I’ll keep this one (kinda) brief, too.

Giraffe Listening

For me, it all starts with learning to listen with giraffe ears. “Listening to get in touch with what’s alive in a person” as Marshall Rosenberg puts it.

And there’s probably no better place to start learning to listen than with oneself. I mean, listening TO oneself. You can do it in secret, without anyone knowing, until you’ve found a little confidence in the practice of it. Confidence which may help in listening to others.

Empathy

Empathy is “the ability to be wholly present with someone”. It’s not what you say, and certainly not what you think. It’s the ability to just be present, non-judgmentally, with someone.

Again, I’d suggest practicing on yourself first. It’s particularly tricky to empathise with others if you haven’t quite found the knack of empathising with yourself.

Learn To See Your Own Needs

Even with listing to oneself and empathising with oneself, it can take some reflection and further practice to begin to understand one’s own needs. Nonviolent Communication suggests that our needs derive from our feelings about things we have observed. Things someone has said, or done.

Identifying these triggers, objectively (like a fly-on-the-ewall, without judgement) can lead us into exploring the feelings they trigger.

And thence to the needs that the trigger has met – or failed to meet.

And ultimately to making a refusable request of ourself – or another – in an attempt (experiment) to get those needs met.

Experiencing this four-step process for and with ourselves puts us in a better place to begin to do the same with others.

Moving On To Others’ Needs

When you’ve built up a little reservoir of confidence in listening to yourself and empathising with yourself, then it might be time to engage with others.

Ike Lasater suggests it can be helpful to negotiate an explicit agreement with each person you might want to engage with. At least, if they know you and your “habitual” ways of communicating with them. Adopting a new way of relating to people, with new words, can come across as weird or clumsy at first. Even with some self-practice under your belt. So to minimise freaking out your colleagues, and nearest and dearest, making a refusable request of them to allow you to try out you new moves can assuage early confusion and angst.

And a word of caution:

It’s sooo easy to “put yourself into someone else’s needs”. By which I mean, saying to yourself “I just know this person needs…[x]”.

It can be helpful to guess what they might be feeling (we can never know with any certainly) – and try that guess out on them to see if we guessed right:

“I guess your feeling [bewildered]?”

The other person is then free to confirm or deny that feeling. If they deny, we might choose to guess again. And if they confirm, then we might guess what need(s) they have (if they don’t volunteer this information) that are or are not getting met:

“I guess that’s because you need [some kind of consistency between people’s words and actions]?”

Again, the other person is free to confirm or deny your guess.

And we can even invtie them to make a refusable request:

“Would you be willing to ask something of me (or another) that might help in getting that need (of yours) met?

In summary, when you’ve got a handle on helping yourself identify your own needs (and making refusable requests of yourself, or others) then you’re in a position to begin doing the same with and for others. I take this to be what Marshall Rosenberg meant when he said:

“Empathy gives you the ability to enjoy another person’s pain.”

I find much joy – and enjoyment – in being able to empathise, and attend to others’ needs. Especially when they’re in some kind of pain. The Antimatter Principle is founded on the belief – and confirming science – that every human being does.

– Bob

Acknowledgements

My thanks to George Dinwiddie (@gdinwiddie) for suggesting the topic for this post.

Further Reading

Words That Work In Business ~ Ike Lasater
More Time To Think ~ Nancy Kline

Listening

ListeningDog

“Listening…means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person…. To be with another in this ways means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside yourself…”

~ Carl Rogers

How often do you feel people are listening to you? That they’re interested in how you’re feeling and what you have to say? That by listening they’re connecting with you as a person? How often do you listen well enough that others feel that same way about you?

Practise

Whilst in Berlin last week for Agile Testing Days 2014, I chose to avail myself of the opportunity to practise my listening skills.

In the course of this practise, I’ve learned a few things – and had a mini-epiphany – which I thought might be useful to share with y’all.

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

~ Henry Miller

Judgmental Listening

I’ve written previously about judgment and its connection with the quality of relationships. I’ve been practising for a year or two now on reducing the (moralistic) judgments integral to my observations. This has brought me to the point where I’m now aware of the judgments I’m making – and have been making all my life – whilst listening to things people are saying. You know the kind of thing. Someone says something and you immediately start evaluating what they’ve said, and, incidentally, the speaker themselves: “That’s cool”. “That’s dubious”. “That makes no sense to me”. “They must be mad/bad/stupid/awesome”. And so on. A whole host of judgments.

Hierarchy of Listening

Various researchers have written about hierarchies of listening skills. The hierarchy I have in mind does not correspond closely to the core themes of these other hierarchies. Rather, I’m looking here at the question of listening from the perspective of improving the quality of interpersonal relationships. Listening effectively can help raise the quality of interpersonal relationships, whilst listening ineffectively can actually undermine those relationships.

