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How to Listen to the Language of Change

By September 4, 2018June 4th, 2019Strategy
How to Listen to the Language of Change

Learning to listen to the language of your culture is a great tool to help manage and steer change.

Did You Hear That?

Active listening is not a new communication skill. First used in the fields of psychotherapy, counseling and social conflict resolution, active listening is now a key practice in business, particularly among leaders.

It’s not hard to see why. As the term suggests, active listening means being fully present when someone speaks; concentrating as much on the content, (verbal and non-verbal), as on the person speaking.

The benefits are plentiful. Trust is earned. Clarity is gained. And information becomes in-depth.

But what of listening actively beyond one-to-one conversations? What might be learned if the same techniques were applied to group dialogue, or even group discourse?

A whole lot, as it turns out.

Culture change agency, Humanist, conducted an experiment in corporate discourse listening, as part of a larger culture assessment performed in a marketing and communications company.

With freedom of access to different business units, the researchers gathered insights, simply by listening to employees speak in different situations. Some situations were informal; conversations in the group cafeteria and bar, for example. Others, such as the dialogue in meetings and presentations, were more formal.

But in all these situations, the language people used about the company revealed key information about the organisation’s need, readiness and resistance to change.

Here are three take outs from the Humanist experiment that we can all learn from.

1. The ‘Us & Them’ Index

Personal pronouns are an instant tell-all. Employees using ‘we’ and ‘our’ to describe the company they work for, are speaking in first person. This tells us that they identify themselves as part of the company. Essentially, it’s a verbal signifier of a sense of belonging and connection.

On the other hand, employees using the personal pronouns, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ when describing their company, are speaking in third person. There is a verbal distance at play here, that speaks to a larger sense of remove. This language may well be a sign of cultural dissonance; division, even.

2. The ‘When we…’ Indicator

This is a line of dialogue that is more commonly heard in companies that have been around for a long time, and where there is a sizeable group of employees with long tenure (eight to ten years and more). There may even be employees among this group, who have been with the company from its inception.

The ‘When we…’ sentence is a curiously revealing one, depending on its frequency of use, and the context in which it is used. Brought up in meetings, it is often an indicator of a sense of nostalgia; a kind of clinging to the past.

Spiritual teacher and author of the best-selling book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, draws a fascinating distinction between clock time and psychological time. Clock time is the time we all relate to in seconds, minutes, hours and days, and the things we do to fill these measures of time’s passing.

Psychological time, on the other hand, Tolle says, has more to do with our attachment to the past or the future. Importantly, he says, we invest in this type of time an energy or force that pulls us away from the present.

For those who focus on the past (‘When we…’), this can signify a resistance to the present because the experience of it – in comparison with the past – is lacking, somehow. The worst-case scenario, is that it may indicate a desire to escape the present because the experience of it is stressful or anxiety-inducing.

3. The ‘I’ve been saying it for ages…’ adage

This is an interesting one-liner in corporate discourse. Because it quickly tells us two things. One, that the insights, opinions or ideas employees have, are falling on deaf ears. And two, that the organisation may be performing sluggishly.

The point is, both indicate a need for intervention.

A sure sign of a motivated and engaged workforce, is when employees experience a sense of connection.

This strong connection presupposes good communication; and by ‘good’ we mean regular, and of the two-way kind.

When employees feel seen and heard, they have a greater sense that their contribution is valued. By contrast, hearing the words, ‘I’ve been saying it for ages…’ tells us that there are people in the organisation who feel invisible and ignored.

The second reading of this expression is equally worrying. It’s the ‘ages’ part that raises concern. Companies where productivity has slowed, or where innovation is dormant, are not companies that thrive.

Organisations that are slow to innovate are generally under-performing and culturally apathetic. In contrast, organisations that cultivate a culture in which everyone is empowered to innovate, demonstrate agility and are characterised by an energised workforce.

The application of active listening to corporate discourse is a fascinating, emergent discipline. Not only does it tell us when organisations require change, it goes a long way in showing us how they need to change. Becoming better at listening – without judgement and blame – is the first step to creating positive change. Your people will thank you for it.

Felicity Hinton

Felicity Hinton

Felicity Hinton is the founder and chief strategist at Humanist, a culture-change agency that helps transform people for business success. Previously, she worked in human performance solution design, and advertising. She is a certified change manager (UCT), has a Bachelor’s degree in English (Wits), and has won several awards for her business writing, including a Silver Quill.

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