ListeningStates

Fake Listening

Fake Listening describes situations where the “listener” is only pretending to listen. The sounds of the speakers words are heard, but the “listener” does not process those sounds to derive meaning. Fake listening can be accompanied with some or all the signs of active listening, but the speaker, sooner or later, notices that the “listener” is only faking it.

Listening to Reply

Maybe the most common kind of listening in our organisations, workplaces and working relationships today. Here, people listen just enough to detect when it’s their turn to say something, and to be able to say something seemingly relevant to the thread of conversation. Nancy Kline in her work with the Thinking Environment contrasts this with “listening to ignite thinking [together]”.

“To be an effective Thinking Partner is to proffer alert, present, non-judgmental and attentive silence to another while they are thinking. The person being listened to, the Thinker, is held in a benevolent field of attention, free of competition, in which the quality of the listening, is a ‘listening to ignite thinking’ not a ‘listening to reply'”.

~ Michael Heuerman

Active Listening

Active Listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening – otherwise the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.

“Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal messages such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Mmm hmm’ to encourage them to continue. By providing this ‘feedback’ the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.”

Active listening not only means focusing fully on the speaker but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening. Generally speakers appreciate listeners demonstrating their ‘active listening’ by the listener responding both verbally and non-verbally to what they are saying.

NVC Listening

I’m calling this state of listening “NVC listening” because it draws on the Nonviolent Communication work of Marshall Rosenberg. Specifically, Rosenberg invites us to “empty our mind and listen with our whole being” whilst “focussing on what’s alive, right now, in the other person”.

Other have described similar states and labelled them with terms such as “Therapeutic Listening” or “Empathetic Listening”. I choose not to use these terms, primarily because I use what I’m here referring to as “NVC Listening” as a practise technique for raising my awareness of my own judgmental listening, whilst actually trying to “empathise with what is alive in the person” to whom I am listening.

The noted Psychotherapist and creator of Client-Centred Therapy, Carl Rogers, defined empathy as:

[the perception of] the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition (Rogers, 1959, p. 210-211).

Active Listening vs Compassionate (NVC) Listening

There are many places on the web which explain Active Listening, its benefits, and how to practice it. But the outward signs of Active Listening can often belie our inner judgmental filters through which the speaker’s words are passing.

Compassionate listening, in contrast, need not have any outward signs. Although that might be disconcerting or unhelpful for the person speaking.

In practising NVC Listening, I try to combine the visible signs of Active Listening with internal aspects of compassionate (empathetic) listening. I try to notice myself whenever I’m beginning to start an evaluation or form a judgment, and short-circuit // override that in favour of getting in touch with what’s alive in that person.

Epiphany

The epiphany I mentioned at the head of this post is this:

We can notice our natural tendency to judgmental listening if we have something else to focus on. In NVC Listening I focus on what might be alive in the other person. Where they’re coming from. What’s important to them. Their possible feeling and needs underlying the things they’re saying.

I believe that we can improve our listening skills, and that skilful listening can have a deep impact on the quality of our relationships – relationships essential to working effectively with each other in knowledge-work settings.

Appreciating What’s Alive In People

Positive Psychology studies have revealed the positive effects on happiness, life satisfaction, energy, etc., that come from appreciation. Nonviolent Communication suggests we look for what’s alive in people.

“[Some people] have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.”

~ A.H. Maslow

Whenever I’m practising NVC Listening, I’m not only also trying to sense what’s alive in the person to whom I’m listening, but also I’m trying to appreciate that aliveness. To value it. To savour it. To give thanks for it. When it’s working for me, this appreciation gives me the energy I need to continue.

“Whenever we are appreciative, we are filled with a sense of well-being and swept up by the feeling of joy.”

~ M.J. Ryan

Listening to Ourselves

All of the above not only applies when we’re listening to other people, of course. It applies at least as much when we’re listening to ourself. To our own thoughts, feelings and needs.

Irony

And the irony of writing about listening – absent any immediate opportunity to listen to the thought and reactions of the reader, and connect with them as people – is not lost on me.

Invitation

I invite you to have a go at “NVC Listening” when you find yourself with a suitable opportunity. I’d be delighted to hear how it seems to affect the quality of the relationship with the person – maybe even yourself – to whom you are listening.

– Bob

Further Reading

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall Rosenberg
More Time To Think: A Way of Being In The World ~ Nancy Kline
Active Listening ~ Skills You Need
It’s Not Enough To Listen ~ Jessica Grogan, Ph.D.

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